Any serious social movement needs a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. Strong group identity, however, is a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from society. This is the political identity paradox.
The political identity paradox suggests that while political groups require a strong internal identity to foster the commitment needed for effective political struggle, this same cohesion tends to isolate the group. Isolated groups are hard-pressed to achieve political goals.
This is true of all groups, but tends to have particular consequences for a group involved in political struggle, which has not only to foster a strong internal identity: it also has to win allies.
The tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in political groups, as oppositional struggle can foster an oppositional psychology. Activists who meet the kind of brutal resistance that the civil rights movement endured, for example, have a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base. This is difficult to do even when leaders are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is often the case.
There is a tendency within highly cohesive political groups to want to turn up the heat. It seems to be written into the social DNA of oppositional political groups: when group members’ level of commitment increases, they want to go further. They want to be a little more hardcore. This tendency toward escalation and increased militancy can be a good thing — but not inevitably. It all depends on how hardcore is defined within the culture of the group. It can either move a cause forward — or send it into a dangerous or dysfunctional downward spiral.
Compare the trajectories of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — two of the most important radical youth organizations of the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society imploded in 1969 and the Weather Underground was born because some leaders succeeded in defining hardcore to mean immediate armed guerrilla struggle against the U.S. government — an absurd prospect for their context. In the case of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), on the other hand, some very astute leaders defined hardcore to mean acts such as going into the most segregated areas in the south and organizing some of the poorest, least educated, and most disenfranchised people in the entire country. SNCC engaged in other more visible “hardcore” tactics as well.
In both cases, hardcore really was HARDCORE. (You can’t satiate the desire for hardcore with anything less!) Members of both groups demonstrated overwhelming levels of commitment to the values of the groups they belonged to. Members of both groups risked their lives, were imprisoned and brutalized, and some lost their lives. But hardcore was defined strategically in the case of SNCC, and tragically in the case of the Weather Underground.
Good leaders anticipate the emergent desire for hardcore—for escalation—and they own it. They model it themselves. And they make sure that the expression of hardcore is designed to strengthen bonds between the group’s core members and its broader political base. It should feel hardcore to the participants, and it should look like moral leadership to the political base and to a broader public.
This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!
Strong group identity is essential for social movements. There can be no serious social movement—the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged—without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. This kind of group identity is clearly emerging right now among core participants in occupations across the country and around the world, and that’s a good thing.
However, strong group identity is also something of a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from the broader society.
The Political Identity Paradox states that while social change groups require a strong internal identity in order to foster the level of commitment needed for protracted struggle, this same cohesion tends over time to isolate the group; and isolated groups are hard-pressed to build the kind of broad-based power needed to achieve the big changes they imagine.
Why do grassroots political organizations sometimes implode right at the peak of their success? This post examines the double-edged sword of highly cohesive political group identities and explores how to build vibrant campaigns while avoiding going (too) crazy…
natural born people pleasers
Imagine yourself a gazelle in a herd of gazelles. Aw snap, here comes a hungry lion out of nowhere – and that lion is fast! Is this the moment you want to be caught on the peripheral edges of the herd? Ok, now imagine yourself a lone wolf trying to catch your next meal. It’s freezing out and you’re not having much luck. You’re just sitting there, hungry and tired and cold, wondering what it was you said that got you kicked out of the pack.
What do we know about prehistoric life in human groups? While there’s a lot of mystery and conjecture, we do know that life was, indeed, in groups. We’re not gazelles or wolves, but, like gazelles and wolves, we like groups. We are highly social creatures. As evolutionist David Sloan Wilson suggests, “…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on. Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger.” [2004: The New Fable of Bees. my emphasis]
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá also hit on this in their book Sex at Dawn: “If you ever doubt that human beings are, beyond everything, social animals, consider that short of outright execution or physical torture, the worst punishment in any society’s arsenal has always been exile.”
If the thought of being abandoned by the group that you identify with troubles you, congratulations; that’s probably a hard-wired adapted way to feel. Your cave-person ancestors probably survived in part because they liked, and were liked by, the group. Those who wandered off alone too far, as well as those who pissed everyone off until they got 86’ed, probably didn’t fare quite as well evolutionarily.
It makes evolutionary sense that we would want to move toward the center of the group, because those who developed this tendency would have a leg up on those who didn’t. This kind of selection may have helped our predecessors to evolve into a more social, more cooperative, kinder, gentler species.
Where does that leave us now? It likely equips us with a predisposition to try to get on the good side of the groups we’re part of. We want to feel safe in the center of the group, not threatened on the margins.
So, in some senses we’re a species of natural born people pleasers. (As long as those people are within our group – see War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection.)
This helps explain our capacity for cooperation. In Part I of this series I argued that, under the right conditions, human beings have the capacity for behavior that serves the group, even at a cost to the individual. One “right condition” or prerequisite is a feeling of belonging within a mostly cooperative group. If an individual feels integrated within a group and feels like the group has her back – that she will benefit by casting her individual lot with the group – then she is more likely to display group-oriented behavior.
The degree to which a person identifies with the group will affect how much he is willing to give to the group. In other words, level of commitment to a group depends on the level of one’s investment and identity with that group. For example, an “online member” of an internet-based progressive organization may identify enough with “the group” to open every tenth email and occasionally call her member of Congress when asked; while a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) may identify strongly enough with “the group” to endure beatings, arrest, and worse.
While in Argentina in 2004 I interviewed Maba and Valde, a sister and brother from one of the Movements of Unemployed Workers1 groups, MTD Solano. Interviewing them separately, I asked them what they value most about their work with the MTD. Both answered that they like how integrated their lives are now. Maba said that while many join MTDs out of necessity, she joined by election, because her life felt too fragmented before. Now nearly everything she does is related to MTD Solano; her work at a collectively run cafe, a children’s workshop she organizes, her neighborhood, her family, etc. All of her activities share a meaning and purpose.
Political Science Professor Emily Stoper describes a similar cohesion experienced by members of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) during the Civil Rights Movement:
Many SNCC members report that before 1964, they often experienced a sense of harmony and certainty that is rarely felt by other Americans. Their lives were not fragmented. Instead of filling a series of largely unrelated roles (parent, employee, citizen), they filled only one role: SNCC worker. Instead of balancing in their heads a multiplicity of values, all of them tentative, they had one certain, absolute set of beliefs. The group provided a world order that is far more complete and stable than any that individuals could assemble for themselves. 2