The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Grouped

In her excellent novel, Dawn, Octavia Butler shows us a small group of humans struggling to adapt after having been rescued from a nuclear war on Earth by an alien species called the Oankali. One of the aliens says that humans have two attributes that doomed us to destroy ourselves. We are intelligent, and we are hierarchical. The hierarchies we seek to establish are the cause of our violence, and intelligence used in service of this violence gives us the ability to destroy our species.

I would add a third quality, however, that Ms. Butler may have overlooked,* and this is our tendency to groupishness. In some ways, this can be a strength. One of my favorite characters in all of science-fiction, Ambassador Delenn of Babylon 5, said, “Wherever humans go, they form communities.” Yes. We form groups. We form them because they are fun. We form them because we learn from them. We form them because they are essential to realizing certain dreams. And we form them because they make us feel safe. We form them because they reassure us that we are righteous. That we are sane. That we are not trapped in the hell of loneliness.

We are born into certain groups, whether we like it or not. Physical gender. Levels of physical abilities. But the fact is that we humans will make up groups to sort people in any number of ways. Some are real. Some are imaginary. And it is this tendency of humans that truly makes me fear for our species.

It isn’t just that we place ourselves in these groups. It is not even just that we seek to exclude others from our own groups. It would, in some ways, be impossible to have groups that did not exclude. It is our desire to group other people, whether they are willing to be so grouped or not, and then to rank them in an hierarchy according to what groups they have been melded with.

We’ve all played the game: “If you are this, you can’t be that.” “If you are this, you must also be that.”
You cannot be a loyal American and a Muslim.
You must be a racist if you fly the Confederate flag.
You cannot be scientifically knowledgeable and a Republican.
You cannot be a pacifist and a patriot.

What else is the current debate over the Confederate flag about? It’s about the ability to put people in groups. The Confederate flag was originally flown over the desire to put people in groups. To have a symbol for the people who wanted to ensure that the white race would always be superior to the black race. To have a symbol for those who believed that the federal government had no authority to order the sovereign states to obey it.

For those who believed the former, but not the latter, there was no special symbol, but the American flag did well enough. After all, most white people in the 1860s were quite openly convinced of white superiority. As for those who currently believe the latter, but not the former, they have no symbol. They want to use that symbol because it is potent and rich with history. Their opponents are just as concerned with the potency of the symbol, and are determined to deny its use, because they fear that it secretly means a determination to subjugate and destroy them, just as it openly did 150 years ago.

The common thread here, as I see it, is that people want absolute freedom to group. Of themselves they wish to say, “I and I alone, determine what groups I join and what they mean to me, and only we, the People of the Group, may have an opinion on the worth of the Group and the ultimate meaning of the Group.” Of others, they wish to say, “I will determine your worthiness to be admitted to my group, and what other groups you belong to, whether you acknowledge your membership in that group or not. Whether you know those groups exist or not.”

Obviously, these freedoms cannot coexist. No two people can have that kind of power over themselves and over the other. At the core of this groupishness is a terrible fear that we may be left alone with no group, and a willingness to disrespect others’ agency to form groups, lest they expel us from our group, or tear our group apart. The more a group feels itself attacked, the tighter it hangs together, because a group is in many ways a spiritual home. A place where we can escape form loneliness and be understood by the Group. Threaten that, and you threaten something very close to family. People will kill for it. Some asshole just did, because he thought that members of the Group of Black Americans threatened his Group (what he called it in his mind, I neither know nor want to) by their insistence on being fully included in the Group of Americans. Now the Groups are on the march. Active. Angry. Defending their Groups from perceived attack and mobilizing to attack Groups they perceive as potential threats. Groups they perceive as the source of this asshole.

I feel I have spent a lot of time saying little that is profound. What, after all, can I recommend, here? I don’t have much of an answer except “awareness.” Awareness that leads to love. When you see people passionately defending a group or a symbol that stands for something you hate, be aware that they are probably being honest in their claims that they are defending a love, and a home. Don’t assume they must be cherishing a hate because they know or dress like, or like the same symbol as THOSE PEOPLE. It’s true not everyone is honest. Some are monsters, I will grant, who lie about what groups they are part of and what those groups mean. Most are not. Be aware of what you are doing when you assign people to groups, and that you may be wrong. Be aware that if your Group is threatened, you may overreact. Ask yourself if that’s possible. Try to allow people the same freedom to form Groups and determine their meanings as you would want for yourself.

It’s the only lesson, or hope, that I can see.

*I say may. Steven Barnes, who certainly knew Ms. Butler better than I did (having been her student for only a week) says that Ms. Butler said that humans were hierarchical and tribal. I prefer “groupish” because it implies a more fluid construct than a tribe, which is usually something you are born into, or at least choose for the long term. However, I’m happy to give both Ms. Butler and Mr. Barnes credit for noting the really important parts of this phenomenon before I did.

4 thoughts on “The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Grouped

  1. I have to confess I group people. Or lets say I put “labels” on them.
    When someone says that he is not a Nazi and then goes on to explain to my that 90 % of all the refugees are here to take advantage of our welfare system and that they need to be send home as soon as possible (or worse). If that person also marches or supports those that are called PEGIDA who propagate fear of all things alien I will label them Nazi even if they don’t want to be labeled that way. And I will take great pains to avoid them.
    If someone says that he is no antisemite but then explains to me that the US and especially the banks that are all controlled by Rothschilds are responsible for all the wars of the last 60 years I will label him antisemite even if they don’t want to be labeled that way. And I will take great pains to avoid them.
    There are more things that make me label people but most of them just help me understand the world and can change.
    I guess as soon as those groups your are talking about are exclusive and used to feel superior they are a problem.

    • Well, I did say that some people are monsters. And it follows that some people are just so out of touch with what their stances mean that they put themselves in groups no matter what they say. Hell, my own grandparents, when they were alive, said they weren’t racists, but thought black people should “be with their own kind.”

      Yeah. Okay. When you come out with that bullshit, you’re a racist, Grandma.

      I’m not calling for people to be stupidly naive, here, and the examples you give seem to me fairly good reasons for putting those people in the groups you describe.

      I’m talking more about the people who assign groups to others out of either knee-jerk hysteria or those who do it dishonestly to attain an immediate advantage.

      For example, I’m guessing that Germany does have pacifists who are convinced that serving in a military is evil. Some of them would probably group you with the Nazis because you served in the military. You would doubtless consider that grouping unjust. And you would be right to do so.

      • I have yet to find someone who would group my with Nazies, but I see what you mean. Since I really like meat from time to time I was group recently with people you like to inflict pain on animals and who doesn’t care about the environment at all.
        But really isn’t the problem that this kind of assigning groups out of hysteria or to get an advantage is mostly made by extremists?
        I know Vegans who really are convicted that what they do is right but they don’t try to impress there way of living on others.

      • The problem is that I’m seeing it more and more from people who do not identify themselves with, or normally present as, extremists. For an example, I recently saw a medium-prominent SF author group a large chunk of the SF writer-fanbase with neo-nazis because ONE member of that faction a) had worked with a person who fairly fit that description and b) publicly called several people (one of whom was a Jew), “Christ-hating.”
        Now, are these things enough to call the member a neo-Nazi? Not in my book, though I agree it was wrong of him.
        But is it enough to make EVERYONE WHO AGREES WITH HIM ABOUT AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SUBJECT guilty of neo-nazi leanings?
        The person who said so isn’t, apparently, any sort of extremist.

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