The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Grouped

by Scott Huggins

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.

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