Some thoughts on what it means to be part of a group.
We can’t think about the idea of a group without turning our minds, sooner or later, toward that most primal of all groupings—the family. We use the language of parents and siblings to describe our involvement in collectives as disparate as armies, sports teams, religious denominations, and the fan clubs of pop stars. Corporations licit and illicit refer to their workers as The Family. Like our flesh and blood families of origin, the various groups we seek membership in as we grow up and press outward into the world are each collectives of individuals bonded by a common story.
Prominent among the benefits of belonging to any group is safety. In seeking out those with whom we share some common bond we often seek respite from, even solidarity against, that which threatens us. Cue anti-immigration rallies, church small groups, all-women kayaking tours and LGBT softball leagues. Groups offer the pleasures of camaraderie, affirmation, the opportunity to speak an intimate language—the reassurance that someone else shares our view of the world.
As with your family, groups have their drawbacks too. Just ask anyone who’s been kept outside of one. One of the greatest powers afforded any group is its ability to legislate membership, to police itself. The more heightened the sense of belonging within any group, the more glaringly obvious the presence of an outsider. We all want to be insiders, yet sometimes we seem to feel that there are only so many spots available before the potency of membership becomes diluted.
To whatever extent membership in any collective is predicated upon exclusion, there exists the potential for harm. What’s more, there’s a real danger of blindness for those on the inside. If diversity is an effective antidote for contempt the opposite is also true—homogeneity breeds it.
What, you ask, of prisoners? Wounded veterans? Anyone in the history of middle school, shoe-horned into a random quartet for a group project in Algebra? Do those in a subset not of their choosing “rejoice?” Oftentimes not. But, see, the secret ingredient with groups is time. Time, that yeast by means of which the good and bad in any group dynamic is multiplied, becoming far better or worse. The longer we’re part of a group the more secure we are in it. And the more potential we have for being blinded, callused, desensitized to the experience of being left outside.