What We Will Do To Belong

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Status, Salvation, and Swastikas: Indoctrination is a group thing

I finally found the magazine Annette gave me last month. Annette is one of seven Clemson “sisters” I met through a professional women’s organization in 1989. All eight of us were plenty busy running businesses, careers and families, but we made the time to cultivate deep connections. We dug beyond work-life balance, pay equity, and sexual harassment into repressed desires, regrets, and who God might be. Thirty years deep.

The best group experience I’ve ever had is with these women. In spite of the dumb shit each of us occasionally does. The Sisters are slow to criticize and quick to forgive. I didn’t do anything to deserve inclusion. I just belong.

My mind was on the rarity of groups like ours as I flipped past the perfumed ads, fashion (who buys $395 earrings?), and finally a section toward the back featuring major belief changes, as in I was a white supremacist skinhead and now lead a group called Life After Hate and The Latter Day Saints were everything to me until my son came out.

Why We Leave Groups

I know quite a bit about social identity, our sense of who we are based on group membership. But I’m always fascinated to learn how people leave an identity (even a socially-judged bad one). Especially when that identity provides a strong source of belonging.

For many, leaving a group is triggered by an event, like a child’s coming out, that compels the parent to re-examine religious beliefs. For others, it’s a longer road marked with bouts of cognitive dissonance. Only after enough wear and tear against their core values do they leave the group. And not always all at once; sometimes it’s a slow tapering off.

Groups are Groups

Comparing membership in a terrorist organization and membership in a church or any social identity group (e.g., work, gender, ethnicity) may sound crazy or morally wrong, but basically, groups are groups. And they are powerful. So much so, that one’s group identity can become more important than one’s identity as an individual.

Much of a group’s power over the individual stems from indoctrination. Not all groups indoctrinate to the same extent. Indoctrination is simply teaching someone to accept a set of beliefs without questioning them.

If you’ve attended religious services or school, worked in an organization, served in the military, or a learned a profession or trade, you have been indoctrinated.

The very fact of being born into a culture, any culture, is an experience of indoctrination.

Photo by Luan Cabral on Unsplash

But, isn’t membership in a hate group something significantly different? The group output may be entirely different, but the process of attachment and resulting actions and commitment (strength of identity) to the group is not.

  • Merely classifying people into groups makes us think of ourselves as group members. This simple categorization leads to in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination. Recall Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. (We don’t have to have hateful intention, but we do tend toward comparative superiority.)
  • We then act in ways we believe members of our group should behave. For example, if I define myself as a social justice advocate, I get trained in restorative practices, volunteer to conduct community circles, and donate to political and social organizations that seek equity. I become emotionally invested in my group membership. My self-esteem is even affected by the status my group, which I (and my group members) work to elevate.

Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. — Philip G. Zimbardo

  • We continue to compare our group with other groups in both prestige and social standing. We must perceive our in-group as having a higher social status (we are in some way better) than an out-group to maintain high self-esteem.

How Does Indoctrination Work?

Skinhead Stories

Mix youthful angst with a history of being bullied; add parental abandonment, apathy, and lack of structure. This is a familiar backstory shared by former extremists. When adopting a clique whose emblems are swastikas and Confederate flags, for example, you don’t have to know what they mean or believe in them:

I just knew that I could be violent and angry around them, and they never questioned what was wrong with me. I thought, ‘this must be where I fit.’ Before long, I was being indoctrinated. — Angela King

For Ms. King, as I suspect is the case for other former members, the skinheads served an important purpose: she found a place where she got to blame her parents and most of society, she got to aggressively act out her pain and was vindicated, even celebrated for doing so.

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And despite her aversion to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of a federal building resulting in 168 deaths (including children), she continued membership in the group, stealing and assaulting until she was arrested and sent to prison. While there, she met and fell in love with a black woman. The wear and tear of her cognitive dissonance, coupled with a life-changing event behind bars created the opportunity for radical change and transformation.

Enter the Enemy

Sometimes the catalytic event is an enemy in the next cell. And sometimes it’s an unexpected enemy, a loathed out-group member who comes to you, asking to listen and learn. Daryl Davis has befriended KKK members for decades and now has 200-plus relinquished white robes in his closet. Evidence of (voluntarily) hanging up individual KKK identities built on fear and hate. How does he do it?

[w]hen two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything…you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.- Daryl Davis

Less Radical Conversions

Leaving in-groups isn’t all that rare. Especially when you consider the breadth of social identity groups. I tend to think of conversions from one identity to another as road-to-Damascus phenomena (Saul became Paul, a follower of Christ, after being struck by a blinding heavenly light).

But less dramatic conversions — social, political, religious — happen over time to most of us; it’s part of human development. The point is not to change for change’s sake, but to not blithely belong to an identity that doesn’t fit.

People who question and explore their identities (group or individual) inspire me. Putting out feelers to assess group “fit” according to who we think we are, (especially in our teens and early adulthood) is nothing new. But identity quests are increasingly common among Gen Z. If the fluidity of gender and exploration of ethnicity are an indication of the future, perhaps more empathy, and less stereotyping and discrimination will result.

Groups Are Not The Problem

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Groups can do damage but they are necessary for healthy human development. In fact, individuality at its best is the ability to be a unique member of a group. This paradox is why we can’t throw the group identity bathwater out with the baby (or vice versa). And this is very hard.

As Irami Osei-Frimpong points out, liberals can confuse individuality with indeterminacy:

So, they’ll tell you that you can reclaim your individuality by not being a member of anything. But really, when you aren’t a member of anything, you are nothing. You are indeterminate. You are a floating nothing.

A better solution is to accept our evolutionary need to belong to groups with self-awareness and accountability:

  1. We are all indoctrinated into values, beliefs and ways of doing things (culture) from birth. We tend not to question culture because … why would we? It’s like asking fish why they swim in water.
    Keep alert. Talk to others you trust when you feel any friction (wear and tear) against your values.
  2. Our in-groups significantly determine our thoughts and actions. We can’t help but compare ourselves to those in the out-group (everyone else) as different, lacking, and even inferior.
    Take an short audit of your groups. Do they depend on an “enemy”? Do they hold themselves accountable?
  3. We get competitive and sometimes violent to maintain our self-esteem, which is significantly influenced by group belonging.
    Do you find that you’re anxious, fearful that you’re not good enough according to group standards? Does the group exist to harm other people in any way?
  4. We can’t escape our need to belong. Groups are not the problem; the problem is unexamined beliefs with no room to question, disagree, and discuss them.
    Are people within your group able to question or challenge what the leader says?

There’s a reason groupthink is still taught in the social sciences.

Sometimes I miss teaching that content. It’s been one year since leaving a 25-year work identity as a professor. Now my identity has shifted to working with others interested in both individuality and a collective goal of turning institutions of oppression into institutions of freedom. A group that keeps its members accountable.

I have my Clemson Sisters to thank for that.

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