This piece isn’t about one’s individuality that can be owned while inside groups, rather about the potential consequences of the absence of owning it. To kickstart with an extreme and a rather gloomy example – the man who pressed the button for launching atomic missiles in Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably isn’t named over time in history, as it wasn’t ‘him’ specifically, but rather the institution or the nation he represented that accounts for the act. Why not the individual? It’s certain that ’obedience’ is an un-breachable trait in the military and the chain of command requires the individual to be dissolved as a part of the collective. It’s definitely somewhat unreasonable to claim that military personnel should have an active right to directly oppose orders. That’s not the claim here or even the primary subject. The subject of concern is around the abstract lines of the question – why is it that a profound reflection not a necessity for the individual that pressed the buttons to launch the atomic bombs that eliminated so many? What power did the ‘orders’ have that it “I” of an individual is dissolved into the vast spectrum of un-breachable orders, even though an act of disobedience may have saved so much? Where is the “I” when the “We” goes wrong? The answers shouldn’t be as obvious as the fact that you have to follow the chain of command as a military.
The popular question “who are you when nobody’s around?” is itself an inviting disclaimer for intriguing conversations. The other side of it – “who are you when you are around people?” is no less important and is closer to the crux of this piece. Moreover, who do we ‘become’ when we are in a group? What’s the place of ‘I’ in the larger arena of ‘us’? There hasn’t been a point in history when ‘group psychology’ has been irrelevant, perhaps because our long human history has been more about how we humans have conducted ourselves into larger groups than it has been specifically about individuals alone. It shouldn’t be taken as a myth that ones who are aware of the ‘I’ while they function in the ‘us’ are closer to owning their individuality than ones that are swayed in the atmosphere of groups. Several tight groups organize themselves in language patterns that outsiders cannot immediately relate to. We know this by gut – a successful comedian in one group may be perceived as lame on the other. New ones that don’t dissolve well into the group pattern are rather ignored than invited. People also function differently in different groups. It’s not exactly the versatility of the individuals that produce the diverse patterns, but the need to be versatile to belong to those groups that play a more crucial role. It shouldn’t be underestimated how much groups can influence us, change us, and make us a part of their ‘group pattern’. We are after all social creatures that seek society to allow us to be guided. Groups serve as yet another guidance, for good or for worse. Don’t mistake this opinion with the presumption that all masses are always bound to bring bad consequences – that wouldn’t be true. There’s plenty of phenomenal changes that have come through the pressures of the masses. Numerous protests, petitions, and solidarity campaigns have their share of benefiting societies.
The survival story of our species historically is not of the individual but of the group that mostly took the form of tribes in late history. Take a classroom with a bunch of fresh students that don’t know one another. In a matter of days or weeks, they will have formed groups based on certain similarities discovered or constructed. Though rare, there might be some left-outs who don’t fit in any groups. If you were to do this experiment in an isolated forest where they have to find ways to survive and come out alive, it’s likely that they almost certainly won’t risk being alone and associate with one group or another. People’s diverse concerns, goals, preferences, and ideologies may give rise to the formation of groups more than one. But in all scenarios without exception, most people will tend towards finding a group, as opposed to navigating their goals alone. As they begin their quest, group members will most certainly invent norms over time that define individual acts as acceptable or condemnable. They will have invested their trust in a limited few for leadership. Individuals that seem counter-productive for the survival of the larger many may be considered ‘traitors’ and punished in the process. These students taken out of the classroom and their expedition closely relates to many tribes in the old times.
Not surprisingly, many cultures of the long past across the world, despite their immense differences in lifestyle and beliefs, did almost always have certain patterns as consistent. They had binding stories that most if not all believed in – and ones that go against it aggressively received a harsh response as punishment from the larger tribe. It seems to be a natural tendency for groups that are willing to survive to consider insiders who disobey to the core binding stories as ‘traitors’, and the outsiders that do so as the ‘common enemy’. Remains of that are visible even to date even in big nations. People are called out as traitors in nations that preach and believe in ‘hyper-nationalist stories when they choose to not affirm it. The same is true for people that express their disbelief or disobedience towards one’s religion in nations that regard religious affirmation as a strict norm. Not surprisingly, there are still laws in many nations that prevent people from publicly opposing the story of their ‘God’ or ‘great leader’ of history. Ones that disobey, irrespective of their sensibility are often condemned. When countries fight, irrespective of who is right or wrong, millions unite in favor of their nation and only their own. Ones that don’t are sometimes treated with the same brutality as the enemy. But it doesn’t take gigantic groups formed on the lines of identity for the ‘group psychology’ to come into operation. Small groups follow similar patterns as well. Members of the groups follow ‘trends’ to stay relevant. In testimonies of people that have committed harsh crimes in groups, the members themselves are often staggered by their acts. Many claim the intoxication of the group to be the cause, and that the act would have never been performed on a rational call. Numbers matter here. You could have some meaningful conversation with a group of three people no matter how much they disagree with you. Try doing that when there’s a crowd of thousands right behind those three, cheering for their leader with their slogans and rally-cries to disaffirm with you. That would take more than Braveheart to change that crowd’s perspective. Perhaps in presence of the familiar ‘many’, the ‘rare’ unfamiliar, though right in its act, is likely to be perceived as wrong. We can be immensely different while we are in a group than we are alone. The social group shapes us in many ways. It consumes us. Sometimes, a little too much for the “I” to still be in conscious control.
Credit: Saurav Bhatta
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