Identity and Group Conflict

First a note on the progress of my browser problems. The first problem was solved by a sweep through my profile directory, cleaning out the cruft that had accumulated over the years. The second problem, of Firebug not working, turned out to be due to a problem with the way the package was being built (an untracked upstream build change that needed to be accounted for in the package). The maintainer is aware of that now, so it should be fixed in future builds.

Today’s post is about what I consider a major problem for mankind. Who are you? Occasionally a stranger will ask you that, and it’s not like there’s a good answer. You can give your name, but that hardly gets to the heart of the matter.

Humans have a tendency to want to know who they are, mainly because it makes the whole thought process easier. In some things it is essential: it is not recommended to try to play chess if you do not know which side you are playing. Your opponent may get angry if you move her pieces.

People like having identities. They adopt a role. If you are the bully, you know how to behave. You know how people will react. You remove uncertainty.

There are group identities, which are common. People see themselves as soldiers in the fight for their group. People can do all sorts of bad and good things just because they see themselves as aiding their team.

People can commit bank fraud, taking a false loan, because they see themselves as saving their company that’s underwater. They don’t see it as fraud, because that’s not the identity they hold.

Group identities are especially problematic. In interactions with other groups result in anxiety, and adopting a harmful situational role is possible:

In the case of stereotype threat, the individual may adopt a very restricted behavior, trying to avoid confirming group stereotypes. Or they may, in the face of such stress, adopt a facade of apparent strength (eg, bullying) in order to protect their true identity. In the latter case, they need not worry about reputation or identity damage, because they can write off any bad reactions to the fact they were adopting a role, playing a part.

Stereotype threat is a factor of intergroup anxiety. One can see some of the difficulties in group interactions in situations where a lone member of one group interacts with a second, only later to be joined by more members of their group of origin. Their demeanor changes when comrades arrive. If conflict had already been suggested, it may be escalated.

One large problem, setting aside the direct conflicts and harms caused by the adopted identities, is that the adoption becomes ingrained by conflict. It’s the age-old investment trap. If you’ve taken blows for being of some identity, you have all the more reason to hold to it; you’ve paid for it, might as well wear it.

But the larger problem is the inability for people to cooperate in the face of these identities. They are overly focused on preexisting identities, unable to make decisions that benefit themselves the most because they are too worried over group dynamics. If your team is winning, it’s less likely you’ll agree to postpone or cancel the game due to inclement weather.

You often see splintered groups insulate themselves in various ways, including jargon/accent/language changes. These changes are natural reactions to the separation from a larger group: let’s stop using the inherited terminology and adopt our own as part of our group identity. You also see this in couples showing affection for one another, people showing affection for their children, and even showing affection for their pets.

More importantly, the splinter group often adopts the same kinds of tactics they splintered away from, such as stereotypes and epithets for the other group’s membership.

The worst case is where we as society have created group identities of whole cloth and then are unhappy with the results. The major examples of this are the so-called ruling class of politicians, the identity of police and prison guards, the other side of that coin in the prison populations, and other similar groups with authority or power.

When we go out of our way to create these groups of people, we mustn’t be surprised at the results. They are indeed a detriment.

Solving these issues is a different matter entirely, and it remains an open problem for further thought.