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Making the Movement Look Bad

The refrain that some behavior makes your group look bad is entirely common, but is it worth worrying about?

A very common internal criticism in any movement is that some behavior makes the movement look bad. Often rattled off at the innocent group members for lack of a way to engage in targeted criticism, the behavior is part of the overall support-group mentality among a cause’s adherents.

That support-group mentality is that the outsiders don’t get it, and the insiders do, and when insiders get peeved, the insiders will contribute a chorus of agreement. That agreement resolves the insiders, prepares them for the next onslaught from the big, bad world of infidels.

Do bad actions from insiders really reflect on the group? Sure, some outsiders undoubtedly do use this as fodder for a bait-and-switch argument against the group. In religion, particularly critiques of Islam, but also in feminism, gender, and sexuality contexts. And in just about anything else you can think of as a group.

But let’s look at business as an example. While a few will lump all businesses together for bad actions by a few or by one industry, for the average person the crimes belong to the particular industry, or even to the particular actors in that industry. We don’t blame food industry businesses for harm from carbon extraction and pollution, for example.

Thus, if you have a group that is being criticized due to what are mostly outsider actions, considering a split or delineation is wise. In the vaping community, such a distinction should probably be drawn between vapers and cloud chasers, for example. In veganism, a line might be brightened between the holistic types that believe in fairies, the ethical vegans, the dietary vegans, the environmental vegans, etc.

Wait, veganism? For the most part the problems in veganism aren’t bad actors in the sense of people offending outsiders, per se. It is more of the way the literature or communities treat veganism. Most vegans are so for ethical reasons, and thus most vegan communities overemphasize the ethical side of things. Some vegans believe in the magical properties of some obscure food, and so you get quack advertising and pseudo-advertising for miracle foods.

Of course, splitting a group weakens the group a bit. If the ethical vegans are the true believers, they may be gluing together the other subsets.

But while fracturing to allow outsiders to point blame where it belongs may reduce some criticism, how concerned should the overall group be by criticism in the first place? Opponents to a movement tend to be less aware of the movement’s issues than insiders, even when the issues are out in the open, often surfaced by insiders in public fora. The opponent’s ignorance is often startling to see by insiders, waiting for the shoe to drop only to realize their critics are barefoot and blind.

In most cases, better than shaming others for making a movement look bad, the fix is to seek out alternative behaviors that both accomplish the goals of a bad behavior and avoid the criticisms. And that includes finding ways to make internal criticism more targeted to the offenders, rather than rubbing the entire group’s nose in the dog dirt.

Intragroup Competition

Discussion of how one-upmanship pervades many aspects of biological life, particularly in human society.

There is a tendency of man to try to outdo his peers, to play off his peers’ moves. It’s part competition, part group loyalty or cheering for the group.

We see it in bullying when done as a group. We see it in hazing rituals. We see it in some behaviors surrounding drinking. But we also see it on Wall Street and we see it in the Republican party. We see it in lobbying firms.

It crops up among teenagers playing the so-called “penis game” in which they successively try to say the word “penis” louder than the previous player.

This is one-upmanship. Each participant sees the previous act, and tries to go just farther.

Emboldening the Group

One factor for this behavior is that it gives the whole group an increased confidence (at least in the repeated behavior). The members of the group see how far they went together, and recognize they played a role in that. They have power.

Similarly, if Bob goes to ten, Alice wants to take it to 11. Alice wants to show that she’s just as fearless as Bob, that she’s as vital to the group, that she belongs. Then, Charlie wants to go for 12. Charlie doesn’t want to be the weak link.

Safety in Numbers

Another factor is testing group integrity. If Charlie goes to 12 and the group loses its nerve, Charlie may be left in danger. This informs both Charlie and the group of the tensile strength of their alliance.

If the group rescues the one that went too far, they are again emboldened. They find themselves invincible once more.

A Root in Sibling Competition

We see bear cubs wander away from the mother’s safety, each testing how far they may stray before mom will react. Which of the litter is the bravest? How harsh will the reaction be? What is safe and what is not?

What Happens Without Limits

And here we run into the wall. What happens when these group antics are left unchecked? When they can continue because the mother is absent, or because the authority is timid or dependent upon the actors?

There we are reliant upon greater, more fundamental forces. We await the erosion of the foundations upon which these monsters, born of silly kids games, stand.

Eventually the extremism of the modern Republican party must collapse. The public will recognize they have gone too far. But going too far in these games means someone gets hurt. Either the cub is lost to predators or gets swept away by the river. Or in the case of bully groups, the victim is hurt too severely, or fights back and the bully is maimed.

Awareness of this behavioral dynamic is essential to a modern government. Impunitas continuum affectum tribuit delinquendi (“Impunity confirms the disposition to commit crime,” 4 Coke’s English King’s Bench Reports, 45). Impunities semper ad deteriora invitat (“Impunity always invites to greater crimes,” 5 Coke’s English King’s Bench Reports, 109).

Identity and Group Conflict

An attempt to look at identity and group behaviors.

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.