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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.

The Nature of Unbelieved Change

The 2008 Obama campaign used the slogan, “Change you can believe in.” I think it works for this phenomena to call it “Unbelieved Change,” meaning change that people didn’t see coming because they didn’t believe it had a chance.

It’s short posts November, so I probably won’t ramble as long this month.

One thing we’ve probably all seen in making changes big and small is that there’s an adjustment period during which we refine. Depending on the change, that period may be short or long.

But one of the things that makes it longer is when the initial change was thought too hard or was neglected in some way. The result is that once the foundation has actually been laid, those affected suddenly give comment to an issue they didn’t expect (ie, how to refine it) and haven’t had ample time to consider.

The 2008 Obama campaign used the slogan, “Change you can believe in.” I think it works for this phenomena to call it “Unbelieved Change,” meaning change that people didn’t see coming because they didn’t believe it had a chance.

Health reform is a good example. The lack of meaningful reform had entrenched itself as a fact for the USA, and now that something’s been done to move the stone, a lot of people want to refine it (even before many provisions take effect). Some want to simply revert the change, others want to continue on the path laid or go an entirely different way.

The other problem, related, is that the early proposals are often ruled out as blocking the initial change. The Obama administration basically scrapped notions of a public option or single payer system as being too difficult to garner agreement. And yet, they didn’t go for a credit-based system either.

Another area where this phenomena has shown itself is the Arab Spring. Prior to its beginning, most thought that the status quo was to stay as it was. When change finally came, the world’s leaders didn’t have a good idea what the outcome would be, and even today there are some in the West that think it might have been a bad change.

I think the real root of the problem is that many look at the world and see a pinball machine instead of a canvas. They see the world as a mostly-fixed system in which they must hit the bumpers and make the lights blink and sing. There are others that realize the world can be much more flexible, and that deciding what to paint isn’t an unreasonable activity.

The world is a canvas, and the populist movements like Occupy Wall Street recognize that fact, where the politicians often do not. But it’s more complicated; for some issues any given person may think it’s part of the pinball machine or canvas. Most will admit the Constitution is more pinball than paint, but still some seek to amend it. Pretty much everyone admits that defying gravity is equivalent to a TILT event, but some still believed in putting humans in space, even if it merely meant overpowering gravity rather than breaking it.

But we should still consider the impossible at every turn, it builds character.


A post about the state of politics and media in the aftermath of the violence of the mentally ill. The actions of the ill bring upheavals, but our choice must be to forgive and grow, not retreat and sharpen our spears even more.

Heavy days that weigh on us all.  Some call it evil, others call out television, video games, or political rhetoric.  Would a rose by any other name shock the conscience as much as random acts of violence do?

Let me be clear: I believe the actions of the mentally ill are only tangentially attributable to outside sources.  The actions of a sick person are the actions of the illness.  Anything could trigger it; George Carlin once did a bit that went something along the lines of, “Have you ever sent anybody a bottle of Scope [mouthwash]?”  The image he followed with was that of a mentally ill, violent person receiving a bottle of said mouthwash, taking it as an attack on his person, and that final straw sends him on a violent rampage.

That’s not as far from the truth as that humorist might have hoped.  For people with severe mental problems, the most benign stimuli can cause severe mental turmoil that does result in major reactions, including violence.  As such, we cannot blame inane rhetoric by the likes of media profiteers (and I’m not limiting that to any side of any aisle, any particular feathered appendage, etc.).  Their rhetoric is deplorable in and of itself, and it should be replaced with something more meaningful, but it is not blameworthy for the actions of the mentally ill.

I also believe that in this case the young man had begun to plan, and at some point in that process he had internalized his plan to the point where only direct intervention in his life would have stopped him.  In that he is no different than our media and politics: the media has committed itself to a particular persona and will only change if it sees no way to salvage its current lifestyle.  Same for our politics.

We desperately need a shift in the media and politics in this country, but not because we might find salvation from violence.  Because we might actually build a country that can handle violence and can treat the mentally ill with the dignity they deserve and give them a chance to pursue happiness with the rest of us.  But if you look at the reactions, you probably fear as I do that we still aren’t headed in that direction. They still don’t get it.

The fact that the media will only even talk about the need for change (but it’s always the other guy that needs the change) in reaction to such an episode is not the problem, but merely a symptom.  There are plenty of symptoms.  The lack of any substantive debate is chief, but the fact that even minor agreement with a point from a colleague is often seen as weakness is also prominent.  Weakness is reviled in our society (which means we stigmatize things like mental illness), when calls to “man up” rule the day.  You might as well say, “show no mercy, take no prisoners, torture the sons of bitches until their last breath if that’s what it takes to win.”

We have fallen from grace, though not in the biblical sense, in the human sense.  Grace, as I learned it, was being happy for your opponent when you lost, and also being happy for your opponent when you won.  It was marching out on the field to tell them you enjoyed the game.  These days our grace is nothing, replaced by bitter sniveling and thoughts of revenge.  We pretend that the other guy is so different that our loss puts us a mere heartbeat from complete collapse.

That in a great nation is unacceptable.  We should have trouble deciding whom to vote for because they would both do a great job.  Instead, the campaign is a game played out in the media, a test that does nothing to prove the ability to actually govern.  And the laws that govern campaigning are then seen as the rules of the road.  If the rules don’t say to try to avoid hitting squirrels, you don’t have to.  They’re worth ten points, fifteen if their heads explode.  For gods’ sakes.

The way out?  Forgiveness.  Cast off your masks and cloaks.  Let the sunlight warm your face and bring gladness to your heart, for this is not the end of the road.  We did not die on 8 January, 2011 or on 11 September 2001.  We still have the choice to make things work, despite the challenges and despite our differences.

The green glow of the exit sign beckons us.  But it requires empathy and understanding.  It requires humility and forgiveness.  There is no magic switch to throw that will preclude Senator Bumble from returning to the gagging speech patterns that have been his bread and butter for two decades, so his colleague will have to forgive him when he does meander.  The talking heads on cable news will be in uncharted waters when they start to speak from the heart and stop trying to dominate their guests.  They won’t always succeed, and will revert to their old patterns.  Forgive them.

It is in forgiveness that we move on.  It allows us to move past the surface and into the meat of the matters at hand.  It allows us to escape playing the same games that got us here.  It disarms their attacks and precludes our own retaliation.  It is an invitation to the former opponent to be a colleague again.  It is the only way we can reclaim our country from the beast of incessant bickering and useless hatred.

Before we were enemies, we joined into a union of states.  Let us forgive ourselves for neglecting that and move forward as colleagues seeking the best for our company, the United States of America.  Play ball.