The Unfortunate Disregard for the Unique Individual.

This is the second part of an essay-series surrounding the concept of identity. The reader is not required to read the series in any particular order, given that each essay (three in total) will include the necessary definitions regarding new concepts.

First part

Third part

Photo by Leo Foureaux on Unsplash

As time goes by, our collective identity has proven to be somewhat beneficial to us individuals. Ultimately, we have been made aware that belonging to a certain group — and possessing this sense of belonging — can have distinct advantages over going solo. Seeing that two pairs of eyes, ears, or hands are better than one, we can’t — especially in the context of survival — overlook the benefits of belonging to a collective. Despite that, the Western world, in particular, has seemingly grown out of this evolutionary advantage and therefore identifies itself primarily as being culturally individualistic. That is, they emphasize the importance of the individual, rather than the group.

This fails to suggest however that people from individualistic cultures have alleviated themselves from their sense of belonging. Quite the opposite. Psychologically, we thrive by the means of group membership, and this is no different in Western culture. According to the recently deceased organizational psychologist, Geert Hofstede, individualism should entail a culture where “the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family.” I question, however, the degree of individualism, according to Hofstede’s definition, in Western countries. In other words, I suspect that individuals from individualistic cultures are far more integrated into social groups than we would like to admit.

Therefore I will argue that our attachment to our supposed groups (e.g. our nation, sports club, race, gender, politics, religion, student association, etc.) has reached a level of importance that most of us are unaware of, let alone notice its danger.

The Downsides of Group identity

One of the dangers associated with our group identity would for instance include groupthink: we abandon our rational and honest discourses, in exchange for conformity and one-sided thinking. “You submit to tyranny,” Timothy Snyder writes in his book, On Tyranny, “when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” In turn, “[t]his renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.”

It is this sort of individualism that ought to be fundamentally important to our values as a human being. The second we submit ourselves to collectivism, we are compelled to hand over our ‘truth-seeking’ faculties. What is more, in addition to abandoning our truthfulness we partly lose our Theory of Mind (TOM) — that is, to some extent, we needlessly forgo our empathy towards (members of) groups that we are not apart of.

Noted that, although Hofstede’s definition of individualism primarily includes the individual and his or her close kin relationships (i.e. immediate family), the psychological effects that accompany groups are not simply limited to our relatives. We must therefore highlight the fact that it is not genetic relatedness that is of interest when discussing group attachment. As Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of our Nature:

“As with all aspects of our psychology that have been illuminated by evolutionary theory, what matters is not actual genetic relatedness (it’s not as if hunter-gatherers, to say nothing of chimpanzees, send of cheek swabs to a genotyping service) but the perception of relatedness, as long as the perception was correlated with the reality over long enough spans of time.”

It is of particular importance to separate the individual from the collective unit he or she happens to be apart of, considering that one of the reasons Cass Sunstein puts forward in his 2019 book Conformity why some groups are more prone to develop group polarization than others is the similarity between members or the perceived relatedness that Pinker points to.

Sunstein mentions that when “members of the group think they have a shared identity and a high degree of solidarity, there will be heightened polarization.” He later continues by pointing out that when these “individual members tend to perceive one another as friendly, likeable, and similar to them, the size and likelihood of the shift [to extremism] will increase.” Ergo, the identities that people are eager to associate with — either consciously or unconsciously — or the groups they wish to affiliate with, aren’t devoid of any risks.

Having said that, it’s worth noting that in-group members go to a great extent to differentiate insiders from outsiders by associating themselves to different “symbolic resources”, as the sociologist, David Snow, describes it. These are essentially various means to separate a certain identity or group from another. Snow illustrates this by writing that:

“[s]ymbolic resources include the interpretive frameworks (or frames), avowed and imputed names, and dramaturgical codes of expression and demeanor (e.g., particularistic styles of storytelling, dress, adornment, and music) that are generated and employed during the course of a collectivity’s efforts to distinguish itself from one or more other collectivities.”

This collective differentiation, in turn, brings about the concept of cultural appropriation — taking over the creative products or practices by a cultural group, that are associated with another (e.g. wearing a traditional African hairstyle by a person from a non-African descent). And while I am sympathetic to the view that people differ — to a certain extent — from each other (e.g. here), we should nevertheless reconsider on what ground these differences are established. The fact of the matter is that “having cultural appropriation hanging over one’s head,” as Gad Saad writes in The Parasitic Mind, “makes it harder to experience the full richness afforded by a multicultural and pluralistic society.”

While the emphasis on identity is, of late, primarily associated with the political Left, the notion that an individual should defend his or her group’s values and “symbolic resources” by (unintentionally) abandoning collective rationality, is not exclusive to this political orientation.

Political Tribalism

The extent to which we defend the beliefs and ideas of our groups definitely matters. This is particularly the case when talking about our political orientation. If we dare to assume our political position to be coincidental *— which I believe there to be evidence for, seeing either a direct relation between personality and political orientation or common genes that influence both variables — then we can consider loyalty to someone’s political position of interest.

Consider, for instance, the Identity-protective Cognition Thesis, which, as I mentioned in a previous essay, essentially suggests that the loyalty people have towards the political party they affiliate with, might affect their objective reasoning when dealing with politically-charged information. Hence this protective behaviour can — apart from promoting more unnecessary polarization — , in turn, lead to all sorts of unconscious dishonesty.

Sadly, this isn’t the only issue with attaching ourselves to a certain political orientation. Both in his book and his subsequent essay, equally titled Democracy and Political Ignorance, law professor Ilya Somin makes the analogy between sports fans and political fans. Similar how sports fans root for their favourite team, research statistics on the players, and purchase a jersey that complements their fandom, Somin points out the existence of political fans, “who enjoy following political issues and cheering for their favorite candidates, parties, or ideologies.”

Sad to say both types of fans can’t experience their enjoyment without the cognitive downsides of being a fan. Many fans, for instance, engage in both confirmation as well as disconfirmation bias. Meaning that either political or sports fans, as Somin explains, “play up evidence hat makes their team look good and their rivals look bad, while downplaying evidence that cuts the other way.”

As a consequence of strongly associating ourselves with — and expressing loyalty to — any form of group, we effectively create our own enemies. Nevertheless, we clearly can’t help ourselves. Jason Brennan describes the following about our tribalistic nature in his 2016 book, Against Democracy:

“We are biased to form groups, and then identify ourselves strongly with that group. We tend to develop animosity toward other groups, even when there is no basis for this animosity. We are biased to assume our group is good and just, and that members of other groups are bad, stupid, and unjust. We are biased to forgive most transgressions from our own group and damn minor errors from other ones. Our commitment to our team can override our commitment to truth and morality.”

Resist Your Sense of Belonging

The fact that people cling to groups with an enormous amount of intensity is something we have been aware of for centuries. Whether this is still the case in individualistic, Western countries who claim to prioritize the individual above the group is another story — one that’s much more difficult to tell. Moreover, the notion that we reject our collectivist behaviour and unnoticed its toxicity, is, in my view, worrying.

That being said, the social nature of human beings won’t allow any adjustments to our sense of belonging. Hence, we ought to make our own changes, starting with the realization that being an individual is far more significant than being part of a homogenous group. By associating with a certain group, we unnecessarily produce justifications to dislike others. However, rather than abandoning hatred all together, I would suggest we direct it effectively towards someone’s individual values that are substantially understood by the so-called “hater.”

I should lastly point out that the distinction between introversion and extroversion hasn’t been addressed, given that it doesn't affect our main problems: our sense of belonging, dismissing our individuality, and the extent to which we associate ourselves with groups. The degree to which someone wants to be with people does not, to my knowledge, determine the extent of our relationship with a group of people. Whether we subject ourselves to a collective unit or not, is our individual choice. However, he who rejects his individuality, and therefore let his opinions and values determined by the groups he affiliates with (e.g. sports club, religion, student association) has, as John Stuart Mill writes in On Liberty, “no need of any faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.”

*coincidental identity refers to collective identities that are largely the result of luck. Meaning, we had close to no say in acquiring membership from these identities. These include, among others, skin colour, nationality, religion, and political oriëntation. Instead, we might refer to our identity by stating that we “happen to be X,” (X being a part of our coincidental identity).

A BA in general economics, studying psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Previously written for Areo Magazine and Merion West

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