A ? of Group Identity

“Who am I?” – one of the most hopeful and frightening questions we face as individuals. But perhaps there’s one question that even more hopeful and more frightening – “Who are we?”

Understanding the workings of group identity is fraught with both delicious possibility and hideous despair, just ask our major political parties. In group life we rarely have the tools that enable us to understand what happens to our individual identity when we become part of a collective. For instance, one of our most common human responses to problems in group life is to attribute blame to individuals, cleverly absolving the remainder of the group of responsibility. The truth is rarely this straightforward.

With distributed models of leadership becoming more commonplace, the cult of the “I” is shifting, so the importance of understanding and engaging intelligently with issues of group identity are becoming more urgent. There is merit in bringing these issues into our consciousness through practices that encourage people to experience themselves and others in ways that are playful, meaningful and (hopefully) revelatory.

Understanding group identity is not as simple as whipping down to the marketing department, devising a series of feel good values, and placing them on lanyards that people can wear around their neck in order to create the perception of ‘oneness’. That approach has had its day. Many of us are now looking for a greater level of congruence between our individual and group identities in our workplaces. This doesn’t necessarily mean always mean identifying shared values, it’s more about an ability to build tolerances to support a diversity of them.

Anatomy of Judgement

You have to hand it to Jane Elliot, that lady has some chutzpah. In her famous ‘brown eye, blue eye’ experiments, she turns the tables on the dominant white man’s view of the world by showing favour to the ethno-diverse brown-eyed participants while unkindly hammering the blue-eyed ‘whities’. Her techniques may be unorthodox but they lay bare the unpalatable existence of racial discrimination that dominates our world view.

After watching the documentary Anatomy of Prejudice it was hard not to feel a little sorry for her unsuspecting, often hapless, blue-eyed English participants.  It was fascinating to watch their brains implode as they grappled to acknowledge intractably embedded racial story-lines. This was a startling insight into our cultural unconscious at work. That deep-seated conditioning that helps shape the way we operate in world and how we respond to the other, the not me, that we encounter in our daily lives.

At times, it appeared as if the documentary became very dark theatre. You can see why her approach has been highly criticised. It’s like watching a car crash – riveting for all the wrong reasons. As an observer, it sometimes descended into what felt like pure spectacle, a cruel joke that was appealing to the voyeur in us all.

The viewer is given time to reflect on how repellent they find some the participant’s views. At the same time, they can comfort themselves from their armchairs that (as educated people) they know better. While the participants struggle with their own fears of the racial other, the viewer is being confronted by their own judgement of the ignorant other.

It’s the unrelenting and repetitious cycle of judgement that is ultimately the most frightening.

Homogeneity of Group Life

At the Group Relations Australia conference I attended recently, there seemed to be an unconscious fantasy from the group that homogeneity was a prerequisite to co-creation. By that I mean that there seemed to be an overwhelming need to establish our ‘sameness’  and deploy rules regarding the equality of participation and equality in the ways we chose to enact that participation. It was as if creating the group as a one homogeneous entity (by wiping us of our individuality and cultural influences) was the only way to build trust and keep the ‘not-so-nice’ parts of us at bay. Then, and only then, could we commence the work of co-creation.

I understand the human desire to look for ‘sameness’ within a group context in order to create a sense of a shared experience and build group cohesion sufficiently to achieve a set task. I guess what I’m questioning is the almost primal urge for homogeneity that can occur in group life when, in truth, our individual natures and experiences mean that we walk in the world quite unlike anyone else. Why is there so often a desire to diminish this difference rather than value it?

The concept of an exponential degree of individual difference is certainly difficult to hold in the mind and perhaps that’s why universal truths like love and hate offer such comfort – they demonstrate our shared humanity. But my point (and I’m getting there slowly I know) is that we seem to have a tendency to want to believe that in order to co-create something, we need to leave part of ourselves – the part that distinguishes us from everyone else – at the door.

Maybe this is partly my feisty Euro heritage rallying against Anglo societal codes of behaviour that seem to have an incessant desire to ‘normalise’ everything – as if ‘being me’ will ‘destroy you’ so best meet somewhere safely in the middle. Middle-ground has its advantages, but not without the acknowledgment of the ‘selves’ that we are casting aside. I’m no rampant individualist, quite the contrary. But I am fascinated by the paradox of living in an individualistic culture that often unconsciously diminishes an individual’s capacity to be fully present in group life.

Why do we do it? Is it because the old saying of  “we are one but we are many” is too difficult to hold to? Maybe its time to challenge the polarity implicit in this adage by changing it to “we are one and we are many”.