The Groups by Which we Divide Ourselves

For all the word games which philosophy plays, it can also reveal core patterns of our thinking. One such word puzzle asks what a ‘group’ is. Say there are four aspiring entrepreneurs, who band together to create Group, Inc. For now, it is obvious who Group is. We can point to each of the four entrepreneurs and say collectively, ‘Group’ is just a name to refer to them. But over time, a board of shareholders may replace some of them with other employees, or they may drop out by their own accord. Despite this, Group’s clients and others may still refer to such a thing as Group. They may talk of Group even when all four entrepreneurs have resigned. Then we might ask, if Group was just a referent to the four entrepreneurs, how could it continue to exist after they each left?

There’s not really an answer to the question, but that’s beside the point. The question reveals something about the way we see groups—of things, ideas, other animals, and especially in light of today’s politics, ourselves. For all the words of identity we use for race, gender, social class, and so on, there are not often strict definitions on which we can agree with each other, and not even strict definitions of which we would convince ourselves. The case of Bhagat Singh Thind vs. the US was a famous example. In that, Mr. Thind from India argued for his status as a Caucasian, so that he could become a naturalized citizen in the US. While his case was ultimately rejected, it poked points at what it meant to be Caucasian. A reliance on a scientific definition of the Caucasian race could not be used against Thind, so the Supreme Court justice George Sutherland instead relied on an informal definition to say Thind would not likely be considered Caucasian in ‘common understanding.’

I think we often take it for granted that we are divided—that this group, to which we belong, is naturally conflicted with that group, containing other members. But it may be more pertinent to ask, what are the groups by which we divide ourselves? As in, what group labels have we decided to place upon ourselves, and others? One popular example is the label of whiteness, associated with white supremacy. One popular implication of this is true: White people have historically been afforded luxuries denied to those of other races. Yet thinking can get messy if we think ‘whites,’ as a unified group, oppress others. While some considered white have been the biggest enemies of basic equal civil rights, others have been the biggest supporters, and led the way to greater equality. After the facts of history, they can get all lumped together as ‘whites,’ who, according to some narratives, are oppressors, and to others, saviors. People on each side will disagree on what ‘whites’ really are, when in fact, people self-identified as white can be either, or both.

Perhaps a simple way to fix our dilemma, of grouping things, can be seen like this. In college, when I took a class on international relations, a simple theory I learned had to do with actors—people who make decisions for governments and organizations. As I remember, it said that rather than think of nations making decisions, or even specific cities making decisions, we should recognize that actors are individual people. An actor is a specific politician who spearheads an idea in congress, a president who signs an executive order, a person in an organization managing its persona, and so on. Of course, there can be group dynamics, for example in a business executive team, in which each person contributes to a larger unified idea. Yet the basic lesson is simple: We often think of groups as making decisions, as if their members shared a hive mind to output an idea. We say chimpanzees are vicious, or the US declared so-and-so. At worst, this becomes loose-talk which obscures individual actions and makes groups seem more concrete than they are: more bees of a hive than individuals with their own faults and virtues.

In Sapiens, Harari said our groups are ‘myths,’ yet throughout human history, have been the reason we have banded so effectively and become the dominant species we are. Among ancient tribes, we shared animistic myths, believing certain trees held certain qualities. These helped us have some shared culture, but larger myths helped us grow into larger groups, like myths of homogenous communities and homogenous goals. On the large scale which allowed us to band in ever-larger groups, we accepted myths of religion, race, money, and statehood. Historically, it is true that these helped populations unify. Yet myths of grouping also serve to cause distrust and animosity among the labels we have created for ourselves.