The Chain of Identity

Our sense of identity has an enormous impact on how we interact with the world. Whether consciously or subconsciously we act and react based on who we think we are, and like it or not, our sense of individual identity is highly influenced by group identities.

A low level example of this principle can be found in the way we respond to insults and humor. If for instance you think of yourself as a Christian, a joke about Jesus may enrage you. If you define yourself as an atheist the same joke might make you laugh to the point of tears. The same principle applies to political satire, and insults. The difference in reaction is a consequence of group psychology.

Humans came into existence as a pack animal, and for the first 190,000 years of human history the chain of identity for human groups was based on natural relationships. The individual was part of a nuclear family, which was part of an extended family, which was part of a tribe. This could be further extended to the level of the human species and life itself, and many tribes did in fact conceive of non-human life forms as distant relatives. Though many tend to think of ancient humans as primitive, their concept of identity was more tied to a concrete reality than our own in most cases. It was tied to a genetic reality.

In such societies the tribe was the outer boundary of group identity and defense for survival purposes. This was an evolutionarily stable configuration, just as the pack is an evolutionarily stable configuration for wolves. However the beginning of what we often refer to as civilization 10,000 years ago marked a drastic change in the structure of society and therefore the chain of identity.

The birth of civilization was in fact the birth of the state. The nation state replaced the tribe as the outer boundary of the group identity and this had serious psychological consequences. States inherently deemphasize local community and autonomy. If they didn't then they would have no position to centralize control, and if you don't have control of region then you don't have a state.

This leaves humans in modern societies feeling like they're missing something.

The tendency of a species to gravitate towards a pack or herd configuration is a deep seated evolutionary adaptation. It does not disappear just because external circumstances happen to change for a few centuries or even milenia. This principle can be observed in dogs who treat human families who adopt them as their pack and treat the so called human owner as the alpha male. Thousands of years of captivity have not altered this behavioral pattern.

In humans this effect is just as pronounced, however it is largely ignored because civilization is almost never considered a variable when studying human psychology. Humans still instinctually seek a tribe, but since this is no longer available in its natural form they create replacements.

Examples of such replacements are religions, political affiliations, sports teams, and gangs. These groups fill the the role of the tribe psychologically, and as a result they become part of the individual identity of the members.

The inherent danger in this tendency lies in the fact that many of these artificial groups come with ideological packages, bundles of ideas that members are expected to accept as a whole. Accepting the group identity therefore means accepting an ideological identity, and in its advanced forms individuals become incapable of distinguishing their beliefs from their sense of self.

Self identification with an ideology by definition places us at odds with reality. Reality is what it is regardless of our beliefs, but when we are emotionally attached to an idea reality is viewed as a threat if it contradicts our preconceived notions.

Ideological self identification also makes us very easy to control since most of these artificial social groups are hierarchical in structure and are dominated by a handful of individuals at the top. In sociology this is referred to as vertical collectivism and it is in fact the dominant social structure world wide. Powerful leaders take advantage of this condition by redefining the group identity.

In modern times we see this in the left right paradigm which is in fact an example of two artificial group identities which have been cultivated in order to divide the population. Liberals and conservatives are so thoroughly conditioned into their prepackaged belief systems that they are largely incapable of even communicating with each other on charged topics. As such unifying politically in the face of a common enemy is out of the question.

Of course even saying this will provoke defensive reactions. Neither liberals or conservatives like the idea that their identities have been intentionally manipulated or that their ideological framework is more a result of group psychology than of facts or logic, but again, reality is what it is regardless of what we prefer to believe.

Some will try to break this down into a debate between collectivism and individualism, but this is really a false dichotomy. Never in human history have humans operated in nature as individuals nor is it likely that they ever will. Pure individualism is therefore an illusion. We are always defined by our relationship to the group. The real question is what is the nature of that group and what is our relationship to it.

If we wish to have an accurate view of reality it is imperative that we stop tying our individual and group identities to ideologies.

The litmus test for our current state in this regard is our tendency to get defensive when confronted with ideas that contradict beliefs we hold, or which are held by groups that we affiliate with. For example if you consider yourself liberal, and are confronted with a fact that contradicts a basic premise of the liberal world view how will you respond? If your first response is to defend your preexisting beliefs, then your mind is not your own.

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