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on the value of groups

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Yesterday I posted about different ways we Americans split up the political spectrum, and how I seemed to be at odds with most of them. A lot of people made some interesting comments, which I want to reply once I find the time. But one question came up a lot both here and over at FaceBook: why bother with labels at all?

I mean, unless you’re just uninvolved in politics you’re probably not going to agree with everything your group does. You shouldn’t – you should be working out what you believe on these issues and making your own stand. And there’s something polarizing in trying to split all of us up this way. Wouldn’t it be that much better if we could just lay out where we stand and not worry with the group identities that don’t really capture who we are.

Perhaps. But it seems part of human nature to think in terms of groups. They’re just ow we make sense of the world. Imagine, for example, that in the days after the Council of Elrond Sam strikes up a conversation with one of Boromir’s traveling companions. (Of course Boromir had traveling companions; what competent ruler would send his son into the wilds completely unguarded? :-P )

A pleasure to meet you, sir. I am Alphoros of the White Company, of Gondor. And you?

— Pleased to meet you. My name’s Sam. Samwise Gamgee, if you like.

I met a dwarf the other night, from the Lonely Mountain he said. He makes a good trade in gem-crafting. Do you do something along that line?

— [chuckles] No, nothing quite like that. I am no dwarf, though I suppose we’re like enough in height. We call ourselves hobbits, at least among ourselves.

Ah, I met a chap – an old man, more like with all that gray hair – who called himself a hobbit. Bilbo Baggins was his name. He is a guest of Master Elrond and is quite proud of a book he’d been working at.

— My Da looked after him back home, and I did as much for his nephew, Frodo. Leastways I did until we left to come here. We kept the gardens for him and saw that his larder was well stocked.

I have a sister back home, who lives outside of Lossarnach. Her husband is a fine apothecary, at least for the city, and she grows herbs and peonies in her gardens. Do you grow such flowers back home?

And the conversation would probably have gone on from there. My point is, when you first meet someone it’s natural to try to map your current experience onto theirs, and one big way we do that is by sorting out which parts of our experience hold true for them. You look vaguely like a dwarf. Okay, you’re not a dwarf, but you are like this other guy I met earlier. Except you’re of a lower social class and your trade puts you in a different, better group. And that starts a conversation that’s actually relevant.

This simply seems like common-sense to me. In science you start with a genus – a group – and from there you either finetune the group into something more specific (the species) or else you explain why the common assumptions that come with that group label are misleading. A lot of times those groups are imprecise or even flat-out wrong, but for a first impression they’re a good starting place, and an anchor we can build on to get a better view of things.

With politics and ideologies, they’re important in other reasons. Two things spring to mind.

First, we can only know so much about most people we meet in a given day. It’s awfully convenient to give each of them a blank slate to start with, because most of them won’t be around long enough to face consequences of acting badly. Labels give us a better starting point, and hold people accountable for folks. If I’ve been burned in the past by liberals who want to tax us back to the stone age without really giving an efficient infrastructure, when someone else comes along you might want to know whether he’s likely to make the same kind of move. If he claims to be a liberal this can give you a starting place to start making that judgment.  Group labels are very good at helping us predict what we can expect from certain people, which is useful both for predicting what they’ll do in the future and holding them accountable for what they (or other people coming from a similar starting position) did in the past.

On a personal level, it’s also helpful in teasing out whether we’re being self-contradictory or not. This matters if you want your beliefs to be consistent. I believe that many Republicans genuinely don’t see the contradiction in opposing abortion because they’re against killing defenseless humans while they go along with war policies that guarantee a certain number of Afghani and Iraqi children will be killed. Or liberals who push back against all kinds of stereotypes, but are somehow fine taking about white Southerners in very broad (and negative) strokes. Committing yourself to a label and seeing how that label conflicts with your other beliefs can be very helpful. Sometimes it will get you to give up those other beliefs. Sometimes you’ll be able to fine-tune the label, narrow just what we mean by pro-life or whatever. But it’s almost always good at curing our blind spots, I’ve found.

Anyway, that’s a big part of why labels matter to me. There’s a limit to how useful they can be, and in many ways they lead us to see things in a bad way when we rely on them too much. (Libby Anne has a particularly good example of how relying on preconceptions led her to misread situations in her marriage.) And I’m not saying we have to let our labels be the last word. But as a starting point and as a rough set of boundaries for what to expect from someone, they seem pretty crucial to the way humans have historically thought. Or at least to the way I think.

What say ye? How important are groups and labels in your thinking?


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 15th, 2013 07:48 pm (UTC)
I made a reply downthread to you, French Pony, and Dreamflower, since (at least in my mind) your concerns are kind of related. But I also wanted to thank you directly. Good food four thought here, and I appreciate you pushing me a bit.
Feb. 15th, 2013 12:39 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I think you're approaching the value of labels from an unhelpful angle. You've got two examples there -- Sam Gamgee and the Straw Liberal -- where your hypothetical situation involves an awful lot of prejudicial behavior on your part. This person is part of X group, and this will determine how I treat them, based on my previous social attitudes toward their class/toward what others of their group have done in the past.

I mean, try this sentence out for size: If I've been burned in the past by Jews who have over-charged interest on my loans, when someone else comes along you might want to know whether he's likely to be just as greedy. If he looks Jewish, this can give you a starting place to start making that judgment.

That kind of thinking tends not to lead to good places.

As for teasing out self-contradiction . . . look, self-contradiction is self-contradiction. You don't need a label to figure out whether or not your own personal set of beliefs contradict themselves. What you need to do is examine what's at the core of those beliefs and whether all your beliefs share the same core value.

Again, to use one of your examples: The Republicans who oppose abortion and go along with murderous war policies. That belief is self-contradictory if you assume that the underlying belief is a respect for human life. But if you assume that the underlying value is a desire to control the lives of others, literally determining who shall be born and who shall die, then it's not self-contradictory at all. You can't really tell just from those labels whether you've got the "respect for life" Republican or the "control ALL the humans!" Republican. And, to be honest, a lot of people don't care whether or not their beliefs are self-contradictory. They're more along the lines of Walt "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes" Whitman.

For me personally and professionally, I have found labels to be of very little use. Much of my life, as a Pony and as an ethnomusicologist, has been about actively questioning labels, pushing at boundaries, looking at borders to see where the holes are, where things flow through. I try to look at variety more than at diversity. I examine hybridity and the ways in which themes express themselves in many areas. Labels lead so easily to stereotypes and prejudice, and one thing that I really actively do with students, for instance, is to push them to think beyond the stereotypes that they bring to the classroom -- it's one reason why I teach ethnomusicology thematically rather than geographically, and why, for instance, the lesson on national anthems ends with the question What is a nation?*

So I guess I would answer your final questions by saying: Groups and labels are important in my thinking in that they provide something to question and poke at. I do my daily best not to let them define my behavior, or the ways in which I approach other people. (I mean, imagine if I treated my students like their labels when they first walked into class! Brr.)

*It's a really cool lesson, I should add. We study "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Hatikvah," and "Scotland The Brave." I get to sing, and the class gets to watch Jimi Hendrix.
Feb. 15th, 2013 07:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for interjecting rationality into the discussion. I appreciate your remarks more than I can say. Thank you again!

For me personally and professionally, I have found labels to be of very little use. Much of my life, as a Pony and as an ethnomusicologist, has been about actively questioning labels, pushing at boundaries, looking at borders to see where the holes are, where things flow through.

All reasons why I love to read in the field (and listen to the referenced musical examples) although I am far from an expert. I find it allows one to think in concretes about the overlapping commonality of the human experience in a far more useful way than in abstract definitions.
Feb. 15th, 2013 07:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this. Lots of good food for thought here, and I think some of your concerns are good ones. I wouldn't want to use groups in a way that justifies treating people badly based on stereotype. I did make a more substantive reply downthread, in case you're interested.
Feb. 15th, 2013 03:52 pm (UTC)
As I've said before, I don't like being put in a box ideologically.

That said "groups" and "labels" can be useful if you are not put there by someone else, but (for lack of a better word) "self-group".

I wear T-shirts about fanfic or hobbits. I have stickers on my car about hobbits and the Tree of Gondor. I talk about LotR all the time. In other words, I have put myself into the group known as "Tolkien-geeks". This provides a conversational handle a la your Sam-Gondorian conversation--I make myself known to other people who may also self-identify with that group, and I can talk about those things to people who are unfamiliar with them in the hopes of getting their interest up; failing that, someone in another fandom may identify enough with the geekiness aspect of it that we can talk about fanfic in general or some other fandom I am peripherally interested in, such as Star Trek or HP or Doctor Who.

During the election, I had an Obama-Biden sticker on my car. This self-identification as a Democrat opened the way for other Democrats to talk to me, or conversely, warned Republicans not to be too rude to me about the President. Also a useful thing.

If I wear a T-shirt from helping my church with VBS in the summer, someone can instantly see that I self-identify as a member of the First United Methodist Church of Cushing. This tells them I am a Protestant and a Methodist; possibly they may even be familiar with the particular summer program by its logo. Once again, they can tell something about me that may or may not give them a handle for getting to know me better.

What I object to is the assumptions made by other people by these things, which causes them to place me in other boxes. For example, because I like Tolkien, they may assume that I am some sort of "hippie freak". Because I identify as a Democrat, they may assume that I am in favor of all the liberal policies (real or imagined) of recent years; that I am in favor of "Big Government" and abortion and "tax-and-spend" and so forth. Because I am Methodist, they may assume that I am fair game to be proselytized to their brand of Christianity, or that I believe or agree or am responsible in some way, for all the policies of the Methodist church in general.

So, I would say that labels a person willingly puts on him/herself are useful. Labels other people put on someone, however, may be much less than useful and can be not only annoying, but sometimes dangerous.

Feb. 15th, 2013 07:50 pm (UTC)
I think your distinction between voluntary and involuntary identities is a good one. Crucial, really. Thanks for bringing it up!

I made a more thorough reply just below this, to you and FP and Alex all together. Check it out if you're interested.
Feb. 15th, 2013 06:46 pm (UTC)
Dreamflower, Alex, FP - thanks for your thoughts on this. I found it very helpful and I think you teased out some important concerns.

I really agree with the point (I think both Alex and FP mentioned this) that groups are used to prejudge people, and this is wrong. This is one reason why I linked to Libby Anne's piece at the bottom of my post, because I think it makes the really important point that labels are imperfect and sometimes do more harm than good. And if I am using my label to justify how I treat you, particularly if it's to treat you badly, that's obviously not okay. In my Sam example I didn't mean to suggest that Alphoros was justified in thinking "he's just a gardener and I'm an honored soldier so I can treat him like he's less important than me." Or even "he's a dwarf and all dwarves are money-grubbers so I should watch him so I don't get my pocket picked." Rather, the thought process was more along the lines of "This is a stranger - how can I find a starting place to get to know him better?" At least in my experience, this is how first introductions and conversations with acquaintances go. The way a person situates themselves within groups (what labels they claim and also the way they say "but I'm not like those other people in regards to ______" is a good starting place to getting to know them better.

I also understand the impetus against being defined by other people. I think Dreamflower's point, that groups may be useful if we choose them ourselves but not if they're put on us by other people, is a good one. Personally, I think the way we present ourselves regarding different groups can tell us a lot about the person. Do they think of themselves as part of a certain set, whether it's a religion or hobby/interest group or political club or whatever? And if they go on to qualify things - "I'm a conservative but that doesn't mean I'm anti-intellectual," "I'm a liberal but that doesn't mean I think big government is the answer to all of our questions," "I write fanfic, but that doesn't mean I'm only centered on those characters any more than you're obsessed with your hobbies," "I'm an evangelical Christian, but that doesn't mean I'm homophobic" - those qualifiers can give an even fuller picture.

I think for myself, it bothers me a great deal when I think of people "getting away with" something, and saying we should simply judge all people as individuals seems to do that. I keep coming back in my mind to the political scene, the way Republicans just disavowed George Bush's policies and tried to get a clean slate. I guess I think that letting people operate as individuals, particularly in environments where people act in groups like with politics, makes people less accountable.

But it's worth thinking about why this issue is so important to me. I have a gut feeling that letting people off the hook is simply wrong somehow - but I'm not quite sure I can explain exactly why. You guys have given me good food for thought and I'll definitely be thinking about it.
Feb. 15th, 2013 08:46 pm (UTC)
What I think you are wondering about is the culpability of an individual in regards to the values of a group with which they self-identify?

In other words, if a group a person belongs to is avowedly hostile to some other group to the extent that they practice hate-speech and perhaps even violence to the latter group, then how responsible is an individual for the actions of their first group? What if they do not participate in the violent acts, but do in the hate-speech? What if they do not participate in either, but stand silently by? What if they speak out against the group's speech and actions, but in a qualified manner ("I don't agree with the others, but they have a right to be hateful if they want to.")?

Where is their culpability for the actions of the group they are in?

If they do not agree, why do they remain in such a group?

I do think that if they say the same things and participate in the same actions as the others, we have our answer. Beyond that, I don't know--perhaps it comes down to an individual basis again.

People within a group who participate in that group's actions (like the Republicans at the convention) can perhaps be judged in both ways--by the group they are in, and as individuals by their participation and tacit approval of that group's behavior. In this case they are both self-identifying AND allowing themselves to be judged as a part of that group.

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )



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