February 15th, 2013


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?