Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dialogue: The Group Lie

Zach: My idea for this episode isn't that complicated, but it has some interesting dimensions.

The basic notion is that people in groups are compelled to demonstrate loyalty to those groups by asserting the basic formula, "our team is the best". Individuals do this too, of course. "I am the best. I am worthy." At its farthest dimension it extends to all of life, "Life is good." Therefore we search for life on other planets, because life is us, and us is good.

The conflict comes from when there are other groups which also believe they are the best. People are expected to lie about their own group at this point. This expectation interferes with an honest analysis.

Yet it gets so extreme that a whistleblower, say, gets persecuted by his company not just because he has exposed foul practices within the company, but he also gets persecuted by society for exposing himself as the KIND of person who would betray his team. In other words, there's a meta-group of people who agree that one does not betray one's team - this in itself is a group. When someone betrays his team, he exposes himself as a traitor not just to that team, but to the meta-team of basically dishonest people.

I don't even have a great example. But what interests me is how the social pressure to promote one's own side is inherently opposed to reality except in those rare cases where one's group really is the best. If one's group is the best, the mere privilege of NOT HAVING TO LIE becomes the new group to which one belongs - and one must begin LYING about it, because one must promote the notion that the meta-group of people who don't have to lie is the best group to be in, even though it may be lonely or isolating, for example.

Slavoi Zizek tends to talk about situations like this - I wish I had his writing skill, because I would have better examples!

Ethan: This is an interesting idea. I'll list whatever examples I can come up with and then I'll go into my own interpretation.
Certainly any firm of groupthink can be lumped in here. In fact, the entire plot of 1984, or really any stupidly nationalist state is a good example of this.

You have this at most organizations, both between departments, and between one organization and another. Families, tribes, cities, states, and countries. Races, genders, sexual orientations. Indeed, any time you have a category that people can identify with, you will see this phenomenon.
The why of the lie, "We are better," is pretty obvious. Identity preservation, group cohesion, actual strength realized through perception. There is much to be gained from both the formation and the prolongation of the group.

I think this gets interesting, as you pointed out, is when the lie starts to break down. When you realize that you're lying and break with the group or, on the other hand, break with the outside and double down on the group. One conclusion is that people are just okay with the lie. And we see this elsewhere. Language as truth is a lie told over and over again up to the point that knowledge is only realized through forgetting. The same can be said of science, history, and religion.

This conversation delves very quickly into the distinction between the real and the imagined. But I see that you believe in the real when you speak of actually being better than someone else. So one question I have is whether believing oneself to be better actually makes one better? And is realizing the lie actually a detriment? This alone draws into question the very nature of better and worse.

The last thing I will draw out goes back to the initial presupposition: that identity is real. I am thinking about your example of the search for life. Wouldn't the discovery of aliens threaten our identity as humans? On the other hand, can't we take any identity and find both an outer identity and an inner identity? The USA is both a superset of states and a subset of countries. The body both a superset of organs and a subset of races, genders, nationalities, etc. This game can be played all the way from the far reaches of the universe to the minutiae of quantum particles.

Must we then draw a distinction between identities that can actually form among distinct bodies, like they do with people or with ants; and identities that do not form, like an imaginary group of human lungs forming an identity all together? Or can we imagine such a group of human lungs is real on a spiritual level?

I am playing a bit here. But with a purpose in mind. Groups form in strange and myriad ways. Even as I invent the Gild of Human Lungs, I realize that lungs come in pairs. For many reasons, both good and bad for the overall body as a whole.
I have no doubt that this is a real problem you have brought up. But it seems to me the question lies in the origin of the lie? Is the lie a product of groups already formed, or is the lie a product of identifying with anything in the first place? If it's the latter, then we cannot possibly hope to solve it without simultaneously dissolving the notions of identity and self.

Zach: Upon reflection, the biggest and most conflicting lie I have ever had to deal with is the notion that my family was the best. I naively believed this when I was a kid, and my parents were not humble enough to correct their kids' naivete about their greatness. I suspect this is the central reason I made this an issue.

At best my family is an average one, at worst below average. This must be the ore of my personal conflict. I resent having had to find more and more obscure ways to convince myself that my family was great, or even, good enough. The group lie has been a huge part of my entire existence, because my family is so downright mediocre. Part, but not all, of their mediocrity is their lack of self-awareness. This must make me very sensitive to all forms of group lies as a result.

But I also went to a supposedly "good" high school - upper middle class in a district with a renowned college town, with few working class types and mostly college-bound students. My high school was the same as my family. While I can say with some certainty that my family was not so good, I'm not sure where my high school stands. There are a lot more factors which go into this. But I found no great mentors in my high school when I needed them. Yet I did feel a pressure to believe the hype, that my high school was a really good one, even though I still can't figure out what that means. What does it say if a "good" high school is simply one where they don't have metal detectors at the gate, for example? The lack of great mentors stood out to me, as it created a suspicion that's only been confirmed since, that I was on my own in this life.

My family failed and I instinctively turned to my high school teachers/guidance counselor/psychologist as a backup. But I fell right through that net, all while trying to believe in the collective lie, that this was a really great high school.

This pattern has repeated. In fact, I've never been part of any institution where I didn't have to stifle my inner sense that it wasn't what it was cracked up to be. It's where I got my sense of individualism from, I suppose. When I see institutions, I always have disappointed expectations. It's just that much more psychic friction to have to stifle the lie they portray about themselves in addition to their basic inferiority. A bad institution that thinks it's good is actually worse than a bad one that knows it's bad.

Ethan: Thank you for the honest reflection on your topic choice. Seriously, That is helpful in determining the best way to steer the conversation on my end. I will say one thing in response, and then I will say my topic. But I cannot promise to offer up the same sort of brute honesty, at least not in written form ;-)

I have often heard you express your disappointment in others being not up to par. My response remains the same. Though I share a certain disappointment with you, and therefore will not downright blast the sentiment, I do believe that appreciation and disappointment are both within our control. In other words, if you choose to believe someone is good, then you will manage to find some good in her. You will actually manage to bring out even MORE good from her. To MAKE her better, by your own standard! And in the end, even if you haven't fundamentally changed what it is that disappoints you about her, nor even your reaction to it, you still will have undoubtedly improved her, and your experience of her as well.

This is essentially what I want to talk about today for my episode. 

I submit that every emotion can be controlled by the wielder to a certain extent. The one area where I will throw up my arms in defeat is a true chemical denaturing of the mind. But in every other situation, I believe that an emotion can be swayed. On the one hand, you can take the advice of most modern psychotherapists who dabble in cognitive and dialectical behavior therapy. Be proactive. When you feel sad and lethargic, move around. When something makes you angry, avoid it. That sort of thing.

But I wish to go deeper with this one. I believe that emotions are far more within our control than we believe. Take this simple analysis of emotions in relationships. One person's emotions are determined in very large part by the way the other person is behaving. And anyone can, in a way, shroud or let out her emotions. She can talk about them outright. She can express them through physical and facial movement. She can change the volume and timbre of her voice. So I think we can all agree that we have power over how we express our emotions, ... in most cases. I think we can also agree that emotions can spread from one person to the other in a close relationship. 

And yet I don't think most people would agree with me yet that they have essentially full power over their emotions, once they move beyond the chemical nature of emotions. And should it need explicit mention, I do not believe that chemicals play as high a role in emotions as most people do. Let me be clear, I don't think anyone possesses a superpower. I just think that the means within our grasp of making ourselves feel a certain way go under-appreciated. And when it comes to the more complex manifestations of emotion, like love, depression, mania, humor, etc. the implications of this theory are pretty profound. You yourself have suggested that depression is not an illness, so I wonder if this theory of mine speaks to you, at least with regard to that. 

But it is with love that I am caught up today. And I mean a love beyond friendship. Love, with a capital "L." That thing that everyone is talking about. The thing that involves spending every possible moment together, of laughing and playing and eating and f***ing together in a way that you do with no one else, of doing everything in your power to make her happy in the moment, while helping her to grow in to the future. Many people would disagree that this sort of love can be turned on or off. And indeed, maybe my own choice of words is screwing me here. It's not like a light switch. But I guarantee you that, over time, two people who are not in love, but choose to try, will fall in love and be happy. And, most importantly, experience Love that is just as sacred and precious as those that we fall into. If they so choose.

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