On Groups

A team is where a boy can prove his courage on his own. A gang is where a coward goes to hide.

–Mickey Mantle, The Quality of Courage (Bison Books edition, 1999), 90

Collectivism, as a moral premise, is essentially the denial of the ultimate value, or rather the ultimate existence, of the individual. Individualism, as that term is used all too often these days, seems to imply a certain suspicion about the value of any coordination or cooperative effort. Both views, to borrow Mickey Mantle’s vocabulary, are guilty of confusing gangs with teams — the collectivist to the aggrandizement of the gang, the individualist to the underappreciation of the team.

To put this in my own preferred language, the distinction that is operative here is that between a group or crowd on the one hand, and a community on the other. The group is by definition a collective — one will, one mind, one feeling — whereas the community necessarily entails the intentional and naturally limited interaction of many separate, independent wills, minds, and feelings. That is to say, the community is strongest when the ultimate independence of its members is maintained and respected, whereas the group or crowd, to function as such, demands that the individual submit to the collective entirely, which is to say dissolve himself without reservation into the group’s momentum.

The two entities — group and community (or gang and team) — are quite distinct in character, but because their constituent parts are the same (individuals) and their outward appearance is similar (a collection of individuals seeming to act or function together in some manner), unclear thinking sometimes leads people to confuse them with one another. More importantly, unclear thinking by the members of a community can lead to a gradual transformation of that benign and valuable entity into its dark alter ego, the group, a collective will that has overwhelmed or suppressed its constituent individuals by force or by intimidation. The group, by definition and by inherent impetus, subdues the natural human urge toward mature independence.

“But isn’t group behavior beneficial in some circumstances? Might not there be some positive outcomes issuing from the fully unified response mechanisms of a crowd?”

Yes. The group, the unqualified or unindividuated collective, can indeed be beneficial, and issue in positive outcomes — but only in contexts in which the power of mass behavior devoid of deliberative reasoning, or of emotional reactions unfiltered by private judgment or restraint, is considered desirable. For any crowd, as I have often noted, will invariably and necessarily be dumber than its dumbest member. They will cheer collectively for things that would not attract them privately. They will laugh or revel contagiously at amusements that would bore them individually. They will rally unswervingly for causes that would have little appeal to an independent mind. A collective of subsumed and dependent souls is always detrimental, however, in any situation in which intellect and moral character are desired or required. This, for example, is why group identity and unmitigated unity are essential to the development of a loyal army or police force under tyranny, to the success of partisan political tribes, or to the fostering of progressive activist movements. Any collective force in defense of the indefensible must be trained to substitute unanimity for reasoning, and acceptance for virtue. As Mantle says, they must value not the team (individuals prepared to display courage in a common effort) but the gang, where cowards go to hide.

To state this more directly, we may cite two conditions in which a crowd or group, a true collective, is intrinsically preferable to an independent individual. These conditions, one might say, comprise the natural purposes of groups.

First, groups are useful for waging war, particularly wars of attrition, in which sheer quantity is one’s chief asset. This function includes the various forms of “war by other means” entailed in party politics, social activism, and so on. Even in such contexts, however, it is vital that the group never be given the responsibility of choosing when or how to fight, or what they ought to be fighting for; those decisions must (and inevitably will) be made by individuals operating outside of the group, and assuming the role of tamers and shepherds.

Second, groups are well-suited to certain types of “play,” specifically such activities as naturally tend to devolve into, and even to require, a considerable degree of stupidity and childishness in order to achieve their “successful” effect — drinking bouts, gossip sessions, loud parties, modern movie and television comedy, etc. When an activity becomes organized and rational, however, with distinct tasks requiring private will and responsibility, the collective in question has evolved into a community of individuals, and the group dynamic, which favors unthinking compliance, submission to collective pressure, and excessive deference to feelings (real or performative), becomes a weakness or detriment to the activity’s success. Even in play, then, the group is only preferable to the community as long as the form of play is inherently irrational, and best enjoyed by the unthinking.

In sum, we may say that the group’s general or overarching purpose, its primary and natural function, in all contexts, is as the most effective vehicle for crushing or diminishing individual will, moral responsibility, and intellectual restraint, which it does through the intimidating force of numbers. Its strength is in effectively eliminating souls in favor of bodies, thought in favor of obedience, action in favor of reaction, and the straight gaze of the independent adult in favor of the nervous sideways glance of the dependent child seeking approval, looking for behavioral cues, and worrying about whether his responses are “the right ones.”

Childhood is sometimes thought to be the natural time of group behavior, which some progressives propagandize as a human ideal, as though immaturity were the goal of life. In truth, however, I am inclined to say that our casual ascription of groupthink and moral submissiveness to children is more a product of our model of universal public schooling than a natural trait of the childish mind. In any case, if collectivism is in any sense natural to childhood, it would be only in the sense that youth is specifically the natural period of learning to outgrow the influence of groups.

Beyond childhood, however, continued adherence to the will of the crowd can signal nothing but a failure of intellectual and moral maturation. Among adults, to be sure, the group is where cowards go to hide.

You may also like...