Expression and Group Identity
Culture & Current Events9

Expression and Group Identity

Man’s social nature is an integral part of what it means to be human. But at the same time, the instinct has been responsible for many of the great evils in human history. When the natural tendency to care for those closest to one’s self becomes a hard line between us and them, the virtues of tenderness, courage, and generosity toward the in-group fuse with their mirror vices of hate and disdain toward out-groups.

It is true, psychological studies show how frighteningly easy it is for an authority figure to negate an individual’s will, and history shows that the effect can easily scale up to an entire society when large groups are successfully “other”-ized. The usual platitude, that group instinct must be held “in tension” with individual initiative, offers no practical guidance. The difference between a harmful and a healthy expression of the social instinct can be elaborated more usefully as a difference in maturity pertaining to identity.

The social instinct is animated by more than simply the material benefit of living among others under the division of labor. More importantly, man desires colloquy with others in an expressive sense: he desires to be known and appreciated for who he is. This desire is the point at which the pressure of social norms operates. Shame is the conflict between the desires for expression and for appreciation, when expression would lead to opprobrium. These pressures set soft boundaries within which respectable choices can be made. They can be broken, but at a cost. Naturally, self-respect is often more important psychologically than the appreciation of others, hence the value of a strong individual conscience.

But the values of various men vary too widely for anyone to please them all. Men therefore form groups around shared values, within which friendships are formed upon mutual appreciation of those values.1 And as individuals identify themselves with those values, that comes to much the same thing as appreciation of one friend for the other, for in a very real sense the self is constituted by what it values. This is phileo; the love between friends.

As a general rule, the strongest friendships are formed around the most specific values.2 Indeed, groups shade imperceptibly into friendships as the uniting value becomes more specific and the group accordingly smaller. A group therefore is helpful as an initial ground for friendship, but it is neither necessary (serendipitous friendships are not uncommon) nor sufficient (one cannot be friends with everyone in a large group). The less exclusive the group, the less fraternal it will necessarily be. A trade association animated by love of craft may be a fertile ground for friendship, but one which jockeys for mere economic advantage will find that value to be barren soil. A plumber may enjoy the company of another plumber, but what man ever found another who loved comfort and said, “You too?!”

One would expect, then, forces of civil society analogous to those operating on firms to create a distribution of group sizes centered around some optimum.3 But these forces are distorted by the democratic process, whose majoritarian requirement exerts its own upward force on the size of groups in the political realm. Groups like the NRA or the ACLU, among whose members only the most active ever have social interactions in the group’s context, are of little use for the nurture of deep friendships in which men come to know and appreciate one another, for their purpose as pressure groups requires them to be as large as they can. This entails minimal engagement, but also nullifies any fraternal capacity.

Nevertheless, these groups command a visceral fidelity from their members not less than a more fraternal group: attack the NRA and its member will feel personally affronted, just as if you had slandered his church or nationality.

Groups like these satisfy the need for belonging and identity, but not the need for friendship, much as Cheetos might satisfy hunger, but have little nutritive value. In both cases the deeper need is obscured by the fulfillment of the more pressing need. Unfulfilled by friendship, the need for expression is redirected outward: rather than coalescing around shared values, a flag is planted. The member shouts to the world, “Appreciate me!” And as the unsatisfied desire becomes more and more vexing, the specific character of the group becomes less and less relevant. The member’s allegiance is no longer to what the group stands for – as if he might leave if the group should drift in its aims – but to the group itself. Rather than establishing his identity within the group, he outsources it to the group. One would wonder how there remained any loyal Republicans by the end of Bush’s reign, or now loyal Democrats at the end of Obama’s, if the parties were anything more than expressive. Why else would nationalism fester most virulently in countries with the least to be proud of? Germany, for example, did not fall into nationalist fervor until their country was in economic and cultural ruin.4 Outraged pride is the most common expression of stifled phileo.

Needless to say, the triumph of expression is the death of shame. If I am not appreciated, the problem is with them. They can’t accept me because they’re too puritanical (or bourgeoise, or boorish, or…). Suddenly the opponent becomes “other”, and dialogue becomes impossible.5 Hence the preoccupation with affirmation and identity among those who reject either element of heterosexual monogamy, and hence also the victim complex among cultural conservatives. Expressive flag-waving is a hallmark of immaturity, whether a gay pride or the Gadsden. Deep friendship according to shared values both requires and brings about maturity, which is that establishment of individual identity; the development of conscience. It is a deeply personal and informal endeavor.6 C.S. Lewis wrote that rather few, probably, ever experience such friendship. Without it, the expressive desire never moves past self-indulgence.

This is the danger of any regime where “private interests” are regarded with suspicion and sublimated into the “public square”: those “private interests” are precisely those through which the individual matures. And what’s more, the expansion of the political realm molds more and more groups after the barren model of the pressure group, emaciating an entire people’s capacity for real friendship.

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves says that friendship “is a relation between men at their highest level of individuality. It withdraws men from collective ‘togetherness’ as surely as solitude itself could do; and more dangerously, for it withdraws them by twos and threes.” Wherever friendship finds root, let tyrants and bureaucrats beware. Wherever it does not, let the people beware.


  1. It is true that in many cases friendships are prior to a group. Nevertheless, without discounting the occurrence of serendipitous friendships (those which are not discovered within the context of a prior group), groups play an important discovery role for those seeking friendships around a particular value. See the following paragraphs.
  2. There is a danger in this sort of friendship, however, of enabling the pair to confirm each other in self-indulgent habits rather than progressing into maturity. This is why several friendships across different shared values are valuable.
  3. The tradeoff for groups between size and loss of intimacy maps nicely to the tradeoff for the firm between scale and administrative complexity.
  4. One might also note that, in America at least, it is usually the most degenerate among whites who take the most conscious pride in their whiteness.
  5. Polylogism can thus become approximately (if not fundamentally) correct – but note it is self-inflicted!
  6. Hence also the Leftist aversion to personalistic charity: were it a personal gift rather than an impersonal entitlement, the recipient may feel shame – and how much more when he must ask without a prior fraternal bond!


Civil SocietyC.S. LewisRonald Coase


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  • 1

    Doug Jinks

    Mar 08, 2011 at 16:14 | Reply

    Because, as we all know, collectives eventually become the Borg. Seriously, though, good inspection of human psychology/sociology.

  • 2

    Ben Triplett

    Mar 13, 2011 at 1:25 | Reply

    There are, in fact, goods of group interaction..the four gospels, for example, arose from the reality of community and not individuality. The myth of the individual also leads to some evils, such as gross materialism in private property ownership, resulting in denial of the needs of others.

    I agree that Hegelian notions of a “national spirit” tend to allow nations a reason to act on baser instincts in the name of “nationalism”. Yet, this doesn’t mean such a thing doesn’t exist. I would like to see more complexity in defining this issue, as individual and group interact. Why must it be one or the other?

    • 3

      Cameron Harwick

      Mar 13, 2011 at 23:28

      I’m not saying group interaction is necessarily a bad thing – it’s absolutely necessary to live in the world – only that when one takes one’s identity from a group of people, it probably indicates unfulfilled personal needs. Whether or not that’s a good way to fulfill them depends on a lot of factors (most importantly what the group is), but more often than not it’s probably not a good thing.

      Such a thing as appears to be a “national spirit”, independent of its constituents (though not in fact so) can only appear so far as the people are broken and servile to relinquish their identity to it.

      Groups are inevitable, but the character of interaction among individuals in them is not. When we are secure in our identity; when we are the “most human”, as you might say, we define our groups, not the other way around.

    • 4

      Ben Triplett

      Mar 14, 2011 at 15:57

      I certainly believe we are entitled to some distinction within a group, and this distinction has implications on the nature of the group. Yet, the group as an entity has inevitable implication on the individual as well, as exemplified in the Church. Granted, the Church can be acted upon as an entity (ex. the Reformation). Yet, the Church as an entity, controlled by God, acts upon the individuals according to God’s will in certain circles (ex. the Augustinian liturgy formed Luther). I agree with your point that to succumb to group identity simply because one ascribes to a group is sheepish…yet, to deny that group behavior has a life of its own…groups as entities…lacks imagination in my mind.

    • 5

      Ben Triplett

      Mar 14, 2011 at 17:44

      After reflection, I realize I have fallen into one of my own traps. I feel like we have had this discussion many times, and I rarely define terms or reasons on my own side. Aside from psychological studies which define a group in terms of a single entity with regards to mentality, I would refer you to current theological trends, which offer warning against post-Luther over-individualism. These arguments, from Barth to Yoder to MacIntyre to Hayes to Hauerwas (and I would specifically refer you to Hayes’ articles on Luther’s misinterpretation of faith in Jesus Christ rather than faith of Jesus Christ), argue, very generally, that Christians read their faith much too individualistically in the post-Reformation era, and the dangers therein. You can find a very tidy summary of these viewpoints in Paul Among the Postliberals by Douglas Harink. The arguments stem from reworked interpretations of scripture, as well as problematic theological and ethical stances in the post-Reformation.

      I think I have (through education at Dook) been indirectly influenced by these viewpoints. I’ve been planning a blog on these notions, as I find these views a bit disconcerting in light of my own notion of the soul…but I do find the arguments to be valid on their own terms and in the multi-thousand-year-old theological dialogue. Thus, I have become typically cautious of over-individualized worldviews. I actually think you (and Luther) would find some value in these arguments…

    • 6

      Cameron Harwick

      Mar 14, 2011 at 19:18

      I don’t deny that individuals act differently in groups, and that there’s a herd mentality – that much is obvious. However, that doesn’t make it ok to consider the group holistically. It’s an emergent property of the individuals in a group, not a property of the group itself – at no point does it stop being composed of the wills and identities of individuals (even if for many of them it’s a two-way, or one-way receptive influence).

      Just as groups cannot be considered holistically, neither can they be acted upon holistically – only through the individuals that compose them. God did not work on “the Church” as such during the Reformation, for example; he worked through individuals as they came to accept (for whatever reason) the reformers’ doctrines. Much (most?) of that was in the context of the Church, but that doesn’t mean the Church was acting upon individuals. Individuals were acting upon other individuals in the context of the Church.

      You say it lacks imagination to deny the holistic properties of the group; I say it’s imaginary. ;) (or at least illusory)

      Maybe we’re secretly in agreement if saying “the group acts on the individual” is shorthand for “individuals act on each other in the context of a group”. But if you mean what you say as it stands, then you’ve given up what it means to be human.

      Also, what psychological studies do you mean? I would think psychology’s entire foundation is fundamentally individualistic (as there is no such thing as a group brain). It could shed light on the emergence of a herd mentality and the loss of independence within the individual, but not an independent group will.

      As for theological trends, is that along the same lines as N.T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul? The faith in/faith of distinction brings that to mind, though his particular distinction might have been different. I haven’t looked at that in a while, but I remember finding it a rather odious framework. Regardless, I’ll try to find some of what you’ve mentioned to see its merit.

      And finally (one more definition request), how much is over-individualism? Is it based on the philosophy’s effects, or its intrinsic truth?

    • 7

      Ben Triplett

      Mar 14, 2011 at 22:50

      One at a time: “God did not work on “the Church” as such during the Reformation, for example; he worked through individuals as they came to accept (for whatever reason) the reformers’ doctrines.”

      This, I see, as a lack of imagination. Reform was happening, in similar ways, across different groups of people at different moments, yet arousing similar confessions. Not only Luther, but von Kaysersberg, Staupitz, Pole, Melancthon…God was speaking to individuals as a group, and this group acted in a strikingly similar way despite boundaries of time, language, culture, etc…In other words, I don’t see this movement happening as a specific result of cause/effect between individuals, spreading as one individual catches wind of doctrine spread from other individuals. No, similar confessions were occurring simeltaneously…and I believe the same happens in the 20th century with reactions to modernism. In fact, these confessions happen in a similar way through different cultural means: art, theology, science, etc…not necessarily as a direct cause/effect from individual to individual. For example, Heisenberg didn’t discover Uncertainty in quantum particles due to Picasso’s decision to abstract. Yet, these two seemingly unrelated ideas share in a reaction to modernism that we are now categorizing. Something metaphysical seems to move cultures at the same time…not necessarily individuals. Or is it a coincidence that individuals seemingly react in very similar ways to cultural phenomenae?

      Now…”Maybe we’re secretly in agreement if saying “the group acts on the individual” is shorthand for “individuals act on each other in the context of a group”. But if you mean what you say as it stands, then you’ve given up what it means to be human.”

      Here stands my trouble with recent trends. Again, my notion of the soul maintains individuality to some extent (I am, after all, a Kierkegaardian at heart!). Thus, I cannot believe that some “national spirit” or metaphysical entity which moves a group somehow subsumes all individuality. Rather…I wonder if individuality rails against this entity to create a tension…this is something I’ve not put enough thought into. However, I think it too narrow minded to deny evidence that groups tend to function as their own entity.

    • 8

      Ben Triplett

      Mar 14, 2011 at 22:56

      I apologize…its too late for me to go backlogging through my psychology notes…so I’ll have to save that for tomorrow! Also, any discussion of Hays/post-liberalism!

    • 9

      Cameron Harwick

      Mar 15, 2011 at 0:02

      “Or is it a coincidence that individuals seemingly react in very similar ways to cultural phenomenae?”

      I wouldn’t say coincidence, but emergent/spontaneous phemonena like culture (and language) are extremely complex and pervasive, hence the appearance of something that might look like a metaphysical group spirit. People are people, and react to influences in generally similar ways – Newton and Leibniz were probably influenced by the same mathematicians when they concurrently invented calculus, for example. Likewise in the Reformation, the intellectual environment had been pushed far out of stability (obvious cognitive dissonance prevailing). The longer that went on, the more likely it became that someone would resolve it, the Protestant-esque manner being the most apparent, so multiple people ended up coming to the same conclusion. So, I don’t think synchronicity demonstrates separateness of the group spirit at all.

      If individualism lacks imagination, it seems group spirit is an easy out for explaining peoples’ behavior in groups; as if we just don’t want to try.

      Maybe before I go any further I should ask, what is the group spirit? When does it emerge, and how does it interact with people? What is its separate essence?

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