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24. The place for individuality within group identity

Group identity is complex. It goes way back, all the way to the origins of humanity, within genetic code we’ve carried forward through millennia.

These days, we might be the chairperson of the community committee, the goalkeeper for the football team, the operations manager for the startup.

All of these things become parts of our identity visible to disparate people, all occupying different strands of the infinite collection of tendrils that is our life.

These identities are external constructs that we take on and internalise.

And these identities are, by necessity, incomplete, because identities evolve and change and fall away over months and years and decades.

There are individual identities in the mix too: we are the spouse, and the parent, and the child, each of them carrying different conditioning and behaviour and expectations.

And while the various strands of our individual identities always come with an encouragement to reflect — what does being a good father or good husband look and feel like today? how can I best honour or support an ageing or ailing parent? — it is the identities we find, or are given, through group attachments that offer us great opportunities at the same time as they present us with some of our most pressing difficulties.

The group and evolutionary psychology

It’s a feature of evolutionary psychology that we tend to gravitate towards groups.

Looking at this through the lens of our ancestors, the countless invisible generations that lie within our past, unseen and unknowable to us but connected to us intimately, it is easy to see why this might be the case.

Always there was safety in numbers. Way back in unrecorded history, the renegade, the maverick, the rebel who left the group behind could only survive by rejoining the group, or joining another, or creating one of his own.

Groups — the tribe, the clan, the village — ensured that the needs of its constituent parts were met.

Solitude might be a blessing, but too much of it kills.

The early 21st century and our shared history

Two things have come together at this point in our shared history.

Firstly, the development of instant, global communications technologies has allowed us to gravitate towards any group of our choosing, unburdened by the now unnecessary requirement of place.

Secondly, the breakdown in organised religions and the weakening of nationhood, each of which has left us facing up to the knowledge that the individual self is the most essential unit of humanity.

These two are inter-related. They provide energy and momentum to each other, creating a flywheel effect of forward motion.

Organised religion based on obfuscation and control had been breaking down for a century and that collapse has been hastened by the easy availability of information made possible by the Internet.

Nationhood had its zenith during the middle decades of the 20th century, and while there are reactionary nationalist ideologies — Brexit in Britain, Bolsonaro in Brazil, the far-right of Hungary and Italy and France — there is also the strong sense that a growing number of people are gravitating now less towards bordered local “states” and more towards borderless global “states of mind”, facilitated again by the openness and decentralisation of Internet technology.

We have no way of knowing where this might end. When we look at history through the lens of millennia rather than years or decades, it becomes obvious that the idea of the nation state is quite recent and not certain to last.

Our challenge, therefore, is to find a place for our individual self within the complexity of identities that are set down upon us by others, whether it’s by society, by convention or by culture, and to bring that individual self forward for the benefit of others.

Pandemic

This challenge has been available to us for the duration of our own individual lifetimes (at least from adolescence onwards) but it has been fast-tracked by the first year of the global pandemic.

The way we do almost everything has been moved into the netherworld of what is too easily described as “online”. That journey has changed the physical space around us — both figuratively, in the sense that our environments are increasingly virtual; and quite literally, in that we must be careful to stay two metres away from everyone.

This challenge, at this moment, encourages us to do two things.

  • To consider our own individuality through a new lens. To strip it of all its given identities, imposed by our place in various groups, to find what’s most true within ourselves, and to bring that to the world without hesitation or retreat.
  • To consider the groups we align ourselves to. Political parties or sports clubs, online communities or local committees.

Making this challenge more complex is the primary frustration of eternal distraction.

Like the legend of the warrior Achilles, the beauty of the information age we live in comes with a potentially fatal flaw: when we have instant access to everything we might ever want to know or learn or do, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to remove the incessant barrage of distraction and still ourselves for long enough to do it.

The most tempting thing at the core of our ancient humanity is to align ourselves with a group.

This kept our ancestors alive, and we hold the belief, unspoken but deep within us, that the group will keep us alive too.

Now we have the choice of which group or groups to align ourselves to, but we can only do that when we have taken the care we need to foster an awareness of our unique individual makeup.

Unlike life on the grasslands of the African plains thirty or fifty thousand years ago, our very survival does not rest on sticking with the group of people in our immediate vicinity.

In contrast, our survival now — and perhaps the survival of humanity itself — rests on our ability to remove ourselves from groups that don’t serve us and others well, and find or create groups that do.

This essay is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email as each one is published.