Monday, January 23, 2017

Groupiness And The Imperative Of Formality

     I avoid crowds. I detest large cities. I refuse to join groups. None of that will be news to the typical Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch. What might surprise him is the question I recently received from a woman who was baffled by those preferences:

“Then who are you?”

     Ponder that for a moment: specifically, what it tells us about the assumptions of the asker. It’s been on my mind since 4:30 AM.


     Collectivism, every version of which privileges groups according to some scheme of valuation, is responsible for virtually all the evil in the First World. Yet the assignment of others into categories – groups – is an ineradicable trait. We all do it...because we must.

     About two years ago, I wrote:

     Collectivism – the doctrine that rights and responsibilities adhere not to individuals, but to groups – is a gospel of unending strife. But the ordinary man cannot be moved to take part in such strife without having something to blame on “the Other.” So Negroes must imagine Caucasians to be the source of their problems with crime and lack of economic advancement; women must conceive of men as their oppressors; “the young” must blame “the old” for their struggles at getting employment; and so forth.

Note that just as Anthony Bryan states that “white people and black people are different,” so also are men and women different. So also are the young and the old different. So also are urbanites and suburbanites different, Northerners and Southerners different, Christians and Jews different, et cetera ad nauseam infinitam. Indeed, every individual differs from every other, in innumerable ways. It’s the factual soil in which individualism is rooted: You are unique, with a unique and irreplaceable soul; therefore, only you are responsible for your destiny.

Some differences matter more than others. Some are contextual and mutable, while others are innate and permanent. Some can be accommodated and harmonized; others are immiscible, requiring separation. They exist beyond our opinions and despite our preferences; indeed, they can be critical to the survival of both individuals and nations. But as long as we cleave to the individualist premise that each of us is alone responsible for himself, we can navigate among our differences, making use of the useful ones, coping with the ones that cause difficulties, and avoiding the ones that cause friction.

The substitution of the collectivist premise permits evil minded persons to create discord. If we can be induced to see John Passerby not as an arbitrary individual with his own priorities and obligations, but as black, or female, or Jewish, we can be trained to fear him...and to hate him.

     I stand by every word of the above. It’s beyond refutation. Yet I, too, am impelled to assign people to groups, to expect them to conform to the norms of those groups, and thereafter, to be surprised when they deviate from what I expect. Everybody does it.

     But that’s not the sting in the tail. We do it for a compelling reason: It works often enough, and positively enough, to be worth doing. In somewhat more loaded words:

     So we’re not going to stop. The question of the hour is how the tendency can be detoxified...tamed...rendered less likely to bring bad consequences.

     It can be done, of course. Indeed, it’s not complex or difficult: it merely requires that we see the individual first, allow him the right to differ from any and every group, and judge him on his own merits. But quite a lot of people don’t or won’t do it. Some refuse to do it, and exhort others not to do it, for – drum roll, please – political reasons.

     They who desire strife – who see disharmony, friction, and conflict as paths toward power or profit – are inherently favorable toward the crudest sort of collectivism.


     The above might seem a bit off-axis from me, inasmuch as I’ve been vocal, and quite recently so, about the desirability of formalizing the relations between the races. As it happens, I feel the same way about relations between the sexes, between the generations, between the religions, between the nations, between the [insert your meta-collectivity here]. We appear to do much better, socially, when we practice a high degree of formality toward those who differ with us in recognized ways.

     The undiscussed virtue of formality is that it incorporates respect: specifically, respect for the other person’s prerogatives. The patterns it prescribes are designed for exactly that purpose.

     For example, what does it mean when an unaccompanied woman, approached by a man she doesn’t know, smiles formally and says “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced” – ? It’s shorthand for a longer, more explicit statement likely to wound feelings:

     “Excuse me, but I don’t know you, and circumstances are either conducive to fear, conducive to inconvenience, or inappropriate for us to make one another’s acquaintance. Please allow me to go my way. If at some future time we should encounter one another again and discover that we have friends in common, perhaps the outcome will be different.”

     Even the simplest of formal politenesses – “Excuse me,” “Pardon me,” “Please,” “Thank you,” “May I,” “So sorry” – promote and facilitate the maintenance of respect, especially respect between strangers.

     In circumstances of enforced crowding, where there’s nothing to be done about the throng that presses upon one, formalities are far more difficult to implement, which is among the reasons I avoid crowds. Among other things, ammunition has become far more expensive in recent years...to say nothing of the services of a good criminal-defense lawyer.

     I expect I’ll return to this.

5 comments:

  1. And do keep in mind that the woman in question would be horrified if you did not belong to the 'right' groups. If you belong to NRA, the TEA party, repub party (not really a big difference from the democrat party but she likely wouldn't know that), or any group that pursues masculine occupations (shooting of any sort, hunter group, etc) then she likely would have been more horrified that she 'thought' she knew who you were.

    Maybe next time you tell her you've joined the He-man Woman Haters Club :p If you really want to rub it in say it was because of the last convo you had with her!

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  2. “Then who are you?”

    “I am me. There is no such thing as a group. We are all born alone. We all die alone. In between, all of the best and all of the worst moments of our lives are lived alone, even if in the presence of another.”

    (In The Man of LaMancha, Don Quixote uses the phrase “I Am I”, which maybe be more poetic but seems to contradict the use of subject and object. Use it if you prefer.)

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  3. SiG: Actually, "I am I" is the syntactically correct construction. "Am" is an inactive verb, which identifies, directly or indirectly, the subject with the object. All verbs of the "to be" family, plus verbs such as "seem" and "appear," take objects in the nominative ("I") case rather than the objective ("Me") case.

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  4. Good insights Fran. I hate being in crowds and large cities, preferring to make my own way, think my own thoughts independent (as much as possible) of orthodoxy. One on one I find almost all people interesting and measurably likable. But, once clumping begins and groups number larger than 3 individuals my likability scale starts eroding as I backpedal from following. Up close and personal, collective predilections unknown, many people are worthy of intelligent interaction. It's the clumping that gets me and destroys it all.

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  5. I tried to post this earlier, but, in my ineptitude and perhaps not grasping the subtleties, I wasn't successful.

    I just wanted to thank you. I've spent the last several years following and re-reading many postings, saving the bulk of yours, since they, for me at least, require time to digest.

    I am not discouraged, nor fatalistic, at this juncture. I believe I am closer to the position this essay begins to reveal and elucidate.

    Thank you for persevering, despite the frustration and criticism. I am the better for your works.

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