On the Possibilities and Problems of Groups

I’ve had several conversations with friends recently about the difficulty of organizing groups. Too often a bunch of people get together for a worthwhile cause only to see numbers dwindle, enthusiasm flag and, worse, enmity and strife set in. It’s not that I can somehow claim to be above the problem. I’m guilty of disappearing, of “ghosting” my fellow group members once the initial excitement of the collective idea wanes.

Michel Foucault called our modern society a “carceral archipelago,” a prison made up of individual cells all watched over by an all seeing eye. The advertising that surrounds us has much to do with our carceral condition. Modern capitalism emphasizes our individuality–“Do it your way!”–while, thanks to social media, simultaneously monitoring our every mouse click. It’s hard to argue with Foucault’s prescience in, what I like to think of as our make-your-own-individual-burrito “Chipotle age.”

In order to accomplish any worthwhile goal we have to form groups. Human beings are not meant to be lone agents. The Inuit people I met on a trip to Greenland have a word for individualists, “wanderers,” and in the Inuit culture wanderers are considered possessed of a supernatural malevolence. While most of us don’t have to face the challenges of an arctic climate, the fact is that our individualization has left us all lonely and ineffective.

And yet, the way out of the prison is not to make forming groups an end in itself. This is Mark Zuckerberg great error. At the Senate hearing he said, over and over that his highest goal is “connectivity.” People can connect to feed the homeless, rescue animals or plant trees. Unfortunately, people can also connect to promote racism and hate, something the internet has made worse.

I wish I had an easy set of points on how to form positive, long lasting and effective groups or just how to be a better member of a group. I don’t. But, as in most worthwhile tasks, perhaps the answer is to take things one step at a time. We, in Western countries, have been on a downward individualization spiral since the 1500s. It might take just as long to climb out. Perhaps we need to begin just by sharing meals together, hanging out more and simply doing nothing, but doing nothing together.

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10 Comments

  1. I haven’t read it myself, as I’m not big on nonfiction that isn’t a cookbook or plant related, but I have heard good things about the book “Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds”, by Adrienne Marie Brown. Perhaps you might be interested in it.

  2. I have recently been involved in setting up a local residents association and the experience has not been a happy one.

    The problem has been the difference of opinion between those who want it to be a highly organized group, operating to a set of by-laws and holding meetings in strict accordance with Roberts Rules of Order and those who favor a looser structure with minimal rules and all decisions made by consensus.

    My fear is that we are going to spend a lot of time discussing process and very little time figuring out how to achieve results which, in our case, is mainly holding local politicians’ feet to the fire in matters that concern the community.

    I am not sure how we can hit the happy spot between a rigidly-controlled bureaucracy and anarchy.

    • Since when Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War , that seems always to be the underlying push and pull.

      Of course, Athens who represented democratic ideals, ie. looser structure, versus Sparta (more rules) , would eventually become worst than Sparta.

      Thus Persia in effect won, Greece was weakened, Thebes ascended. Not until Alexander the Great would Greece become cool again.

      Same lessons in the Civil War, the Union as Athens – Confederate as Sparta (with slaves too), Sherman’s march represented the worst of the Union (plus other such Union atrocities).

      Same with WWII, Allies as Athens & Axis as Sparta (fascism) , nukes represented the worst of the Allies (U.S. as Athens).

      I play Polis a boardgame about the Peloponnesian War to drive home the point about this oft forgotten war and the essential points.

      Also this premise that if only Americans would all get together again like in the third world, trust me I’m from the Middle East, group-think isn’t as ideal as this blog post makes it out to be.

      I’m a believer that the Hajnal Line extends all the way to North America (Canada & the U.S., to include ANZ), where the individual is celebrated before the group (or family or clan).

      And there is virtue in that. When participating or leading a group start from there first. Respect the individual, don’t be like Athens who eventually became worst than Sparta.

  3. History does show is that the best outcomes for humanity occur when individuals strive to maximize their personal outcomes within the context of the golden rule. Why we continue to doubt that is both the definition of insanity and the cause of fascism.

  4. History does show that the best outcomes for humanity occur when individuals strive to maximize their personal outcomes within the context of the golden rule. Why we continue to doubt that is both the definition of insanity and the cause of fascism.

  5. I like Robert’s Rules of Order, sometimes just a loose version. Most things I have been in that I left had one person or a few people who ran things and no one else had much of a say. I never mind being an Indian, but often there are too many chiefs. Those are just two of the reasons that groups fail.

  6. I have been involved in a committee of a “greenie” group off and on for around 15 years and I think we’re still talking about exactly the same things after all this time I can relate to Peters comments above as I am all for a bit of flexibility yet others say we must stick to the agenda!
    Claire in Melbourne, Australia

  7. I think it depends on the nature of the group. Roberts’ Rules for the Residents’ Association, because paper trail, not so much for the knitting group..
    But even the knitting group generally requires a convenor. Ideally there is someone who loves organising, as opposed to me, I would rather gnaw off my right arm. However I often find myself in that position because I say Yes.. so, hmm, complicated. Family gatherings and small groups of friends and neighbours are about my limit of capacity for getting people together, but that’s my little local tribe, and they are ultimately the most important people in my life.

  8. I lack the solution, but I’m trying–one meal, one game night at a time on the microscale. I wish I knew how to be more joyfully engaged in civic matters of importance, but which are not “fun” though. That’s my rub.

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