So have you heard? There’s a group of people on the Internet who all adhere to the same crazy ideology, and not only do they all conspire together to shout down their opponents, no matter what you say they throw the same, tired phrases in your face over and over again. It’s crazy, they keep telling everyone else that they know what your REAL intentions and thoughts are, and what you REALLY mean when you say what’s on your mind, and they won’t be convinced otherwise. More importantly, there are a LOT of them, or they have no job and create a billion sock accounts, but either way they all sound alike and do everything they can to crush any dissent that results from the rigid imposition of their views. Anyone who pushes back too hard is accused of being either a member of a crazy group that no-one in their right mind would belong to, a group that’s completely misunderstood (but hated by them nonetheless), or a group that doesn’t even exist. No matter else you may do, if you disagree with them, you’re screwed.
If you’re on the Internet regularly, you’ve almost certainly encountered such a group, and at least once someone has probably decided that you are part of such a group. Do such groups actually exist? Yes, though they require an insane amount of effort to maintain once formed, and implode with spectacular fiery drama shortly after being established. Those groups are so rare, so small, and so paranoid, that I’m not terribly interested in them except for a combination of bewilderment, pity, and mockery (an example would be the TFL movement. Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of them.). What I am interested in is how almost any group can look like a devoted Youth Brigade from the right angle, and how it happens.
Another part is that well, people talk. From the private email list that PZ mentioned for FreethoughtBlogs, the Skype calls emails and conversations for groups like the Alliance of Demons, all the way down to long-term multi-user Skype chats, people voluntarily communicate regularly with one another (a strange concept, I know). When they talk, they tend to come up with ideas together now and again, and sometimes even act on them.
A big and often forgotten part is that the communication is more important when it’s thought to be private. It doesn’t matter if it *is* private (nobles gossiped in front of servants and rich people still do), only that the communication is somehow a privilege of being within the group. Those participants that participate in these communications more attentively (even if only listening with sympathetic interest), will feel more a part of the group.
Lastly, when people are in regular contact with each other, they start to act like a group (and most especially when the individuals feel threatened as a group, which almost never happens uniformly). It doesn’t matter whether this is in comment threads, emails, Skype calls, whatever – as long as the individuals are used to each other being around, they’re not going to react well to something threatening that, if only because the group is familiar.
The point is, it’s really hard to enforce regimentation on someone who doesn’t want it, and it’s really hard to make a group of people want it who are on the Internet. But, let them communicate, and most importantly let them feel besieged, and they will act an awful lot like a simple-minded group when viewed from the outside.
Incidentally, the stronger the bond, the more spectacular the explosion when the group falls apart, but that’s an issue for another time. The one thing I want you to get out of this is why these groups are stable. The main reason centers on communication as interaction, rather than communication as pontificating at each other. If you can talk with someone, convince and be convinced by them, and feel like you’re dealing with someone who is there to talk with you, you’re more likely to be able to have more conversations with them. If the conversation regularly turns into a contest of head-bang-the-brick-wall, then the appeal of spending time with them is going to be minimal.
What if these charges come from someone (or several someones) seen to be part of a group that is hostile to the common interests of *your* group (i.e. your friends, your co-bloggers/co-vloggers/activists/drinking buddies)? I don’t know about you, but I see this as time to stay the fuck back and make sure I’ve got plenty of popcorn stored up. The longer it goes on, the more things that are not true that are said, then the less that the things that *are* legitimate will probably be ignored, ulterior motives will be ascribed to anything anyone possibly associated with that group does, and enemies will be seen everywhere. What’s interesting is how this appears on all sides of these conflicts, with all “sides” being fairly disorganized, yet feeling they are facing a well-organized enemy.
The important thing to remember is that most of these impressions are created in the minds of the viewers. Much in the way of the so-called NWO, I wish human beings were organized enough to pull something like that off because we might get something done about climate change. Usually when we do get that organized, we wind up sacrificing organization in many other parts of our lives (which is why cult members tend to be very with-it in following the demands of their sect, but an absolute wreck in every other interpersonal aspect of their lives unless they have a fuck-ton of money to smooth the way).
That way lies madness, fail, and years of mockery, so don’t do that. By the same token, when someone says “it seems to me that” or “it feels like” [insert something that they can't possibly know for certain], give them credit the first few times for trying to present their view on things, rather than assuming that they’re being passive-aggressive douchebags. Why? Because you can’t read minds, that’s why.
Oh, and most importantly: not only can you not read someone’s mind, you can’t read a group of people’s minds and determine who is and is not a member of which team. Nor can anyone else do the same to you, so don’t let them get away with trying.
So what’s the point of this, apart from my personal view that “groups are Scary and Bad?”
- If you’re going to be part of a group (however loose-knit), realize that some people are going to see y’all as the next Heaven’s Gate. Maintain contact with people outside the circle, and try and understand how and why it happens.
- Communicate within the group. It’s one of the things that makes a group happen, and it will help you see those who do perceive the world in terms of a seige against the Righteous, and hopefully you can talk them down.
- If someone is taking the intra-group craziness to a level you’re not comfortable with, get out of there. Life is too short for that bullshit.
- Realize that the intentions of most people are good, and the number of truly hateful people out there really is a matter of how loud hateful people get.
- Remember that sometimes it’s time to pay the check and go home. If you really like groups, remember that there are more of them out there, and that sometimes you can’t fix the one you’re in.
Other than that, I wish y’all a good and drama-free evening.
* If you think I’m talking about your group, I might be. If you don’t think I’m talking about your group, I might be. I’m talking about human beings and group dynamics at a very basic level, so this is going to touch on a lot of people’s experiences. The trickiest part of it is that it doesn’t apply to any one person, it applies to interactions between people, which most people don’t even think about analyzing. Deal.
** Yes, yes, I know group identities are fictional in the sense that each person within the group has a different understanding of what the group is. These concepts can be brute-forced, however (especially with emotions like fear and suspicion), else it would not be so easy to propagandize large groups of people into wanting to kill other large groups of people.