January 14, 2011

Dueling Reference Groups

Both the conservatives and the progressives seem to me to be full of the same kind of intolerance, arrogance, empty-headedness, and to be dominated by different kinds of conformism; in either case the dread of being left out of their reference group.

I've quoted this bit from Thomas Merton's journals a time or two before. Ever since I first read it, it has stuck with me as one of the most perceptive, succinct, self-evidently true pieces of political wisdom I've ever encountered.

Every time there is a big, off-kilter, culture-war partisan blow-up of the kind we've had in the aftermath of the Tuscon massacre, my first thought is: wow, everyone's gone completely mad. Finally. Or, again. Then up pops Merton's simple apothegm, and I realize that it all makes much more sense if you strip away the layers of rationalization, the crude with the sophisticated, and recognize "the discourse" as a fairly simple matter of group dynamics.

The dread of being left out of the reference group; the the thrill of being in a mob; the substitution of in-group signaling for genuine analysis and discussion and the inability to tell the difference between the two. Such is our politics. I suppose it's always been the case, but the internet makes it far more visible, reveals its rather distressing breadth and depth. I'm not, at all, saying I'm immune to it; no one is. It's one reason why the Christian message "love one another" (cf. the President's funeral oration) really is as radical as they always say it is, so rarely heeded, and so impossible to put into practice. So it goes, I guess.

Posted by Dr. Frank at January 14, 2011 08:14 PM | TrackBack

This is all so true. But do you think "trying to not be in a group" can carry its own references, too? Or I suppose doing it right wouldn't be trying to NOT be in a group but trying to form thoughts apart from what the group thinks. But then how to be loyal to others who are generally like-minded? Really difficult to think about.

I sometimes admire people who can throw themselves into these groups so completely. They must really like the people in their groups, I think to myself.

Posted by: Nate Pensky at January 14, 2011 09:21 PM

My ideas owe loyalty to no one, nor should they. I may be misguided about many things, but never on purpose.

Posted by: Bill at January 15, 2011 03:47 AM
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