Humans are social creatures. The baby’s first shocked scream is a cry arising from a traumatic separation. The baby seeks a rejoining which is not possible. We recover by forming close connections, first to our mothers and other family members, a little while later to childhood friends. Eventually, we become old enough to join groups, seeking a commonality that unites us, so that we forget how isolated and lonely we may be.
While organized groups reduce our existential loneliness, they can also separate us. We join groups for various functional and social purposes. We become true members when we identify with the chosen group and become accepted by others. We are in! However, we give up a piece of our individuality to form these relationships. But, this does not answer the question of how groups separate us. We choose to join a group because we believe being in the group is better than being alone. We choose a particular group, oftentimes, because we think it is better than other similar groups. Looking down on other groups is often part of the glue holding group members together: Our high school is better than the neighboring town’s high school. The professional sports team represented on our car’s license plate is better than the team down the road. Our church is better than the other denomination’s. Our country is the best.
When we belong to multiple groups, the “superiority effect” is fairly harmless. It could simply be called “pride.” When we identify with multiple groups, our attachment to any particular group is not so strong. Most of the time, we realize that our group’s choices are relatively arbitrary, and so we tolerate other groups. However, if we only belong to only one group, zealotry may arise. The bonds that connect group members to each other become barriers that keep others away. Conformity in these groups becomes a powerful, all-encompassing norm. The group sees itself resisting the influence of the other “inferior” groups and calls upon individual members to cut ties with outsiders. The group then becomes the only real connection the members have to their fellow human beings. Individuals who join these groups desperately need close connections. As these groups evolve, they often conclude not only that other groups are inferior, but in addition, those groups–and all outsiders who do not affirm the values of the selected group–should be eliminated. The insecurity these groups feel is transformed into violence toward outsiders.
Our world suffers from groups that disconnect its members from other people and other groups. They use the human need for social connection to strip its members of humanity. They recruit those who are neediest; they welcome members who are searching for any kind of meaning to fill the void in their lives. These groups are sophisticated in a street-smart way; they isolate their new members and restructure the way they think about society. The group deems itself to be special or superior. This self-evaluation is often justified by a claim of divine inspiration. Without connections to outside individuals or groups, the feelings of superiority morph into hatred and may result in violence. The insecurity individuals feel turns outwards and the desire to eliminate rival groups becomes one of the most important values that unites group members.
The paradox of group membership is that joining both unites and divides us. To some degree, this tension exists in all groups including the family, the school, the workplace, and the church. The tension develops into a threat when groups restrict members access to outsiders. Yes, this is the story of how extremists are born. Average people connect to an isolationist group and soon unleash a shocking scream of outrage against everyone else. Unfortunately, the extremists’ screams reverberate round the world.