(or) So what’s the big deal about group identity? – by Stefan Freedman
Start with me. I have a passionate appreciation for individuality, freedom of choice and liberal values. I see how a person’s ideas, tastes and choices evolve over time and for me this is growthful and enlivening. I prefer quirky, crazy, creative company than polite conventional conversations. If a person gets fixed in their ways or narrows their choices to one rigid ‘story’ repeated over and over I feel disappointed for them. With these leanings I used to struggle to ‘get’ those who strongly adhere to one specific group identity: their religion, culture, football team or lifestyle ‘tribe’. This is especially poignant as war and conflict often arise between groups who share a fervent loyalty to an idea. Too often this fuels a desire… to persecute or eradicate those who see things differently.
However I am learning to see group identity through a different lens. Picture this: You are a young child and your grandmother explains, “I am entrusting to you something very precious which belongs to our family. I am old and I need you to cherish it very carefully. Others may try to steal it from you or to destroy it so you may need to hide it, but never forget that this is vital, precious and is now in your care”. How would you feel? I think this is how you might feel if you were a member of a group who had experienced persecution, as so many groups have, and do, for the beliefs they cherish. Each member of that group is united by a sense of responsibility for being the embodiment of a living culture and system of values.
This applies when expressed openly among group members and even more so if it has to be disguised or hidden. Long ago, after visiting the Arab market in Jerusalem (one of my favourite places) I grappled with this notion, and tried to view liberal values through traditional eyes. The following poem was born:
* * *
You'll be lucky to get even one grandchild. And you'll count yourself fortunate if they don't end up behind bars. Frankly you're a lost soul. All this I read in the papers. Your faith - if you have one - is a part time affair. Once a week? Once every Christmas? Instead you are devoted to your car, your football team, clothes, TV and furniture. Then there's the club, the pub, the manicurist and the hairdresser. You belong to everything and so betray everyone.
You have Facebook “friends” you have never met! You “touch base” with everybody. But you have no roots, while I am surrounded by my family and my people. As snug as bricks in a wall. We share a common faith which gives our lives together a shape, a rhythm. One people, one purpose, one mind. Your life is quicksand while mine has foundation, supported, unchanging.
Envy your life?
You soft fool. I stretch my cheeks wide and hope it looks like a smile
* * *
When someone has an ‘Us and Them’ view of the world it is potentially dangerous for anyone perceived as ‘Them’. At the same time my compassion is activated, as the deeper underlying intention is not aggressive but defensive. They need to know that the right to maintain and express their very singular culture is upheld and protected. In trauma ‘parts work’ therapy we witness protector parts of a personality transform from obnoxious, spiky saboteurs to cooperative team-players when they no longer have to fight to be heard and understood.
This applies equally on a societal level. Through genuine engagement, with a willingness to embrace the exiled voice, we foster peace and healing among opposed communities and nations. Once this work is begun, dancing and singing together brings hearts closer. We have avenues for restoring connection and trust among former enemies.