The Collective Identity
Despite the newly found separateness provided by consciousness, our early ancestors found it necessary to join together for survival – against threats from the environment, from predators, and from each other. Thus, the collective identity was born. We formed groups that are naturally linked together through shared creation, called families. Then we formed larger and larger associations: tribes, communities, ethnic groups, and nations. Today, these collective identities thrive.
Collective identities are alluring because they insulate us from those “others” that we perceive to be different – and threatening – and thereby provide us with a level of comfort. While being part of a group gives us feelings of security, because we are convinced that the group will protect its own, it also provides us with self-importance and self-worth.
To protect itself, however, the collective identity has evolved and developed a collective ego that functions as a defense mechanism similar to the way the individual ego protects the self. The collective ego encourages loyalty from its membership through the two greatest products of the illusion of separateness: fear and superiority. All collective identities maintain membership through fear and perpetuate themselves through the illusion of superiority. In this way, collective identities promote division and disharmony.
Collective forces attempt to direct our lives from the very beginning of our existence. Adherence to blind rules begins early in life as we are inculcated into the religious faiths, political beliefs, and societal norms of our parents. Blind loyalty to these views continues later, through automaticity, as many of us never question the rationale behind our “beliefs,” and is reinforced as we seek associations with other collective identities that are congruent with our inherited views. The beliefs of our parents become our beliefs. The ideas of our peers become our ideas. The platforms of political or activist groups become our platforms. The goals of society become our goals. Without the application of any critical thinking to our belief system, many of us continue well into adulthood, if not our entire lives, without questioning these beliefs and ideas to determine whether they are truly what we believe or whether they have been handed down to us by our genes, or our parents or our society.
In modern times, the family, a peer group, and the community still serve an important and necessary role in nurturing us and providing for our security. Such affiliations will always exist. They influence our values and goals, fill important emotional needs and, to some extent, enhance our cognitive skills. Modern brain science theorizes that the need to belong is part of what makes us human and a feeling of belonging is essential to our survival. Social needs act to counterbalance a sense of alienation from the rest of the world, and a feeling of anonymity that would otherwise frustrate our lives.
But as our connections to collective identities strengthen, we lose control of our personal identity. We adopt the beliefs, the standards, the norms, the likes and dislikes, the prejudices and biases of the group. We stop thinking for ourselves. We may even stop thinking altogether and mistake chaotic mind activity for actual thought. Our beliefs come from the collective beliefs; our standards and norms are dictated by the collective. As members of the group we judge ourselves according to the collective criteria.
The danger of collective identities however, is the subordination of the individual for the good of the group. Since collective identities have, by their very nature, separated themselves as subgroups of humanity, placed themselves in conflict with other collective identities and can only survive if there are perceived “external” threats, they cannot facilitate a contribution by the individual toward the good of the whole. Individual contributions can only be used for the benefit of the subgroup. Collective identities are powerful forces for opposing other segments of society.
The collective identity has become such an ingrained part of our culture that, when meeting someone for the first time, we immediately try to classify that person according to our schema of collective identities. We assume that he or she must be a democrat or a republican, a liberal or a conservative, a Christian or an atheist. We are suspicious of people who proclaim to be independent voters or have no official religious affiliation and are skeptical of their motives. All of this is a sort of interpersonal shorthand. By considering the person’s collective affiliations, we can decide if we like them without investing the time to actually get to know them.
Collective identities separate us and mask our natural connectedness. We allow organized systems to control our society, the media to control our minds, and technology to control our lives in general. As technology advances, our self-reliance declines. As we allow technology to invade deeper into our lives, we also permit those in control of that technology to more closely control us. Our need to belong increases, both psychologically and physiologically.
The greatest threat to humanity today is not nuclear war, or global warming, or a rogue asteroid with an inconvenient orbit. The biggest danger is the collective identity or, rather, the collective ego – a symptom of our inability, or unwillingness, to think or to be responsible for ourselves.