Cliques and Affinity Groups: Why They Should be Avoided

"What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.” — Jacques Lacan

I've always struggled getting involved in or staying committed to social cliques, affinity groups, and the likes. 

Especially when my membership is based on superficial demographic, socio-economic, or physical criteria. Or worse, some random person’s interpretation of whether I'm “cool” or not. 

Whether social, cultural, or political — people understandably join groups because they offer a sense of belonging and a means of establishing self identity. 

However it’s easy to become too caught up in them and get distracted from the work that actually needs to be done to develop yourself, define your purpose, and determine your values. 

Most people look positively on social groups and many a theorist has made a case for why we should adopt them. The purpose of this article is to expose their dark side. 

Let me be clear — I am not in opposition to having healthy groups of friends and other significant personal and professional networks. 

As mentioned, the types of groups I'm referring to base invitation and participation on whether someone fits a shallow profile.

There are 4 reasons why I tend to shun these types of groups, and think you should be very careful before deciding to become apart of them.

 

Groupthink 

The reason I usually avoid such associations is that, from my observation, too much of a participant's identity becomes defined by the group. 

Your beliefs, opinions, mannerisms and behaviors become subject to groupthink. It then becomes difficult to distinguish your unique values from those around you and whatever "cause" you've collectively committed to.

An excellent definition of groupthink by Psychology Today is: 

When a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation … it causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus. 

It’s a classic case of humans being driven by emotion vs. logic and allowing the overwhelming need for acceptance to supersede good sense. 

Generic Associations  

So, then, within a group where you are in essence brainwashed by its doctrine, you come to classify yourself with generic descriptors such as a "women in business" or "gay man in America" or, at the most juvenile level, a “pretty girl” or “cool kid”. 

And sadly, that's the richest description you're able to garner when posed with the question who are you.

There's no way that gender, skin color, sexual preferences, income level, or any other physical or material attribute can explain the complexities of who we are as individuals. 

Joining affinity groups, without first having a good grasp of self, can be fruitless at the least, reckless at most.

Psuedo-bonds 

Moving beyond petty school or work cliques, my primary concern is with affinity groups, particularly what's missing when members rally around a cause. 

Typically, the purpose of these types of groups is to build bonds and gain support in the midst of a society that shuns and oppresses. That's ok and sometimes much needed.

However, an ever present item on most agendas (at least ones dealing with the controversial topics of race, gender, sexuality, etc.) is the call for solidarity around societal change.

But what kind of transformation are you actually bringing about, individually or collectively, in the absence of self-realization? 

And even if/when the group makes progress on its plan, where does that leave you personally?

People tend to get so hysterical under the influence of a group that they lose sight of what comes after the march, boycott, and riot. They forget what's actually necessary to obtain and sustain a particular outcome after all the hoopla fizzles out.  

Interdependencies  

Jacques Lacan called out a critical flaw that I also see when we huddle together under movements but completely miss what is actually necessary to catapult us to higher ground.

We join the affinity groups, the groups speak out for regime change, they strive to overthrow the person or institution in power that fell short, and if successful they swap in someone new who is supposed to be a beacon of change. 

But when (inevitably) expectations are not met, the cycle repeats itself.

Groups create a tribal mentality where alliances are formed based on common interests. But both historically, and in modern times, we continually witness strong ties rupture because of the fickleness of individuals who lack self-awareness. 

 
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You can interpret Jacques Lacan's sentiments in different ways.

What I draw from it is that in spite of our love for organizing ourselves around commonalities we have a tendency to look outward for solutions

Groups — be they childish cliques or mainstream movements — perpetuate the tendency to put the onus on others to bring about the change we want to see in our lives, instead of holding ourselves responsible for affecting that change. 

Of course, trying to bring about any change in isolation is a vain effort. Humans are social creatures and strong relationships are critical to both individual and collective progress. And most of the challenges we face globally require collaboration to solve.

But as Tolstoy stated “everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. “ Groups have an uncanny knack for distracting us from self-work. Well-developed individuals are necessary pillars of well-developed societies.  

Of course you will have interests that make you naturally gravitate to groups of people who share them. And you will inevitably be faced with situations where you have to join others to stand up for your rights. 

But be thoughtful in what you organize around. 

Before you try to be an “it girl” or even pursue a more higher calling as an activist by hitching yourself to some revolution, how about make a real difference by starting with self-mastery?


Recommended Reading 

The Psychology of Cliques 

Can We Overcome Our Tribalistic Nature?

Self-Work: The Path of Conscious Evolution 

About Jacques Lacan


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