To frame the argument I am making in a slightly different way, I should make clear that I share with most other people the belief that, for the human individual, finding a sense of social identity -- an accepted role in society -- is what civilized human life is fundamentally all about. From that common belief, however, I propose two qualifying ideas: First, the "social identity" I have in mind is genuine only to the extent that it is based not on "us against them" values developed in group associations, but on meaningful group attachments in which the individual's own creative powers help amplify the creative capacity of the group as a whole. And second, this genuine social identity serves an important social good. Because it is based on inborn creative powers that have objective value, it contributes necessarily to the satisfaction of real, not manufactured, human needs.
One additional point should be emphasized. Although meaningful group attachments necessarily require a blending of the individual's own inborn talents and powers of insight with those of others in the group, the adjustments must remain subordinate to the driving force of the individual's own creative capacities. This is because -- to repeat a point -- only the inborn creative capacities of each individual can yield genuine aspects of reality that, by their nature, tend to combine with the associated visions of others to produce a creative synthesis. The phenomenon calls to mind the instrumentalists in a jazz quintet. Each seeks simultaneously to give expression to his own creative powers and, by intuition, to also adapt them to the creativity of others -- that of other members of the quintet, as expressed individually and together, and of the listening audience. The same dynamics are needed in any group to allow it to continue to develop and to play a meaningful role in society by interacting constructively with other groups.
The Special Dangers of Value-Based Groups
It was Alexis de Toqueville who first famously observed that a hallmark of Americans is their tendency to organize into groups, and to this day most groups in America remain either objectively beneficial or benign.
Many American groups, such as the ubiquitous ethnic clubs, sororities and fraternities, alumni associations, and even secret societies, are designed to carry on a tradition; others, such as fan clubs, dance clubs, or book clubs, serve a common interest; still others, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Rifle Association, pursue special interests that, although unacceptable to many outside the groups, embody goals that, for the most part, can be rationally defended.
There are also groups, such as PETA, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Mothers against Drunk Driving, that champion particular causes; and some too, such as the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity, that help meet human needs.
Other groups, such as the many volunteer commissions and boards across the country, are organized to carry out particular duties; others still, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, PTAs, literacy groups, senior centers, and the Rotary Clubs, to serve particular social interests.
To these organized groups can be added the many informal collectivities of individuals who are committed to a common cause. I have in mind, for example, the millions of small-money donors to the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign; or individuals in countless communities who volunteer as Big Brothers or literacy tutors; or sports fans in a given locality who are devoted to the same baseball team. Attachment to such groups can offer the satisfactions of comradeship, shared enjoyment, or participation with others in a common cause, but it will rarely serve to shape, or reshape, fundamental life values.
The situation is quite different, however, with groups that are motivated by particular social, political, economic, cultural, or religious values. Such groups, which I've labeled "value-based," often begin as informal collectivities of individuals who hold views in common with others that can be integrated into a corporate sense of social identity. They include, for example, the overwhelming majorities of Americans who consider themselves "patriotic," who "support the troops," and "believe in God." They include, too, the hypnotized in-crowd at a heavy-metal concert, the collective mindset in the corporate boardroom or an AIPAC convention, the compliant faithful in the Mormon Church, the students at the Madrassa, and the Scientology movement.
Other collectivities hold views in common that have turned increasingly vitriolic as they come under challenge in a changing society. Such groups include the millions of Americans who oppose women's abortion rights and gay marriage, the many more who support capital punishment, and the multitudes that, as Sarah Palin put it in mocking an impolitic Obama campaign comment, get their bearings from "the Constitution, guns and religion."
By associating themselves with such collectivities, individuals can claim ready-made vindication of values and aims that many of them would be hard-pressed to defend using their own reason. In this way, they enter on an easy path to a sense of social identity, or of "meaning" in their lives.
At the same time, however, such individuals will have added to the potential for social disharmony. This is because values and aims that are validated by group unanimity, and are not the product of personal insight, can only be maintained by faith. Since faith is by definition not subject to argument, groups holding one set of views will find little basis on which to reconcile them with contrary views held by other groups. When the contrary views go so far as to threaten the group's underlying belief system, it is likely to develop collective resentments and fears that play themselves out in impulsive attacks on the other side's motives, good faith, or credibility. Thus, individuals who identify themselves with value-based groups that are under challenge tend to be strident -- even militant -- in defending their views in various public forums, such as Internet blogs and talk radio. That militancy gains them exposure in the media and prominence in the public eye. It also often triggers well-publicized political polling that vaunts the group's strength of numbers and potential impact on public opinion.
Because they are aggressive, informal collectivities of people who share views that are under challenge can make a splash in the marketplace of ideas. More importantly, when these same people join together in organized protest groups, they can begin to play a direct role in the American political process. That was demonstrated in the notorious town-hall meetings of the summer of 2009, where chastened congressmen parried with hostile constituents decrying the government's expanded role in health care. Driven by fears and resentments that carry a great emotional weight, the protesters proved loud enough to make the legislators factor them into their voting calculus.
Of course, such visceral protests, no matter how vehement, are not likely to provide the foundation for better public policy. As I think is well illustrated by today's vociferous Tea Party, passions that are rooted in resentments and fear, not in idealistic reason, tend to open the way to an ideological extremism that undermines constructive debate.
All value-based groups, with or without the conscious direction of a leadership, tend to start out with a point of view that is little more than emotionally inspired opinion, untested or uncorroborated in reality. Given the vagueness of the change they want, such groups naturally seek to strengthen their position by stereotyping and projecting pernicious motives onto groups with contrary views. Their message is, in effect, that they have the right values and aims, while the "others" have the wrong ones. In time, the protesters bond emotionally around these contrasts and, caught up in the irrational fever of "us against them," make it their mission to magnify and trumpet them ever more loudly. The result is to suppress critical input from individual members of the group that would be needed to broaden its narrow focus. That, in turn, prevents the group from creating a workable strategy for constructive change -- which in the real world must typically serve to reconcile opposing interests, values, and aims.