Of Ingroups and Outgroups and the Hatreds they Spawn

Did it ever strike you as odd that the end result of Communism, a philosophy that was supposed to usher in a paradise of human brotherhood, was the death of 100 million people, give or take, and the self-decapitation of countries like Cambodia and the former Soviet Union?  Does it seem counter-intuitive that the adherents of a religion that teaches “blessed are the peacemakers” should have launched wars that killed tens of millions?  Is it bewildering than another one, promoted as the “religion of peace,” should have launched its zealots out of Arabia, killing millions more, and becoming the most successful vehicle of colonialism and imperialism ever heard of?  Do you find the theory that human warfare resulted from purely environmental influences that were the unfortunate outcome of the transition to Neolithic economies somewhat implausible?  In fact, all of these “anomalies” are predictable manifestations of what is perhaps both the most important and the most dangerous aspect of innate human behavior; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.

Our tendency to associate the good with our ingroup, and all that is evil, disgusting and contemptible with outgroups, is a most inconvenient truth for moral philosophy.  You might call it the universal solvent of all moral systems concocted to date.  It is a barrier standing in the way of all attempts to manipulate human moral emotions, to force them to serve a “higher purpose,” or to cajole them into promoting the goal of “human flourishing.”  Because it is such an inconvenient truth it was vehemently denied as one aspect of the Blank Slate catastrophe.  Attempts were made to scare it away by calling it bad names.  Different specific manifestations became racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and so on.  The result was something like squeezing jello.  The harder we squeezed, the faster the behavior slipped through our fingers in new forms.  New outgroups emerged to take the place of the old ones, but the hatred remained, often more virulent than before.

It is impossible to understand human behavior without first determining who are the ingroups, and who are their associated outgroups.  Consider, for example, recent political events in the United States.  Wherever one looks, whether in news media, social media, on college campuses, or in the “jokes” of comedians, one finds manifestations of a furious hatred directed at Trump and his supporters.  There is jubilation when they are murdered in effigy on stage, or shot in reality on baseball fields.  The ideologically defined ingroup responsible for all this hatred justifies its behavior with a smokescreen of epithets, associating all sorts of “bad” qualities with its outgroup, following a pattern that should be familiar to anyone who has studied a little history.  In fact, their hate is neither rational, nor does it result from any of these “bad” things.  They hate for the same reason that humans have always hated; because they have identified Trump and his supporters as an outgroup.

Going back several decades, one can see the same phenomenon unfolding under the rubric of the Watergate Affair.  In that case, of course, Nixon and his supporters were the outgroup, and the ingroup can be more specifically identified with the “mainstream media” of the day.  According to the commonly peddled narrative, Nixon was a very bad man who committed very terrible crimes.  I doubt it, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other.  Nixon was deposed in what we are informed was a “triumph of justice” by some heroic reporters.  In fact, it was a successful coup d’état carried out behind a façade of legality.  The idea that what Nixon did or didn’t do had anything to do with it can be immediately exposed as a fiction by anyone who is aware of the type of human behavior described in this post, and who bothers to read through the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times during the 18 months or so the affair lasted.  There he will not find a conscientious attempt to keep readers informed about affairs in the world that might be important to them.  Rather, he will see an unrelenting obsession with Watergate, inexplicable as other than the manifestation of a deep hatred.  The result was a dangerous destabilization of the U.S. government, leading to further attempts to depose legitimately elected Presidents, as we saw in the case of Clinton, and as we now see underway in the case of Trump.  In Nixon’s day the mainstream media controlled the narrative.  They were able to fob off their coup d’état as the triumph of virtue and justice.  That won’t happen this time around.  Now there are powerful voices on the other side, and the outcome of such a “nice and legal” coup d’état carried out against Trump will be the undermining of the trust of the American people in the legitimacy of their political system at best.  At worst, some are suggesting we will find ourselves in the middle of a civil war.

Those still inclined to believe that the behavior in question really can be explained by the rationalizations used to justify it need only look a bit further back in history.  There they will find descriptions of exactly the same behavior, but rationalized in ways that appear incomprehensible and absurd to modern readers.  For example, read through the accounts of the various heresies that afflicted Christianity over the years.  Few Christians today could correctly identify the “orthodox” number of persons, natures, and wills of the Godhead, or the “orthodox” doctrines regarding the form of Communion or the efficacy of faith, and yet such issues have spawned ingroup/outgroup identification accompanied by the usual hatreds, resulting in numerous orgies of mass murder and warfare.

I certainly don’t mean to claim that issues and how they are decided never matter in themselves.  However, when it comes to human behavior, their role often becomes a mere pretext, a façade used to rationalize hatred that is actually a manifestation of innate emotional predispositions.  Read the comments following articles about politics and you will get the impression that half the population wakes up in the morning determined to deliberately commit as many bad deeds as they possibly can, and the other half is heroically struggling to stop them and secure the victory of the Good.  Does that really make sense?  Is it really so difficult to see that such a version of reality represents a delusion, explicable only if one accepts human nature for what it is?  Would you understand what’s going on in the world?  Then for starters you need to identify the ingroups and outgroups.  Lacking that fundamental insight, you will be stumbling in the dark.  In the dark it’s very difficult to see that you, too, are a hater, simply by virtue of the fact that you belong to the species Homo sapiens, and to understand why you hate.  Hatred is a destructive force.  It would behoove us to learn to control it no matter what our goals happen to be, but we will have a very difficult time controlling it unless we finally understand why it exists.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “Of Ingroups and Outgroups and the Hatreds they Spawn”

  1. The conduct of the ‘free’ media, the conduct of the left, and the power of the group dynamic has me thinking of the connections and drivers in the behaviour of individuals within groups.
    I’ve just reread ‘ On Aggression’ by the great Lorenz, there is so much there but I was powerfully struck by his brief mention of a study undertaken by Robert Yertes. Yertes while studying primates discovered and documented that the ability of the group to take up new ideas was directly related to the ‘rank’ of the individual that the ‘new’ method, idea, etc was introduced to. This seems intuitively correct, and can be passed over without much more thought, however in view of the afore mentioned facts can I go out on one of my scraggy limbs and with only logic as my confinement suggest some possible extrapolations.
    My first point is that as I have no ‘status’ or ‘rank’, its interesting and presumptuous to even suggest any idea. If I was a ‘Professor in Human Nature’ at Harvard, with the appropriate amount of letters after my name my ideas would carry more weight. Content is not king in public debate!
    The second extrapolation of Yertes’ discovery is that ‘understanding’, especially of ‘abstract’ ideas would reflect the law that the higher the rank of the speaker the more weight the ‘idea’ would carry in the group. Consider that nearly all of the worlds religions were introduced by people who were the ‘Alpha’ of their group. They need not be neccesarily be of high rank in the society if the ingroup is not the dominant.
    As a refugee from the left I’ve mentioned how powerfully I’m struck by the blistering lack of foundations to much of the lefts dogma. What, for instance is the basis of the much vaunted ‘humanist’ philosophy. The ‘scientific’ basis of humanism is non existent, its no more than a whole series of nice ideas exposed by people who have ‘rank’ in the world of the (self) righteous left. If we move to their ditching of one of my ‘persons of interest’ Assange, we see a rather fascinating series of events, especially if seen with the Yertes idea in mind. Assange was a poster boy of the left. However, when he published the emails of dodgy Hillary the left turned on him. If we reverse Yertes idea we could extrapolate that the ‘idea’ would identify the person of ‘rank’. Who was the person of rank that has driven Assange into the bad guy territory in the left. Well we don’t know, but the drive of the anti-Russian lines may give us some hints. Personally I don’t know, but I do know that the whole sorry affair has shown that the vast majority of the left are little more than pathetic bed wetters who haven’t had an original thought in their lives and whose behaviour is far closer to a desperate group behaviour than any objective rational individual consideration of the world in front of them.
    Re Assange, I know you think that state has the right to secrets but do you consider that he is a publisher, he in a very clear way does not leak, he doesn’t hack, he publishes?
    One funny observation. We had the spectacle on Australian morning television of a representative of your ‘free’ press having the most bizzare ‘anti-trump’ love fest with some of our so called journalists. The degree to which they accept the ‘anti trump, anti russian’ they stole the election meme is quite bizzare. Group behaviour gives such insights into these events and was summed up by the comment of said US journalist who to laughs from our Aussie apologists said of one of Trumps staffer, (Sean Spicer) ” well yes Sean has been hung out to dry and good luck to him if he thinks he is going to get any other job soon.”

  2. I’ll look up that bit in “On Aggression.” I think human beings usually do tend to accept the ideas of their ingroup with little question. It’s obvious if you read the comments at one of the blogs of the Left or the Right. If you read what someone has to say about one issue, you can usually predict what they will have to say about every other politically relevant issue. Individuals may have original or divergent thoughts, but if so they keep them to themselves. To do otherwise would risk ostracism from the ingroup.

    As for the Assange question, I would favor punishing him whether he’s a publisher or a source. It’s not a question of rights or moral truths. It’s just my personal preference on how a state should be run, or at least a state with a system of government supported by the majority of its citizens. If Assange was “justified” in divulging classified information, than the Rosenbergs must also have been “justified” in revealing nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviets as well. If some newspaper had received those secrets from the Rosenbergs and then published them on its front page, I would consider the editors more, rather than less culpable than the original spies themselves.

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