Saturday, December 17, 2016

Clique Here

A question was asked in a non-political chat: what causes people to be in cliques?

The response, in a group of people who self-identify as introverts and outsiders, was quite enthusiastic:

People are afraid of being alone. People are insecure. People are unoriginal and have to have others think for them. Herd mentality. People are followers, not leaders. Some people gravitate toward familiarity and can't stand those who aren't like them. Lots and lots of negative things to say about cliques. Even the word sheeple found use, without irony.

Bitch, please. A clique is just an in-group, and in-groups have serious value. An in-group is made up of people who know each other well enough to understand each other's point of view, so especially for introverts and self-diagnosed outsiders, you need these associations. It's your social support system, like an ad hoc family.

So I said this, the reaction was mixed, and things developed. Quickly enough, it becomes obvious that there are two different understandings of what a clique is. The first is this straightforward in-group idea. The second couldn't be immediately defined, but it came from memories of being in high school and the cool kids not inviting everyone to their parties.

Ultimately, the definition clarified and as it turned out, the perceived difference between a group and a clique can be summed up as exclusion. Cliques are bad because they exclude people, but normal groups are good and welcome everyone.

You can see some things going on here easily enough. There's a big dose of that feeling-first moral subjectivity in play. There's good old Nietzschean slave-morality resentment, aimed at popular kids who probably didn't even know what the hell was going on. And there's certainly no shortage of post-hoc rationalization.

But it's more than that. The groups versus cliques separation looks similar to other cultural dichotomies - democratic versus authoritarian, or cosmopolitan versus parochial - but that's not right, because this dichotomy doesn't actually exist. They just made it up.

It's simple: cliques and groups are the same thing, and they are all exclusionary.

And they always will be.

Want to know why I think the attention economy matters so much? This is why. Look at this issue through that lens, recognize that human attention is finite, and how people allocate their attention is zero-sum. You can't pay attention to everyone at once. Form a relationship with one person, and it comes at the cost of other potential relationships you could have had. Attention has opportunity costs.

Get this into your head, and exclusion isn't a flaw or an inconvenience anymore. It's as inevitable as gravity. And while you can deal with gravity, factor in gravity, even work around gravity, you can't repeal the law of gravity.

So to deal with attention scarcity, everyone excludes by choosing, and we almost always choose to pay attention to those who have value to us, and who will pay attention back. You develop trust through experience with them. Sounds rational as hell to me. And you know this intuitively, because you know there's a difference between having friends you actually keep up with and having fans. People with 10,000 Facebook friends don't have 10,000 active relationships. What they have is an audience.

So cliques or whatever the hell you want to call them, are not dangerous or bad. Quite the opposite, a clique is a base unit of social organization. A business is an enhanced formal clique. A church is an enhanced formal clique. And a country is a goddamn tuxedo-wearing badass of a super-clique.

Should businesses have to pay anyone who asks them for money regardless of whether they've invested themselves in the group by working? Should it have to give a job to anyone who wants one? The Soviets built a system that, for all practical purposes, did this; things did not go as planned.

Should a church not care about what people believe in their communities, let alone their congregation? Can you really say they are believers if they don't give a shit about convincing others? Some modern churches actually try to act like this; I'm not sure they should really be called churches anymore.

Formal groups, in particular, owe their own people an attention exchange that they do not owe outsiders. They control who they bring in and have behavioral standards. Without this basic principle, groups don't work.

And for informal groups? Let's go back to high school for a second and think about the kids who felt excluded. You know the supposed elite children are just choosing to spend their time with people who they relate to, like everyone else. How can you avoid this exactly? Do you want to pass a rule that says all the kids have to spend X amount of time with kids from other selected social groups and limit the time they spend around those who are like themselves?

No people who even pretend to individual freedom would allow it. Hopefully.


Politically, it's fairly obvious to me that society doesn't work without exclusionary, hierarchical groups. If you think those groups are doing shitty things, then you formalize and regulate them. But it's no mystery as to why lots of people don't consider acceptance and legitimacy as a solution. Modern liberals never did like groups, and Enlightenment intellectuals always saw group psychology as getting in the way of rational individual thought. This is a moral issue to them, and in order to legitimize their perspective, they throw out ideas like social identity theory and imply that prejudice and conflict is the result of cliquish exclusion.

Technically, they're right. But if a doctor diagnoses you with blood-borne parasites, then says all that blood in your body is the problem and recommends draining it to get rid of those parasites, then that doctor is also technically right. It will get rid of them. He's just also, you know, a fucking idiot.

There is no magical state of unbounded individuality that, if we could just get there, would lead to everyone thinking with perfect Spockish logic and coming to the same harmonious conclusions.

There is no gleaming social paradise where in-group pressure ceases to exist, where everyone gets what they want from everyone else, where attention scarcity is as meaningless as a scarcity of money in a state of perfect communism.

There is no perfect reconciliation of individual freedom and social order to be found here, making this a fight of good versus evil.

There's only one side versus another, one group versus another. This has to be managed internally, but it can't be stopped.

So maybe, just maybe, the problem isn't with exclusionary groups, which are so obviously necessary. The problem is in the moral perspective which sees prejudice and conflict as totally unnecessary evils. Rational moral systems organize the unavoidable into something productive. They don't make a wish and hope it disappears.

Utopians should stick to fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment