The Beautiful Trap of Belonging

Looking into the shadow of community

Group formation fascinates me. I invite you to get fascinated with me for a minute:

In your imagination, picture a person as an H₂0 gas molecule, floating around in space. The molecule is an unattached individual. Maybe it’s you. You’re cruising through the atmosphere, bouncing off other individuals: maybe high-fiving as you pass, but not embracing. Then something happens, and all these isolated invisible steam molecules change state, transitioning into a big ordered mass of activity called a water drop.

What happened? What’s the nucleus that these vapours condense around? What’s the surface tension that holds it together, defying gravity? What’s the membrane that lets some people and behaviours in, and excludes the others?

I’ve been contemplating this picture for years, wandering through different physical and social geographies, observing the phase transition of unattached individuals condensing into collectives. Inquiring about the social physics of these collectives, I keep coming back to this thing called “belonging”.

Belonging changed my life. I’ll tell you about that in Part 1 of this story. Most of my peers agree that there is a crisis of belonging in modern capitalist societies, so we’re busy building new structures for belonging. I believe it’s the most important work I can be doing right now. I’ll tell you about that in Part 2.

But whenever I see belonging, I’m aware of the deep shadow around the edges. Beneath the lovely sense of interconnectedness, personal growth, and shared purpose, there’s a dark current: coercion, abuse and exclusion. I’m not just saying that bad things sometimes happen in community, I’m coming to the conclusion that some of these destructive elements are inextricably tied to this “belonging” creature, just as surely as my shadow is attached to my feet.

I’ve been contemplating this dark side of belonging, and it’s really hard for me to get a grip on. I feel so strongly about the goodness of belonging, it’s really challenging to consider the badness too. In Part 3 I’ll start the unpacking process, but I can’t do it on my own. If you’re up for it, I’d love you to come along and add your sense to mine. (If you’re short on time, go ahead and skip to the end.)

Part 1: A Celebration of Belonging

Put simply: belonging changed my life.

If I could chart my life story onto a two-dimensional graph, you’d see it make a significant up-swing once I found my community of belonging.

I found belonging in stages.

First it was my clique in high school, a “pack of strays” with not much in common other than that we were definitely not the cool kids.

Later on I found a bit more belonging: I learned I wasn’t just a random weirdo building electronics audio devices in my bedroom, I was a “maker”. Makers have shared language, we gathered in maker spaces and we read Make Magazine. This loose affiliation with a wider group wasn’t a major contributor to my wellbeing, but it gave me a little more confidence at least.

Next I found my way into a much tighter collective, self-deprecatingly called the Concerned Citizens. We were a bit like makers, but with a political agenda. We built community around ourselves by hosting creative events, engaging with social justice issues through the arts.

Then Occupy happened. Members of Concerned Citizens joined Occupy Wellington. The embodied experience of building and maintaining a village in the city square bonded me to my fellow demonstrators: the sustained physical, affective and cognitive activity stuck us together like blocks of wood glued and clamped. In our local encampment, my individual identity became fused into a collective identity. I became an “Occupier”. Then something extraordinary happened. As millions of other people around the world adopted this Occupier identity, I felt myself bonded just as strongly with strangers on the other side of the planet. To this day, every time I think of the police brutality against Occupiers in Manhattan or Berkley, I have a full body reaction: nausea in my guts, tight chest, prickling eyes, a visceral cocktail of indignation, rage and sorrow.

After Occupy, we met the Enspiral network, and decided to establish the Loomio Cooperative. At each of these stages, from maker, to Concerned Citizen, to Occupier, then Enspiralite and Loomion, my sense of belonging intensified. I credit nearly all the good things in my life to those collectives. My livelihood, my sense of purpose, my ethical compass, the feeling that my creative power is fully activated, that I’m a deeply engaged citizen of a borderless society — all of this I attribute to those collective identities. This great mass of belonging is like a heavy ballasted keel keeping the ship of my identity upright and stable in rough seas.

I can’t describe for you the enormous sense of relief when I found my tribe! Capitalism is really effective at isolating us from each other, so it is such a joy to discover a group that wants me, not as a consumer or a producer, but as a me, a dignified distinctive complex human being!

There’s a tonne of personal growth that I only have access to when I’m in the circle, sharing eye contact with my small, tight tribe. I have reliable access to the catharsis of authentic vulnerability — to be seen and completely accepted, even with my incomplete parts.

So far, so good! So why is this experience not more common?

Part 2: The Crisis of Belonging

I am greatly influenced by the Adam Curtis documentary series Century of the Self. Essentially, he argues that 100 years of PR, political strategy, and psychoanalysis have reshaped our view of ourselves: our identities have shifted away from the collective and towards the individual. This campaign of individualisation has produced profitable consumers and docile citizens, which business and political leaders have taken advantage of. The awful consequence is a crisis of belonging: so many people are cut off from all the lovely benefits I celebrated in Part 1.

Most of my peers share the hypothesis that repairing the crisis of belonging is essential to a thriving 21st century society.

Maybe the clearest articulation of this hypothesis comes from Charles Eisenstein. He talks about the “story of separation”, saying we’ll never live in harmony with the rest of nature if we can’t live in harmony with each other.

I know tonnes of people who are involved in this grand reconstruction project, striving to build belonging where it has been absent for so long.

My friends at Enspiral are hard at work, first to produce a community of belonging for ourselves, then to share the benefits with others. There are radical little inventions like the “livelihood pod”: a tight collective of independent consultants who create micro-solidarity through income sharing. You see much bigger narrative-shaping projects underway too, like my colleagues who are working with the NZ Government to convince them that “poverty” has more to do with relationships than material resources.

Beyond my immediate community, I see many other contributors working to repair the crisis of belonging.

Take for example the growing movement towards self-managing, decentralised, “teal” organisations. While we talk about collaboration, innovation, or engagement, I think belonging is the core driver of this movement. People want to find meaning in their work, and share that purpose with others, creating a nourishing collective identity to belong to.

Another trend: maybe you’ve heard of the growing number of transformational festivals. Burning Man is the most famous, but there are thousands of different versions, some more spiritual, some more hedonistic, some more activistic. I’ve been to a few, and yep, I’ve had major life-altering experiences there. Shared ecstasy, a sense of healing, interconnectedness, profound acceptance. My personal development occurring in the context of 100s or 1000s of other participants provokes the feeling that hey, maybe we really are changing the world here. It’s intoxicating!

For more context about this emerging movement some commentators are calling “neo-tribalism”, check out these articles:

Most recently I joined NewKind Festival in Tasmania. Again, I met a bunch of people going through great personal transformation: they’d finally found a community of belonging and they were flourishing.

Because it’s not my community of belonging, it was a great opportunity to contemplate the dark side of belonging, observing from a more objective perspective than I can usually reach. My intention is not to criticise transformational festivals, or Enspiral, or any specific communities. I’m not challenging the hypothesis that belonging is a key that unlocks many or our social crises. But I want to open up the field of view, to look at the dark side of belonging, develop some shared language with other neo-tribalists, and find some questions or methods that we can use to keep ourselves accountable. I think belonging is a beautiful trap, but I believe we can live inside it without the jaws snapping shut.

Part 3: The Shadow of Belonging

When you go looking, you can find many dark sides of belonging. I’ll just name a couple of them because it is too depressing to consider at length.

Status produces unconscious manipulation

Generally I think “status” is an extremely useful lens for looking at behaviour change within groups. I’ll give a brief outline of how I understand it:

  • Some people in a group have much more status than others (they might be known as founders, leaders, elders, visionaries, or just the popular kids).
  • In some sense these individuals come to represent the “ideal” community member.
  • People with less status mimic the behaviour they see from the people with more status, because of our deep psychological need to fit in.
  • Status comes pre-installed with anti-tamper devices: talking about status is taboo. If you want to reveal this taboo, try having a conversation about your own status in a group and you’ll see what I mean. (Please report back.)

So status is a powerful shaper of behaviour, and for many people it’s not visible in their conscious awareness. That is concerning, but it gets downright terrifying when you consider that neurologically speaking, the more status you have in a group, the less able you are to empathise with others. (See Power Causes Brain Damage by Jerry Useem.)

This is an extraordinarily dangerous recipe. Leaders live inside a “reality distortion field”, which is extremely difficult to puncture. They have more ability to influence the group and less ability to see what is actually happening.

People with more status are always changing the behaviour of people with less. When this is performed consciously, we call it “manipulation”. For most of us, this is utterly abhorrent, it’s precisely what we’re organising against. And yet I believe manipulation is happening unconsciously, all of the time.

Take me for instance. Many people in Enspiral regard me as a high status community member (if that sentence makes you cringe, that’s the status taboo operating). As a high status community member with incomplete empathy and self-awareness, I shudder to think how much harm I must have done through ignorance or self-protective rationalisation.

Wherever there is a strong collective identity, with some individuals embodying qualities of that identity more than others, there is a conformity pressure that many of us are barely able to resist.

Sometimes, this conformity pressure has positive effects. People feel that if they want to belong in our tribe, they need to perform the actions that we collectively put a high value on: recycle more, stop eating animals, give more to charity, or whatever it is.

Often the results are not so rosy. At Enspiral, many of our high status members are known for contributing hugely. So naturally, many people perceive this as some informal standard, an expectation of how they should behave. At least, this results in members reporting they feel guilty for not contributing enough. At worst, I’ve watched people sacrifice much more than they can afford to, over-volunteering, neglecting their own needs, extending themselves well beyond their boundaries and getting really hurt in the process. This is profoundly painful for the individuals involved, and it is also counter-productive for the community, as some of our most committed members need to take breaks or leave permanently.

Speaking for myself, I know sometimes my motivation to contribute a lot comes from generosity, that joyful desire to share from abundance. Other times it’s an unhealthy expression of my workaholism and my craving for external validation. So if people see me as having status, what are the negative consequences of them copying my shadow behaviours?

Judgement

When you’re in a community of people and you can see you’re all thriving, it’s really easy to look out at other people struggling without community, and then judge them negatively. Sometimes this is a subtle kind of condescension, like an assumption that those others would want to be more like us, if only they knew how. Other times it is explicitly patronising: it’s pretty common to meet people in these neotribal communities who are on a mission to “wake up” the “sheeple” who are operating with “lower consciousness”.

Othering

Another problem shows up when this “belonging” thing grows like a cancer, when this lovely “us” only exists because there’s an evil, lesser, stupider “them” out there somewhere. The membrane that includes the “right” people only works by excluding the “wrong” ones. Many of the groups I’ve visited define themselves with negative space: you know you’re with us because we are not-them.

The negative space makes it really hard to collaborate. We can’t make a massive network of small groups if we’ve each got a big moat around our tribe. We need drawbridges that are designed for difference, keeping our people safe while we approach their people with wonder, inquiry, and delight.

Perhaps this is other half of the crisis of belonging. First, we strip people of community. Then in our desperate hunger, we find a tribe and get intoxicated by the connection. We cling so strongly to “us”, that everyone outside becomes “less than.” At the extreme end of this spectrum, the “out group” loses its humanity. Holy war, genocide, and fascism are the extreme examples.

So on the one hand, I feel like belonging is the solution to so many of our social ills. But at the same time, it can feed the worst kind of polarisation, appealing to our most primitive instincts. If you want an example, just imagine a “Trump supporter” and tell me how you feel.

Questions to keep us present

Like I said, I find it really hard to look closely at the shadow of belonging, but I have the sense that we can inoculate ourselves from some of the dangers if we pursue this inquiry together. Here’s some questions I’ve been sitting with, I’d love to hear yours:

  • how do we make the terrain of status visible?
  • how do we keep status moving around so it is not concentrated in one or two individuals?
  • how do we make transparent pathways to influence?
  • how do we match increasing status with increasing scrutiny?
  • if we instinctively mimic each other, can we emulate not just the popular kids, but consciously choose which behaviours we want to elevate?
  • how do we foster pluralistic narratives, honouring a diversity of cosmologies and tactics?
  • can I identify myself without pushing others away? Can I take delight in us, savour our purpose, our ethics, our distinct set of circumstances and choices, and simultaneously celebrate them for making their choices too?

I am not looking for some conclusive solution: I don’t think we can separate from our shadow. But I believe with gentle inquiry and mutual aid we can learn to see more clearly the razor-sharp jaws of this trap called belonging.


p.s. This story is licensed in the public domain, no rights reserved, i.e. do what you want with it. Html and markdown formats available for reproduction.

p.p.s If you want to free up more of my time for writing, you can support me on Patreon

p.p.p.s. if you want to feed my insatiable craving for external validation, I appreciate claps, shares and tweets 😂