Yang: The Prison Walls For The Lower Group – Part 4

The Prison Walls For The Lower Group
Part 4 of the series on intergroup dynamics
Los Alamos

The dominant force that helped set the tone for the Lower group of nine at Montville was their perceived need to be unified against outside threats/forces.

“United we stand, divided we fall” was their mantra, or borderline obsession. No sooner had these nine people showed up at Montville, they were immediately thrown into a quick series of situations where they felt “rejected, excluded, left out, and helpless.” It was little wonder that the first item on the agenda for their group was to form a core principle of unity, at the expense of any expression of individualism. This tension between putting the group ahead of everything else and one’s inevitable need to attend to one’s own wishes was the central struggle for the Lower for the longest time.

As the group cohesion increased, the individual strength decreased, which made the individual members rely/depend on the group even more, and in turn further diminished the individual resources.  When a group’s essence is about unity, and is brought about by sheer reactionary responses to outside threats, then external forces become a must-have condition for this group’s life.

The paradox here is that “such a group feeds off the very conditions it fears the most.” Even in the absence of an external threat, that absence becomes a threat as well because it would choke off the group’s oxygen for unity. Hopeless, isn’t?

The Case of Social Comparison Outsiders were always viewed with suspicion, sometimes justified as when the top group did have a “divide and conquer” strategy aiming at the Lower. But other times, such as when both top and middle truly ignored the Lower, the suspicion couldn’t be lessened, since the Lower lacked the means with which to make such a distinction. This behavior, manifested in individuals, would be considered paranoia. In the case of the Lower, their paranoid behavior was first brought on by the system forces, and should have been viewed as an “expression of the system.” In other words, putting all the blames on an individual group wouldn’t help the overall system to deal with its ills.

On the other hand, the Lower’s putting all this energy into fending off “outside” forces allowed the group to deny ownership of their own internal disunity, and projected such responsibilities onto others. In fact, it was their insistence on group unity that choked off their individual expressions and made and enhanced the internal group tensions. But how do we strike a balance between holding both the system and the individual (groups) accountable for the same dynamics?

Like the top group, the Lower group also used information deprivation, or secrecy, as a major strategy. However, their focus was on hiding their internal disunity from others. So, whenever and whatever the middle group, at the top’s bidding, proposed for the Lower to do, the Lower would automatically reject it, without any explanation. What’s more, the Lower couldn’t offer any explanations since discussion might lead to disagreement, which was erroneously viewed as disunity. Essentially, their rejections were all in the form of reactionary manifestations, not proactive for future development. However, the middle group didn’t know that and always assumed that the Lower actually was hatching up some counter measures. This is but one example of how a group can draw boundary around itself, or imprison itself. 

The Case of De-individuation By now, you have a strong sense that all individual concerns for the Lower were subsumed under the group unity. If any individual issues surfaced, the reaction was, “OK so long as the individual first discussed it with the total group and they all agreed to it.” The problem of such a strong unity is that resistance becomes inevitable. But instead of seeing such resistance as the “expression of group tension,” the usual interpretation is “this person is recalcitrant or a trouble-maker.”

Remember, the individuals are embedded in the group which is embedded in the whole system; this embeddedness is a notion that may be more troublesome to embrace in this country where individualism is borderline idolized than in most other countries. Unfortunately, the more powerful entities always have more say. And so, in such a convoluted scenario, the side that demonstrates resistance will be labeled as “trouble-makers” by the more powerful side that proclaims unity. This begins the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy because those “trouble-makers” definitely will resist, which then justifies the initial labeling. 

But there is a solution! By either ignoring or affirming the label (rather than trying to negate the label), the resisters free themselves from the double bind. When the Lower group kept resisting the top’s demands, they were always going to be the “belligerent, violent, incompetent” ones, thus trapping themselves in perpetual loops. On the other hand, when the Lower had had enough, and simply ignored what the Top thought of them, they were able to walk away and start thinking for themselves, and came up with the real strategy of “guerilla-entrepreneur” activities that demonstrated that they were competent to act on their own. Then, the labels became irrelevant. This reminds me of my favorite Karate move, parrying. It is a deflecting technique that channels away the opponent’s strike, without inflicting damage to either party, while gaining a moment for repositioning. 

The Case of Internal Dissention & Internalized Oppression The Lower group put a premium on their unity. But as group members get closer to each other (approaching a truer manifestation of unity?), the probability for them to discover differences, disagreements, and outright conflicts was very high. What to do? They avoided these dissentions, glossed over them, or simply suppressed them with strong rules. We can all surmise what would happen when suppression is prolonged and growing stronger. There would be explosive situations, and the suppressed hostility would take the form of scapegoating the deviant. Sometimes, the result can be therapeutic, and other times, the group will re-assert its group dominance in yet stronger fashion. Until the next explosive situation occurs. 

The Lower’s initial view of others’ forces to suppress them became internalized, and as this internalized suppression persisted, it became tantamount to “eating your own young.” When that happened, the Lowers were essentially keeping themselves down and frustrating their own power. By that point, the Top didn’t need do anything to acquire more power; they were granted more by virtue of the Lower’s self-frustrated power. It’s like the teenagers’ rebellious behavior: They want their independence; however, before they are fully capable of being independent, they still require parents’ assistance, against which they need to rebel. 

In such a catch-22 posturing, they essentially affirm their parents’ authority. Similarly, the Lower group felt incompetent and powerless and they were sure that this status was brought about by the top group. They demanded changes to be made, by the top group, but it was also their “duty” to reject anything offered by the top, genuine or not. Basically, you can’t rely on others to liberate you! “This paradox meant the lowers would never be liberated from the paralysis of their dependency while they looked to other groups to change what they didn’t like.” 

The Lower did start with “real” threats from other groups, certainly to the extent that others wanted to control them. However, instead of giving themselves a chance to pull together their potential individual strengths, they traded that for forced group unity. That became their thickest wall; all the follow-up actions, reactions, inaction, and whatnot stemmed from that initial strategy of “united we stand, divided we fall.” In their perpetual resistance, they inadvertently gave and affirmed more power to the top group.

Resistance is “negating a negation.” And as long as they were making others be responsible for their misery, and wanted the changes from the same others from whom they had to resist, they were eternally trapped. Until they found a way to make the oppressive forces irrelevant.  That then lead to their discovery for themselves that they could be unified without denying their own internal fragmentation and differences. 

Next week’s focus will be on the Middle. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.