7 – The Group Personality
How our Tribe informs the development of our Personality
‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.’ – Jiddu Krishnamurti
Jez: We can make two approaches towards the subject of Personality: the mechanics of how it forms in us, and the environment in which it forms. The two are intimately related: How the Personality forms is hugely affected by the environment in which it forms.
Imagine a handful of flower seeds. They all hold the same potential of becoming a flower, but how that flower eventually manifests depends on the environment in which the seed falls. Is it growing in full sun or in the shade? Is it in a windy position? What’s the quality of the soil?
To fully understand the Personality you need to look at more than the immediate family environment; you have to go back further and examine the family’s history and roots. You need to consider the collective consciousness of all the Personalities that make it up, or what I call Group Personality.
The Group Personality has many levels. On the metalevel it begins with our species. We’re not animals, we’re not insects, we’re Homo Sapiens. The human species differs from others in one crucial way: Thanks to our highly developed brain we have awareness of ourselves. Whereas other species of animals mainly operate on instinct, the ‘human animal’ operates from the mind, through thought, and this is basically what’s behind us having Personalities at all.
Matthew: I guess the next level of our Group Personality would be race?
Jez: Yes, people from a particular ethnic background share some common characteristics; not just physical but also psychological characteristics arising from the history they share. For example, Europeans have a different cultural history from people of African origin; unfortunately, the dynamic of white masters and black slavery is one sordid side of that story.
Matthew: How does that history relate to the discussion of Personality?
Jez: That whole situation originally arose from the arrival of Portuguese visitors to the west coast of Africa in the fifteenth century. There must have been some idea of cultural superiority in these Personalities that led them to think it was acceptable to enslave African natives.
Matthew: You think that was in their Personalities?
Jez: Where else? It certainly wasn’t part of their original state of Being when they were born! All such ideas of domination of other people only arise when the Original Relationship to Life has been lost; if you respect and bow down to life, which of course includes your fellow man, the idea of domination of others can’t arise.
This initial act of violence by the Personalities of those Portuguese visitors to Africa eventually grew into the Atlantic slave trade and in turn hugely affected the Group Personalities of both the European and African races who lived under its influence. The Europeans who participated in it, by either transporting slaves or by owning them, developed attitudes of superiority, entitlement and racism. The Personalities of the Africans who were victims of it became suffused with hurt, enforced subservience and understandable resentment.
At the time of the slave trade these characteristics were more obvious, but the scars of that history are passed down through the generations; racial tension has not been eradicated. This is just one example of differences in the Group Personalities of races; you could pick any race and find differences, even if they’re not so dramatic.
Matthew: The world is such a melting pot now; different races mix together all over the world. This must have an effect on the Group Personalities of those races…
Jez: Definitely. The next level of Group Personality would be Nationality; people of different racial ancestries live together in different countries. And this brings in another influence on Personality on top of race. Different countries have different Personalities; we know this simply by the fact that the word ‘Englishness’ exists. It obviously evolved to describe certain shared characteristics that have been observed in the English population. We’re both English, what characteristics would you use to define Englishness?
Matthew: You might sum it up as stoicism – you know, the English ‘stiff upper lip’. Also a politeness – we’re known for forming orderly queues, and for our absurdist humour, such as Monty Python.
Jez: Although these are generalisations, if we look around at people we know, and at characters in films, documentaries and dramas produced here, it’s easy to recognise them as having some truth. Every country’s Group Personality has its own version of this phenomenon. The humour that evolves in each country also clearly demonstrates that these differences exist.
Matthew: What’s funny in one country is not necessarily funny in another. It’s the same with music; a band that’s massive in England can be almost unknown in the American market, and vice versa.
Jez: These national differences can bind populations together and create a sense of identity and belonging that gives a pride in your country. Even if those people are actually from different races, they can be united under the national Group Personality.
Now we’ve reached the level of nationality, a whole new set of factors comes into effect that in turn produces sub-divisions of Group Personalities. First of all let’s look at geography. This can influence a local population in different ways. For example, living in extreme places creates the hardy, strong constitution that’s necessary just to survive. But this hardiness also affects temperament; there has to be a robustness of spirit to live where the climate is extreme, be it cold tundra, baking desert, high altitudes, windy plains or humid rainforests. But that’s just the climate; the landscape itself leaves its own mark.
Matthew: I imagine living near an active volcano, in an earthquake zone or area of poor soil fertility has a strong influence too.
Jez: Yes, if you live through a natural disaster, or even with the threat of one happening, it will produce a different Personality type from one living in safe, unthreatened areas. To be confronted by a survival situation is certainly going to make you less superficial, and perhaps more pragmatic, more realistic.
But the influence of nature doesn’t have to be as dramatic as living where natural disasters occur. I remember visiting Austria once and being told by a local that people who lived in the villages nestling in the valleys of the Alps had a certain mentality that was shaped by their location. He said that being cut off from their neighbours in adjacent valleys by the mountains created a sense of isolation. In order to survive the long hard winters they had to dig in and be self-sufficient. All this bonds the community, as well as toughening it up.
Matthew: Another example would be fishing communities who survive off the sea.
Jez: Yes, there’s toughness to them because, as they say, the sea is a harsh mistress. It can provide fish but it can also take lives. It requires courage, and perhaps stoicism in the face of danger, to live such a life. And it’s not just the fishermen; the whole family is affected when the men have to go to sea at all hours in unpredictable weather.
Matthew: Of course within that Personality type, there can be all sorts of Personalities. Not all fishermen are the same.
Jez: Absolutely, we’re looking at archetypes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If you go to these areas you can experience that type, it’s in their attitude to life and it seeps into the community.
Matthew: The poverty level must be a factor too. For example, many fishermen are quite poor and this must have an effect.
Jez: Yes, to come from a rich, privileged family in which your needs are freely provided is obviously a very different experience to growing up in poverty. If everything’s available to you, you can start to take all those privileges for granted, whereas if you live hand to mouth, every paycheque and every meal is cherished.
Poverty can affect the Personality in different ways. It can make a person feel downtrodden and sluggish, harbouring resentment to people who are born into privilege. On the other hand, it could motivate someone, fire them with ambition and determination to free themselves from poverty’s grip.
On the other side of the fence, the classic image of a Personality brought up in wealth or privilege is spoilt, snobby and greedy. All of these can be true of course, but many other outcomes are possible; money can broaden your mind to the possibilities of your life and be a positive influence on creativity. It can even drive someone to find charitable ways to help others who don’t have it. So within social strata, different Group Personalities can be engendered; every stereotype has its exceptions.
Matthew: Income is often related to politics, which I imagine is also a factor that informs Group Personalities.
Jez: Yes, low-income earners are naturally interested in the rights of the common man and this can bind them together in a political party. Such political parties are Tribes in which all the members have the same goals: to protect their rights and to win power back from the rich elite. To many people whose families have struggled with poverty for generations, being a member of a left-wing party can almost be like being part of a religion. To be anything else would be a betrayal of the lineage of the family and its struggles and ideals.
A rich family can also have its own political ideals to uphold. A belief in capitalism, the right to run businesses as you wish and to protect the wealth that they generate means that right-wing/conservative politics are favoured. Once again there’s history involved in this: Businesses and the wealth they create are usually inherited and there’s an expectation on descendants to protect and carry them forward.
I’m not arguing the rights and wrongs of any viewpoint or party; from each perspective there are needs to be met. The point is, whichever tribe you’re born into exerts an influence on you, a pressure to have certain allegiances and mind-sets.
Matthew: In totalitarian regimes that pressure can be enormous…
Jez: Yes, the strength of a Group Personality is maintained by the solidarity of the individual Personalities making it up, and the people in charge know this. Think about the Chinese Communist party under Mao Tse Tung in the 1950s: Apart from a few brave dissidents, a whole nation was united by having the same goals, thinking the same thoughts, believing the same beliefs and idolising the same dictator. This is the extreme end of the spectrum, where mass brainwashing is involved and the social pressure to conform is so great that some children even report their parents to the authorities if they show any signs of wavering from the party’s ideals.
Matthew: What about the devotion to ideals and beliefs we see in religion? That must have a huge influence on a Group Personality.
Jez: It depends on the intensity of the faith; for some people religion is understood to be a personal choice and there’s no pressure on family members to make that same choice. But for others, religion is absolutely central to their life and their identity. In these cases the followers are strongly bonded around the tenets of the religion; the more closely they’re followed and upheld by the community, the stronger that bond is. Add to that the history of the religion going back generations and you have a very powerful Group Personality.
So the religion in a tribe very obviously shapes the thoughts and beliefs of those within it; it basically informs their whole Personality. Imagine being born into an orthodox family of any religion: A whole doctrine of how life works is handed to you and there’s enormous pressure to conform to it, to follow the same rules, marry within the religion, have children and perpetuate the tribe. If you don’t follow the rules the consequences can be serious; in the end you have to leave the tribe, because it’s bigger and more powerful than you. For a Personality that has found identity in a religious tribe, to leave it is traumatic. It’s like a death: You lose your family, your history, even your identity. (This is a good example of how the Group Personality of a religion can be even stronger than that of a family.)
You can see how Group Personalities have a function of self-preservation built into them; threats to their dominance are severely dealt with. We’ve talked about an internal threat to the Group Personality when people leave it, but there are also external threats in the form of rival groups such as other religions. When religions start fighting each other you can see how defending the Group Personality is even more important than adhering to the beliefs that underpin the religion itself. Most religions at least nod in the direction of the idea of loving your fellow man, but that doesn’t stop their members destroying other people with bombs and missiles if they’re a threat to their way of life. War is basically the conflict between two tribes holding differing beliefs and defending them.
Matthew: So you’re saying that without Group Personalities, wars wouldn’t exist?
Jez: That’s right, wars are caused by individual Personalities identifying with their Group Personalities, but wars also have a huge influence in shaping Personalities; they’re like a magnifying glass that intensifies the Emotions of the tribe.
Matthew: What do you mean?
Jez: On a basic level, wars engender hatred of the enemy and entrench a sense of us and them. There’s also survival fear involved: of losing loved ones and losing security. And all that doesn’t stop once the war is over – a soldier scarred by the terrible things he’s witnessed on the battlefield may no longer be emotionally equipped to be a good father or a husband and this lack of stability at the top of the family affects the children. Sons can be especially damaged by it, and the damage can then be passed on in their own inability to be loving, stable fathers. Also, enemies are not easily forgotten, scars run deep; hatred for the opposing Group Personality can be passed on through the generations.
Even distant connections to war can have lasting effects on Personalities. My Mother lived through the Second World War and all the rationing and shortages. This affected her deeply; or the rest of her life she had a wartime mentality towards waste, which meant she was not able to enjoy abundance.
Matthew: How did that manifest in your upbringing?
Jez: It was like the opposite of the Jewish mother archetype who always wants to feed you up. When my Mum cooked she always made a limited amount; there was never abundance when it came to second helpings. With regards to money, although she was comfortable financially there was always a certain caution, never an extravagance or indulgence.
So what begins as a practical measure in specific circumstances (like a war) can get engrained in the Group and individual Personality, and become a pattern that’s no longer relevant but still has a pervasive influence.
All these factors can be seen as influences that go to make up a particular Group Personality, or they can actually be Group Personalities themselves. For example, politics can be an influence in the Group Personality of a town’s population; but a political party is also a Group Personality in itself. Religion can be an influence in a family, local or national Group Personality but it can also be a Group Personality itself in the form of a denomination, a sect or a cult.
There’s one Group Personality we haven’t covered. When it comes to determining an individual Personality’s nature it’s the most important one, and where we started this conversation: the family.