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The Dark Side of the Need to Belong

When people connect emotionally to a movement, when they wrap up their identity in the movement…

When people connect emotionally to a movement, when they wrap up their identity in the movement, it can be almost impossible for them to separate themselves from that movement. When that movement is one of hate, dominance, conspiracy theories and fear, the challenge is formidable because those powerful emotions can serve as a cement that binds people to the group’s ideals.

In 1951, self-educated scholar Eric Hoffer wrote his first book, The True Believer. In it, he discussed the ways in which mass movements provide meaning to people. It was a prescient discussion of an alarming phenomenon at work in the current political climate; specifically, the hardcore believers coalescing around the notion that some people are not only above the law, but it’s an outrage to be held accountable in any form. Further, these believers hold that laws should adapt and change to their will, so that they should be able to function in whatever way they wish. Worse, today’s true believers consider their fellow Americans as evil, corrupt, and beyond contempt. The meaning in this movement is provided by the existence of the group itself, and the vilification of “the other.” How can we reach people who hold fast to their new identity as a member of this group? How can we still dialogue? What are some approaches we can take?

We can point out the seduction of belonging before people succumb to emotional manipulation. We can create a mass movement that is just as satisfying to belong to, but that uplifts, embraces, heals, and offers hope. We can ask people to identify and name their emotions, and to examine their affinity to these emotions. Why is it satisfying to belong to a group that preaches hate and exclusion? Why does it give pleasure to participate in it? Isn’t there anything else that can provide joy? If we can put group activities and participation in perspective, if we can reduce the group’s membership to a part of a person’s life instead of something that consumes the person’s life, we might begin to bring them back.



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