Associating for Pleasure

What we also know as a result, though not always conspicuously recognize, is how our multiple affiliations with other individuals—human, animal, even plants, and indeed even our geophysical  knowledge and our understanding of the cosmos itself—give us pleasure and a feeling of well being; or not-so-well, as judged by individuals who cloister themselves or gather for common vent to various phobias and paranoia that is only enjoyable in the perverse and that can be hurtful and harmful to themselves and others.

Individuals join others in marriage; in familial, neighborhood and community groups; in business, trade, and occupational associations; in educational, religious, and philanthropic institutions; in military, political, and governmental bodies. These groupings organize their individual members according to a variety of common interests and pursuits, all of which can be generally understood as a “pursuit of happiness”, of pleasure—or avoidance of pain—and as a channeling of the naturally learned, effective survival propensity to band together to secure that pursuit. In return, as a result of the perceived success of such organization and the derived pleasure of affiliation it brings, with varying intensity the group members may develop an existential identification with the organization, more importantly with its principles, and most significantly in some cases, with its leaders or leader. 

Characterization of this identification as ‘existential’ is to indicate the members’ emotionally held belief or perception that the quality of their existence, if not that very existence itself, counsels some measure of affiliation with the organization, of adherence to its principles, and as necessary and to varying degree, of submission of the individuals’ personal decision making and will to that of its leadership in matters governed by those principles. That measure can be tangential to the whole of the individual’s life or it can be all pervasive; it can be harmlessly benign or it can be aggressively malignant. In some extreme cases of the latter, the member cannot envision existence apart from membership in the organization, as with some religious, political, or cult organizations.

Thus group identification may be healthy or unhealthy for those members, as well as for the members of other groups, based on the rationale for the group’s existence and on the ongoing effectiveness of its agenda. For the individual member, the pertinence of identification rests chiefly on the perceived fitness of the knowledge of the group, especially its understanding and wisdom, and in its skill in applying that knowledge toward its group goals. The group and its principles may be quite formal, as with a professional or trade society, or completely informal, as with the folks that get together after work at the local tavern for a few drinks. Regardless of the group scope of interest, those goals invariably involve imprinting the principles of the group upon the ecosphere, directly or indirectly, in greater or lesser measure, if only in making the group’s members feel good about themselves, good in being together.

This latter aspect of group identification—of togetherness, inclusive or exclusive—is no small matter. As we have stated here pleasure can be emotional and mental as well as physical and of the senses. For the materialist who believes that all sense of individual being is of the brain, this may be no great distinction; for the idealist who perceives that consciousness, including emotional and mental awareness, is of the soul, it is worth understanding. The emotional and mental enjoyment of membership in a group may benefit its individual members even when there is little or no material value, that is, no economic or survival benefit from such association, even though it can also be ultimately destructive to those members or others outside the group.

People in an impromptu clutch, joined in prayer on the deck of a Titanic going down in frigid water, arguably share a better state of mind than if they were running about in terror looking for a non-existent life boat, regardless of whether we think they will be transitioning to a heavenly place or simply have their carbon based consciousness forever snuffed out. We might rightly argue that the most resourceful among them could find an alternative for survival in the frantic search that would save at least some of them, but that is another matter; such resourceful individuals have the solace of their own determined will and state of mind which I would not denigrate—they discover who they are when such circumstances arise. The point is that most individuals seek and find consolation in group identification that may prove not to enhance their ultimate survival or socio-economic interest, but which appears to them to be a most—if not only—viable existential option at the time of their affiliation. 

Affiliation does not require existential identification, of course. Identification can be simply a pragmatic acknowledgement of association without emotional attachment. Affiliation is a matter of objective association with the group, publicly or privately, while identification is a matter of subjective association with the group, and therefore exists only in the mind of each individual member. As such, identification, existential or otherwise, can occur without actual affiliation with the identified group.

In most group associations operating in the liberal democracies, apart from private corporations or others subject to private entitlement or contract provisions, the leadership is chosen by the elector body of the group—which may be a subgroup of the whole organization—according to its operating principles. We might expect a general positive correlation between member identification with a group and its principles and the democratic structures customary to free association with a group, and a less extensive identification in these cases with the elected leadership; however, not precluding the possibility of factionalism within the group and existential identification of faction members with their faction leadership. In particular in those groups in which there is homogeneity of the membership with respect to the domain of knowledge that charters the organization, as for example in a professional engineering association, we would expect little likelihood of existential identification with the leadership as we might among the members of a high school sports team with the star player deemed to be responsible for their winning streak. 

In hierarchical organizations in which command of the group knowledge or skill domain is highly varied across the membership and specifically concentrated in a few members who thereby attain leadership positions—elected or otherwise—the potential for deferential to servile identification of membership with leadership can be great. If the group principles instill strong identification with those principles in and of themselves, a check on such servility can be maintained. But if the group identification is primarily to the symbols of group aspirations and is superficially principled, while the leadership’s command of the group skillset is perceived by membership to be great, the opportunity arises for rank servility to the allure of identification with leadership and its perceived existential refuge—to charisma.

We do not have to go far in time and space to see this malignancy of the cult of personality at work in group affiliation and dynamics. Not all individuals start or join a group to foster and further personal feelings of mutual affiliation; some genuinely and correctly identify as a—and often the—resourceful individual inherently suited to be the leader of the search for the missing alternative life boat for the sinking ship; some genuinely but incorrectly so identify; some merely see an opportunity to manipulate a gullible group’s existential concerns for personal benefit and profit; and some see themselves as uniquely and inherently qualified and therefore entitled to that personal benefit and profit.