When I taught freshman English classes at Northeastern University, I was curious about my students’ recent educational experience since I’d never attended an American high school. One of the main objectives of freshman English was to teach students to write good term papers. To achieve this goal, books on writing often divided the twenty page paper into a series of writing techniques, such as persuasion, cause and effect, contradictions, or logic.
Without exception, when students wrote about their high school experience, they used the category writing section and divided their peer group into jocks, nerds, and party animals. When I questioned whether people could be divided into just three groups, students added an outcast group. Students seemed reluctant to even think about an outcast category. I’m not suggesting that people categorization is unique to America but that’s where I’ve lived most of my life.
Although I saw the students as individuals (a result of my own educational and institutional experience), they all accepted peer categories as a fact of life. Once a person was placed in a group, I gathered only Superman could move that person into another category. As freshmen, many of them wrote about their difficulties adjusting to the new norms of college life. I guessed that, although the high school groups were restrictive, they did grant a measure of security. The freshmen searched for new groups to support them. The college encouraged students to identify by major. But what about all the unwritten social rules of behavior and acceptance? They could be a mine field for eighteen year olds.
Years ago I knew a brilliant man who taught at three different universities. Why didn’t he seek tenure at one, dig in, and build his scholarly reputation? I’m guessing the answer was because he was gay and he spent much of his energy and time trying to hide the fact. Basically, he was a good man who respected the rights of others but sometimes, the need to defend his secret made him lash out at others or act in a less than honorable way. His need to keep his secret and to pretend he belonged to a group of heterosexual males divided his psyche and changed his life. Nowadays, being gay doesn’t necessarily ruin one’s career but an openly gay teenager is very likely to suffer more rejection and bullying than a heterosexual teen.
Peer group conflicts can re-emerge among people long-passed high school age—at work, for instance, where the stakes are at least as high as they are for teenagers. Individuals need their jobs to support their families. An individual’s identity and self-esteem is often tied to his/her job. A manipulative boss can tap into group mentality, often just below the surface, and lead a group into indulging the boss’s whims and needs instead of focusing on the job and the best outcomes for the group as a whole. If anyone tries to halt the downward spiral, the boss makes sure that person is ostracized and ridiculed. The group has norms. Conform or else.
We need social groups for support, learning, and survival. Even if we find ourselves in a group with some norms that make us uncomfortable, can we break free, survive alone for a while, and find another group where we feel more at home? Or do we make the choice to stay in the group where we feel uneasy at times and try to make changes?
Writers often look into the lives of so-called outcasts. During their research and multiple drafts, writers discover the worth and humanity of those who don’t easily fit into acceptable categories. I suspect hate groups yelling at others and threatening anyone who doesn’t conform to hate group norms aren’t doing much reading. At the most they limit their reading to material that supports what they already believe. As long as members of hate groups or even pressure groups at work or school feel better about themselves because of group support and the simplicity of their thinking, the group maintains cohesion. It’s scary to watch and worse to be the target of such a group.
What’s the solution? I think society’s been working on that, off and on, for centuries. Anyone have a solution or idea?