“As I ran, I thought how I hate any kind of mob- I hate mobs of sports fans, mobs of environmental demonstrators, I even hate mobs of supermodels, that’s how much I hate mobs. I tell you, mankind is bearable only when you get him on his own.”-Steve Toltz
The above is a quote from one of my favourite books, A Fraction of the Whole. (Read it. Now.) While every second line of the book is quote-worthy, this one in particular resonates with me because it aligns with exactly how I feel about the subject of group interaction. Ever since I can remember, I’ve found group interaction tedious and difficult to maintain. I dislike the competitive struggle as to who gets to talk and when. I’m just not good at groups. I’m awful at small-talk and ‘witty’ repartee, and I find that the potential for meaningful discussion gets lost in a sea of performance and social niceties.
My dislike of group interaction extends to a dislike of groups generally. I know, I know, collective struggles, unity, etc. etc., but I also feel that in groups humans are capable of extreme inhumanity and cruelty due to our tendency to just do whatever the person next to us is doing. This simple, ostensibly harmless premise has resulted in some of the most awful atrocities in history. But for the most part, our tendency to behave like bleeting sheep manifests in less dramatic ways. The most obvious way is the sameness of people within any one group of friends, clique or subculture.
I have a little trick I like to play sometimes when I meet someone new. By picking one arbitrary fact about them, I then try to unravel their ideology and interests base accordingly and see if the picture ‘fits’. To my disappointment, it often does. This is particularly the case when it comes to different groups in the Muslim community. To pick a random example, if someone tells me some innocuous fact such as a penchant for art exhibitions, it often follows that they:
-may be Sufi-inclined
-have a ‘liberal’ attitude to gender interaction
-like socially conscious hip-hop/indie rock
-own a DSLR
These facts are seemingly unrelated, but they form an easily recognisable pattern of social behaviours if examined closely enough. I find it especially interesting how interests intersect with ideology. When did you last meet a ‘Salafi’ who admits to a passion for street art, or a ‘Sufi’ who isn’t into nature and photography? Why aren’t there many (if any) HT members doing their thang at poetry slams? There’s no official code against it, nor is one group of people inherently ‘better’ at a pursuit; again, it’s simply the group effect. Even if people do have an interest contrary to the norm of their group, they tend to keep it on the low-down.
Make no mistake, I’m not attacking anyone’s ideologies or interests. My problem is not with any group; the problem I have is the markers you need to display to be accepted into a group. At times it feels as though people run recruitment drives based on whatever is ‘cool’ in their group. It’s almost like a silent citizenship test. If you want to get into the ‘hipster Muslim’ group, you need to have read Malcolm X’s autobiography and it must have changed your life, dammit! If you want to get in with the MSA peeps, use as many words with the suffix Allah as possible (inshaAllah, mashAllah, subhanAllah) and post about sisterhood/brotherhood. If you want to get in with the ‘conservatives’, ditch the pants and delete all your photos from your profile.
Again, the problem I have with this are not any of these behaviours. I simply resent the idea that people often pick friends based not on character or intellect but on fairly superficial social markers. If we refuse to display these social markers, we may still have a chance of getting into the club, but there’s only so far we can go. We’ll remain forever on the hinterlands because our supply of social capital doesn’t buy us access to the member’s lounge. Of course, no one will admit to this kind of exclusivity, probably because most of the time people don’t even realise that they’re applying this filter to potential friends.
The part I find most fascinating of all (this being primarily a relationships blog, let’s not forget) is that many people try their utmost to choose partners from within whatever group they’re a part of. They confuse shared values and goals, most certainly an important ingredient in a relationship, with shared interests, a much more shallow and temporal measure of compatibility. This leads to people exaggerating or downplaying interests to impress someone they like e.g. if the guy they like is into socially conscious hip-hop, they downplay their secret penchant for trance and exaggerate an interest in Mos Def. It becomes difficult to find the point of intersection between genuine and performed interest, again partly due to the fact that people don’t even realise that they’re marketing themselves to impress a certain someone or even a certain group of people.
The truth is that as much as people profess to being open-minded, we really, really like to be agreed with.( I like it as much as the next person, believe me.) I also recognise the convenience of choosing friends and partners with similar interests, because that way there’s always someone to go to that exhibition/lecture/concert with. But ultimately, I feel it’s more beneficial to have friends who don’t always agree with us or share our interests. It prevents intellectual and spiritual complacency and forces us to constantly re-examine your own values. It also introduces us to a range of interests outside of whatever is in vogue amongst the group we may be attached to.
Just try it next time. Question your intentions each and every time you post something on Facebook. Admit to your ‘uncool’ interests alongside your more socially acceptable ones. (Just putting it out there: I like looking at genealogy charts of royal families. Gross, especially because I think royal families are completely useless and redundant, but there it is.) Attend a class by a Shaykh outside of your own circle, even if he seems a bit ‘Salafi’. Don’t assume that someone is deep just because they post some Rumi on Facebook. Ask yourself, do I really like spoken word poetry, or am I just playing up a mild interest to try to impress that poetry slam girl?
All this becomes easier as we get older, because with age tends to come a firmer sense of self. It’s also much easier to be the realest version of ourselves when we’re in a relationship, simply because we’re not trying to impress anyone of the opposite sex in the please-marry-me way. But it’s still an ongoing, lifelong process, and one that requires honesty and constant self-reflection. It’s certainly tempting to edit and tweak yourself and display only your highlights reels (i.e. yourself at your wittiest/most deep and meaningful), but to do so would be to deny the complexity of your identity and experiences.
This post isn’t intended as an attack on anyone’s genuine enjoyment of their interests, nor do I intend to shame anyone for identifying with a group. It’s simply a reminder directed at myself first and foremost: be real. Be sincere. Be you. Step away from the physical and social media crowd and take time out to get to know yourself, because ultimately your worth isn’t derived from your taste in clothing or music, it’s derived from your service to Allah swt and the amazing gifts He has given to you and you alone.