Understanding the difference between a group and a gang

Any one of us can, at any time, given the right context and circumstances, be overtaken by a gang mentality. In fact many positions we occupy at work could arguably be said to encourage or rely upon a gang mentality; when we are under pressure to meet deadlines, to achieve higher and higher standards for example, it is easy to project our feelings of weakness, of vulnerability, of failure into a person who appears to be needier than we are or weaker than we are because we cannot bear to admit to or look upon that weak, helpless part of ourselves because it is too painful.  We impose a reign of terror upon that part of us which feels vulnerable, or little by directing it out towards one in the group who appears to exemplify these qualities. We do this whenever we bully someone, whenever we deny that part of ourselves that recognises who we really are and what we can own up to. All of us, according to Freud and later Klein are born with destructive as well as constructive parts to us. There appears to be a part of us which enjoys or cannot help at times, being mean to others. It is these most psychotic parts of us which are hardest to control and own up to. It is difficult to know what to do with primitive feelings and where to place them. Anxiety is often experienced as a threat and the need to identify someone to blame for this feeling can be extremely powerful.

It is therefore often easier to blame others rather than take responsibility ourselves for these feelings and own up to them. In a group we can do this but as part of a gang we are placed under too much pressure to face up to this. We are subjected to forces which urge us to think badly of others in a group and if we do not hold at any one time sufficient ‘goodness’ within us or we allow our envy of another group member to overwhelm us then we are on a collision course with our own ‘badness’.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the school playground. One minute children are quite happily playing; one or two other children not involved in their game arrive to spoil enjoyment. The group can cope; it is confused for a few minutes; their happiness is challenged; but someone comes forward and rescues the situation; the group is saved, the depressive position is maintained. However, then another set of children arrive, they are more determined to destroy the fun they see. Perhaps one of them has levels of envy and spite which are more prevalent; suddenly the group has become a gang, primitive and it becomes the centre of its own world. Mindlessness breaks out; no-one is around to rescue the situation. Destruction, malevolence, the regressive pull towards anxiety means that difference cannot be tolerated.

A group state of mind in an individual or being a member of a group ‘requires the capacity to know honestly who you are and to recognise that the self is comprised of a multiplicity of aspects reflecting one’s personality’ Canham (2002) This implies that we can integrate good and bad inside ourselves.  Good and bad exist side by side so closely that they easily collide with each other and furthermore that it is in the very middle of this tension between the two where human frailty is situated. William Blake’s poems of Innocence and Experience written in the 18th Century illustrate this point vividly. He calls the states of innocence and experience within human beings ‘contrary states’ by which he means that the human soul has a dual nature, like two sides of the same coin, essentially made up of good and evil phases, contrasts and paradoxes which are closely related to each other.

 

This dualistic tendency is fundamental to the notion of pairs of opposites – the life and death instinct. There are opposing forces within human beings which are unmistakable. Klein, a follower of Freud, knew that life per se was a painful experience involving, as it does, having to manage the overwhelmingly powerful emotions associated with our first relationships, that of our parents. She illustrates the importance of love and reparation as a drive against the more overpoweringly painful feelings of hate, guilt and anxiety to which every child is subjected. We are all constantly striving to work our way through these feelings and this struggle is constant and the pain never entirely goes away. The vicious cycle of persecution, the fear of attack and retaliation we come up against in life is a painful trap for us all to negotiate. The need, therefore to strike a balance between love and hate is vital for us all. This conflict reoccurs throughout life and it can be stirred up by any loss, or rivalry of feeling of being pushed out or excluded.

The gang state of mind is precisely this. It is ‘anti-life, anti-thinking’ Canham (2002). It is a difficult concept to grasp; that of being in the grip of a destructive death wish. However, death is a terrifyingly central aspect of life and we can become prey to this overwhelming instinct. Gang like states operate in a narcissistic vacuum.  The state of narcissism is like an addiction to the bad part of the self and terror is a fundamental configuration at the base of losing this addiction. In a gang we become terrified about losing face, losing our friends, admitting to failure.

A gang state of mind denies separateness as this leads to feelings of dependency. A group state of mind allows thought and difference to flourish. Put simply group states of mind allow love to enter their experience, gang states of mind appear to be unable to allow love and turn to hate.