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The Envy of the Collective

How our fear of violating group norms can be a fear of envy

I have been covering different aspects of envy in recent postings, all of which have been at the individual level. But there is a collective aspect to envy that is equally pernicious and that is what I want to address today.

If you have ever lived in a small town or community, been active in a religious institution, or ever been deeply involved in a smaller organization, you will know what I am talking about when I say that there is a communal norm, usually unwritten, that you violate at your own peril. In a synagogue, church or mosque it will look like a norm for dress, prayer or behavior. In a work environment it can look like "the way things are done around here." In a small town it can be being different and standing out in any particular way; for example, something that violates gender norms or the ethos of the particular locale.

Each community or organization has its own anthropology, its own culture, and within that particular bubble of these locales it can seem as if this is the way the world should be. Such norms are implicitly conservative even when they are explicitly liberal. I use the word "conservative" not in terms of political leanings, but in terms of the emphasis on the status quo. I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and I find that Berkeley can be one of the most conservative and repressive environments, unless you are willing to tow its liberal party line. There is a particular liberal ethos -- which I happen to agree with -- and a conservative way of enforcing it, which I don't agree with.

What does all of this have to do with envy? I think that the "Who do you think you are?" reaction of people when someone violates a prevailing norm comes, in large part, from envy. None of us are internally monolithic in our views no matter what we present to the outside world. But some of us keep very tight reins on what we let ourselves think or express, and when another person nearby does not hold such a firm grip on herself, we can react with envious outrage. We don't usually think of the anger of the collective at a person standing out as envy based, but how else would we understand the source of so much enmity? Why else would I care if someone thinks differently than I do? Yes, I know other views can be threatening, but I think the source of that threat is often that those views express something I don't dare let myself express, and when someone else does so I want to strike them down with envious outrage.

Helmut Schoeck, whose book on envy[1] is a classic in the field, describes in great detail the envy of small societies sequestered by geography in Africa, the rain forests of South America or other distant locales. Anthropologists studied these isolated communities in the early 20th century and found they were almost all frozen in time technologically, and depending on one's perspective, culturally as well. Schoeck makes a strong case that the reason for this was because of envy: no one dared rise above the group norm for fear of being criticized, or to use their language, for fear of the evil eye.

Why should we care about this? I think it is worth thinking about if there is any way in which you are holding yourself back for fear of the collective's envy: whether it's your teacher's lounge, or church social group, or PTA colleagues. "What will the neighbors think?" is often another way of saying "I don't want to stand out because I'm afraid I'll be struck down by someone else's envy."

[1] Schoeck, H. (1969). Envy. A theory of social behaviour. (M. Secker & Warwick, Ltd., Trans). Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. (Original work published 1966).

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