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Fusion with the Group—Extreme Self-Sacrifice
Richard A. Koenigsberg
Better Angels of Our Nature Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (Cognitive Science of Religion) Harvey Whitehouse

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About the Author: Harvey Whitehouse is professor of anthropology and director of postgraduate studies in the Faculty of Humanities at Queen's University Belfast.
I’m indebted to Steven Pinker for drawing my attention to a paper by Harvey Whitehouse, “Dying for the Group: Towards a general theory of extreme self-sacrifice.”

In 1990 I spoke on “Dying for One’s Country” at a meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology.  During the period 1990-2000, I presented papers on this topic (N = 50) in nearly every academic discipline.

During the Nineties, however, there was scant interest in warfare, much less in dying for the group. Americans had developed a “counter-sacrificial culture.” It seemed that no conflict was worth dying and killing for. Military history was a neglected academic discipline.

Then came September 11, 2001. As Mei Ha Chan says, Bin Laden saved my life. There was a renewal of interest in political violence; and soon a flurry of research, writing and theorizing on “sacrifice.”

In the Introduction to his paper, Whitehouse states:

Willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of a group has been documented all around the world and throughout human history, from the Christian martyrs of antiquity to the followers of Jim Jones in Guyana, from the Spartans at Thermopylae to the kamikaze pilots of Japan. In recent decades, a murderous form of self-sacrifice – ‘suicide terrorism’ – has become increasingly common, with an estimated 3,500 such attacks recorded in the past thirty years.

Whitehead focuses on the idea of “fusion:” union of the individual with a group. An individual who is fused with his group, he says—equating his personal identity with the identity of the group—is more likely to make “extreme sacrifices” for the sake of this group.

For highly fused individuals, the “boundary between personal and group identity is porous;” an attack on the group is “taken personally.” Identity fusion is highly correlated with an expressed willingness to “fight and die to defend the group.”

Citing Swann et. al (2009), Whitehouse states that fusion—“visceral feeling of oneness with the group”—entails an identity configuration such that “essential features of one’s social reality are also considered to be essential features of one’s personal self.” Whitehouse claims that willingness to fight and die is motivated by a “particular intense love of the group.” For highly fused individuals, the survival of the group constitutes a “form of personal immortality.”

So far, so good: fusion of the individual with the group; self-love of the group; willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the group; a sense of personal immortality connected to survival (immortality) of the group.

I’m skeptical, however, of Whitehead’s methodology focusing on motives leading individuals to fuse with the group. Like Whitehouse, my training is in psychology. I appreciate that a psychologist has investigated a phenomenon usually studied by political scientists and historians. My approach begins with historical case studies as empirical data.

Throughout the 20th Century, societies have been characterize by the insistence that individuals fuse their identities with the group and be willing to sacrifice for it. Indeed, totalitarian societies such as Nazi Germany—as well as Italy and Japan—declared that individuals unconditionally equate their lives with the “life” of the group. Fusion was put forth as a moral imperative.

I’m surprised by the examples Whitehouse uses documenting willingness to sacrifice. He mentions Christian martyrs, followers of Jim Jones, the Spartans at Thermopylae, and kamikaze pilots. Why these?

What about American soldiers of the North and South during the Civil War; nearly every nation during the First World War; and Chinese “human wave attacks” against the United States during the Korean war. Not to mention the case of American soldiers as they attacked Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 during the Battle of Normandy (no better depiction of “extreme self-sacrifice” than the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan).

Perhaps the greatest historical example of fusion with the group was Nazism. Hitler explained to his people:

Our Nation is not just an idea in which you have no part; you yourself support the nation; to it you belong; you cannot separate yourself from it. Your life is bound up with the life of your whole people. The nation is not merely the root of your strength, it is the root of your very life.

My online publication, “Japanese Nationalism: Death in Battle = Fusion with the Emperor,” discusses Walter Skya’s Japan’s Holy War (2009). Writing about the ideology that generated the Second World War, Skya discusses the idea of godo seizon (literally, fused or amalgamated existence).

A key thinker, Skya says, was Kakehi Katsuhiko (1872-1961)—who developed the theory of “one heart, same body,” which advocated “abandoning the self and offering one’s entire body and soul to the emperor.” A true Japanese, Katsuhiko said, does not think of self-interest, but rather forgets one’s own concerns and “completely offers oneself to the Emperor.” Achieving the state of “one heart, same body” required discarding or annihilating the self.

The starting point for understanding extreme forms of self-sacrifice requires focusing upon cultural ideas that lead millions of people within societies to believe that it is valuable—indeed imperative—to fuse their personal identities with the identity of the national group.

Certainly there are differences among individuals in terms of whether or not they “buy into” this ideology. But analysis begins by deciphering the meaning of this idea lying at the heart of politics: that it is sweet and fitting to die—to sacrifice one’s life—for a national group.