In school we were all “equal”. As pupils, part of mass education program, we had no formal way to organise ourselves into preference based groups. But we did it anyway. I can bet that cool kids formed a very tight band in your school, one where admission was invitation only. You may have been part of one but the majority was excluded from the cool kids club and chose to join geekier ones.
The behaviour does not change after school. Unlike schools, workplaces have very deep formal hierarchies. But the tendency to group ourselves into affinity-driven informal groups remains. In any corporation there are unofficial crowds where decisions are being made. It’s what people mean when they complain that there is too much politics in a company or that decisions are not transparent enough.
But C.S. Lewis (the author of Narnia series and famous among Christian apologists) noted that these separate, informal hierarchies are part of our existence. They are not even a modern discovery, as humans have been operating this way for millennia. He called them “Inner Rings”:
“[An Inner Ring] is not a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.
There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not so constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline.
There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have dispaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.”
CS Lewis brilliantly explained something that has no clear definition but that we all experience since we are born. Our instinct would be to label these informal groups as artificial and un-fair. But Lewis is quick to correct our instincts. There is nothing un-natural about inner-circles. On the contrary, there is stronger argument to label formal hierarchies as un-natural. It’s also hard to place an ethical label on a natural occurring phenomena. And that’s Lewis’s observation, that we all want to be part of these inner rings.
The benefits and dangers of Inner Rings
Inner Rings may be considered harmful and dangerous because they have the ability to exclude and separate individuals. Especially today, when exclusion is automatically labelled as bad. Yet, Inner Rings are in fact beneficial to our society because they divide the individuals into social groups where they can be comfortable with. We all want to be special to someone or several someone. We all want to be valued and valuable. And Lewis says that there’s nothing wrong with inner rings in and of themselves. They’re simply structures filled with people longing to be connected.
“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”
What Lewis warns us against is our insatiable desire to pursue new rings. When we get inside a ring we want to be part of an even more exclusionary group. When we get to the bottom of it we seek the other shinny ring. It is a vicious circle.
"Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. "
Escaping the Desire
But there is a way out. Lewis recommends that we participate in some activity that we enjoy and do it often. He offers music as an example. We start a group, then invite others who would like to join us in playing music. A relationship based on a common interest and friendship, not a silly desire for “power”. This is the real foundation for a community. When we form a community that grows friendship, we create what we seek, friends who care about the welfare and personal growth of one another. To outsiders, it may look like an exclusive inner ring. We all know, however, that it’s open to anyone who shares our values, even if this is simply valuing friends with whom we play music.