One of the metaphors I think about frequently is the idea of pulling the goalie. This idea comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcasts Revisionist History where he argues that hockey coaches should be more willing to pull their goalie and compete with more offensive players on the ice when they are losing. It is a bit taboo to pull your goalie with more than a couple of minutes left in a game, but the math suggests it is a better strategy. As it turns out, pulling the goalie, or at least the metaphorical extension of pulling the goalie, may be a good rule of thumb to help reduce violence within human social groups as well.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “if people belong to many groups and can switch in and out of them, they are more likely to find one in which they are esteemed, and an insult or slight is less consequential.” What this means is that having many groups can reduce violence. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all competing for social status, and within small groups social status is often zero sum. There are only so many people within a group who can be leaders that set the tone and make decisions for the entire group. If one person gains leadership authority, then another must cede or lose that authority. Violence can be an avenue through which authority is gained or defended. However, if society can offer many group opportunities, and if people can switch groups, then violence can be avoided.
If you are part of a group and things are not going well, you don’t have to stick it out as the butt of everyone’s jokes or as the recipient of violence from those who wish to display their dominance over others. You can chose to pull the goalie and change tactics by moving to a new group where you may find more status. You don’t have to stick within the same group and try to assert yourself, defend yourself against a slight, or gain dominance through force. You can simply leave and find a new group where you can fit in and be esteemed without needing to employ violence to defend yourself or advance.
Hopefully most of us don’t have to use violence in any of our groups to build or maintain status. Throughout history many groups have organized around violence. Street gangs use violence to keep order, playground cliques often employ violence, and sports clubs can easily fall into violence. Creating more freedom of movement among small groups, especially for young men, can eliminate the need to employ violence while still participating in a group. Expanding the types of social groups, both online and in real life, can give us more avenues for people to feel connected and engaged in social endeavors without having to fit into a particular culture that requires violence to gain or maintain status.