What We Are and What We Do

Would you like to join the Chess Club?

It’s for people who like chess, like to talk about it, and like to play it. It’s a human group.

You can be a member if you satisfy at least one of its admission rules:

  • You are the brother or sister of a club member.
  • You apply for membership and pay $5 to the club treasury.

Notice that you can be a member based either on:

  • What you are (a sibling of a club member), or
  • What you do (apply and pay $5).

Human populations always divide into groups. Whether we like it or not, it’s a fact. Pretending that it isn’t a fact doesn’t make it go away.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s often a good thing.

For example, most people aren’t interested in chess. If people who are interested have a group, they can enjoy chess with others who share their interest. And they don’t bother people who don’t care about it.

Members of the Chess Club usually have similar personalities, abilities, and interests. They tend to like each other. But that doesn’t mean they hate members of the Spanish Club.

The Chess Club is like many other human groups. Membership is based on what you are, on what you do, or on both. For example:

  • If a you’re a European who satisfies Japan’s strict immigration standards, you might eventually become a Japanese citizen. You will have the same legal rights as ethnic Japanese. Everyone will treat you with courtesy. But no matter what you do, you can never be Japanese. Even if you assimilate fully and speak the language perfectly,1 you will always be a gaijin. That’s what you are. If you get married to a Japanese, your children will be considered hāfu (half-Japanese) based on what they are.
  • If you’re a non-Catholic who finds spiritual truth in Catholicism, then you can convert. You’ll be just as Catholic as anyone who was born into the faith, because even their membership is based on what they do. If you get married, your children will not automatically be Catholic. Just like you, their membership depends on what they do.
  • If your mother is Jewish, you are automatically Jewish based on what you are. If you’re a non-Jew who converts to Judaism, you’re Jewish based on what you do. If you’re a Jewish woman who gets married, your children will automatically be Jewish based on what they are. If you’re a Jewish man who gets married to a non-Jew, your children can be Jewish but, at least officially, they’ll have to convert — becoming Jewish by what they do.

It gets confusing when those factors conflict.

If someone joins the chess club but doesn’t like chess, hates the other members, and constantly vilifies the club in public — well, you have to wonder why he or she joined the club in the first place.

Maybe it was in hope that one of the smart chess nerds would allow copying of his homework.


  1. Watch the video. It’s hilarious.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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