It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them.
..It would be tempting to pursue this idea and to derive from this ‘narcissism of minor differences’ the hostility which in every human relation we see fighting against feelings of fellowship and overpowering the commandment that all men should love one another. – Sigmund Freud; The Taboo of Virginity
Over the past several weeks I’ve been working through the implications of a socioeconomic and political stance that places brotherly love above all things. I call it Meekonomics. The more I’ve thought about and studied this issue I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the strongest causes of division in society is what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences.
It is the little things that we obsess over. Racism, sexism and ethnic conflict are all based on relatively minor differences, things that either only go skin or even clothing deep or are predicated on behavioural differences that are difficult to detect in individuals. It’s only when you begin lumping people together in groups that the more subtle behavioural differences can even be detected.
As an example take the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine; taken out of the context of ethnic war and dressed in street clothes can anyone really tell the difference between an Israeli military officer and a Palestinian fighter? Or even more subtly, look at my profile picture; I’m a white male, am I American, British, German, French, Swedish, Australian, Russian, Canadian, or even possibly South African? Someone with an intimate knowledge of racial histories might be able to narrow it down based on some physical features and when I speak my accent would further give it away but these are all minor differences. They say nothing about the kind of person I am.
I recently reached out to a fellow blogger in Libya in an attempt to exchange ideas. He refused to engage with me citing my government’s involvement in the current Libyan conflict as some kind of evidence that I wasn’t worth conversing with. Sadly he couldn’t see me at all, when he looked at me the only thing he saw was a NATO commander wearing the insignia of the country I live in ordering airstrikes on the country he lived in. A minor difference prevented him from looking long enough to see the similarities in our thinking that could have gone a long way at bridging the gap between our major differences.
Major differences are paradoxically harder to detect but once recognized are easier to discuss and influence than the minor ones. Major differences are ideological but it is much easier to get me to change the way I think than to change the way I look. Unfortunately it is the way I look that most influences what other people think of me so the challenge in any dialogue over ideology is to get people to see past the outer layers and really hear what the person on the other side is saying.
My Libyan associate refused to do that. He accused me of something I have no influence over and made me guilty by association. I can`t tell you the number of times I have received similar challenges. They start out with the person on the other end making a blanket statement about some socioeconomic group that I may or may not be a part of and ends with the conclusion that I must therefore think or act the same way. Most often it has something to do with my faith or nationality. I`ve been told that as a Christ-follower I must therefore reject science and as a Canadian somehow I must have a genetic predisposition to love Ice Hockey; neither statements are true about me as an individual.
When we refused to look at and listen to people as individuals we rob them of their humanity. In order to live in peace with one another we need to give people back their humanity and do the hard work of ignoring our minor differences so we can talk about what really matters.