The narcissism of minor differences

This captivating phrase is from the book “Civilization and Its Discontents” by Sigmund Freud, the famous psychoanalyst and philosopher whose writings aimed, in his words, “to agitate the sleep of mankind.”  It is to him that we owe ideas that are now part of the educated layman’s vocabulary — defense mechanism, wish-fulfillment, repression, narcissism, Oedipus complex, etc.

Freud was not satisfied with the term “narcissism of minor differences,” but the phenomenon he wanted to designate was clear enough to him.  He was not referring to simple ethnocentrism, or the simple worship of one’s own community.  He was concerned with those differences, real or imagined, that we seize upon to justify the aversion we feel for those outside our group.  This form of narcissism draws comparisons that make us seem superior, or more blessed than the Other.  “We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.”

All around us, people who are alike in so many ways draw the sharpest contrasts between themselves and their neighbors to satisfy a latent aggressiveness.  Around these differences – usually invisible to outsiders – they weave moral narratives that furnish the warrant for all the prejudices they reserve for the outsider. This sublimated aggression, Freud points out, in turn becomes the basis for all the solidarity, love, and affection that members of the in-group feel for one another. “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.”

Even within families, we sometimes feel most bound to one another when we are able to sharply differentiate ourselves from our next door neighbors.  Our achievements tend to taste better when contrasted with the failures and misfortunes of those whom we resent for having had all the advantages at the beginning.

This is no less true for nations.  South Korea’s furious drive to prosperity was no doubt fueled as much by its intense hatred for its communist neighbor in the North as by its wish to show that it could do better. North Korea at the time of partition was the more industrialized part. Taiwan unified its people by cultivating a fear and hatred for the giant next door.  Today, China’s phenomenal rise as an economic power may be seen as the culmination of the effort to show the world that it could beat its former enemies — the United States and Russia – at their own game.  The fruit of Singapore’s economic successes is sweeter because once upon a time next door Malaysia treated it as a poor relation that would not be able to survive separation.  This was Freud’s point: you can unify a community and spur it to great achievement by building upon the narcissism of minor differences.

Freud may strike us as the most cynical interpreter of our times. But his insights into the human condition make us think and ponder the deeper origins of our actions. Only someone like him (or Nietzsche) could trace the close affinities between love and enmity, solidarity and envy, unity and fear. Freud believes that like sexuality, the inclination to aggression cannot easily be tamed. Its regulation, he says, has entailed a great expenditure of energy. “Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.” Yet the results of this effort have not always been encouraging.  Residues of unmet instinctual inclinations continue to seep out, searching for substitute gratification.

Racial prejudice is one outlet.  Freud was particularly aware of the widespread prejudice against the Jews.  In an uncanny way, he alluded to the Holocaust (the massacre of six million Jews) ten years before it happened. “In this respect, the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows.”

Freud’s fears were proven right by subsequent events – in the 1994 massacre of the Tutsi minority by the Hutus in Rwanda, in the 1991 ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia that saw Serbs expelling their Croat and Bosnian neighbors from Serbia, and Croats driving out Serbs and Bosniaks from Croatia, and indeed, in the frantic racial profiling that followed 9/11.

The rituals of our civilization have a way of concealing the deadly mechanisms behind these events.  We still cast around for enemies we can despise so we may strengthen internal solidarities at home. We capitalize on the smallest differences so we can justify the superiority we feel over those who are not like us. There are other costs.  Freud urges us to “uncover the roots” of the imperfections of our civilization.

One effect he singles out is what he terms the “psychological poverty of groups.”  “This danger is most threatening where the bonds of a society are chiefly constituted by the identification of its members with one another, while individuals of the leader type do not acquire the importance that should fall to them in the formation of a group.”

These thoughts may strike us as abstract, speculative, and even profoundly pessimistic.  But we should take them as a challenge to rise above the social conventions and loyalties that bind us to an existing state of things, and to aim for true happiness.