Friday, November 15, 2019

Narcississm Of Small Differences

Do we despise people who are more nearly like ourselves than people who are completely different?

I came across this term, narcissism of small differences in a magazine article a while back.  It is a different usage of the word narcissism as it is usually applied, as least by lay people.  It is an interesting concept that may explain a lot of our behaviors, from tribal warfare to rampant consumerism, to personal relationships.  To simplify the concept greatly, you are more likely to resent or even hate some other person or group that is close to you but not exactly like you.  In contrast, you may be more likely to accept someone who is utterly different than you, simply because they are so different and not a threat to your identity.

It is an interesting idea.  I have noted before that in the Arab world, Muslims kill other Muslims in wars and terrorist attacks far more often than they target the West.   The Sunni-Shiite rift makes no sense to outsiders, as from our perspective, they all look the same to us, and minor differences in Islamic theology seem irrelevant.   But amongst the faithful, it is an issue that is literally a matter of life or death.

From their perspective, the "troubles" in Northern Ireland - where one group of Christians is pitted against another group of Christians - must seem equally puzzling.  I mean, you all believe in Jesus, right?  Why kill each other over minor differences in theology?  And while you can argue that the underlying issue isn't religious, but a matter of reunifying Ireland, that still doesn't explain the centuries of warfare between Catholics and Protestants.

Or take the civil war in Rwanda. To outsiders, the difference between Tutsi and Hutu seems minor, but the Hutu slaughtered the Tutsi.  Again, you could argue that the reasons were political - a fight for political power.  But most of those slaughtered were not members of the upper castes or government officials, but just neighbors of a slightly different ethnic makeup.

The same could be said for the Arab-Israeli conflict. To outsiders, it is hard to tell one group from the other - as they have similar racial features in many instances - which is not to be unexpected as Jews were originally from the same area prior to the diaspora. Again, politics can be painted at the real reason behind the conflict, but if you ask the average man on the street, there is this visceral hatred, among some, based on ethnicity alone.

The effect has also been used to explain consumerism. We all live in suburbs or cities or even the country, where the houses in our neighborhoods are largely alike. To distinguish ourselves from others, we spend money on status items, to make ourselves unique, but unique like everyone else.   The lumbering SUV may be a status symbol, but when your neighbor has one just like it....

Or teenagers with their piercings and tattoos - "I'm just trying to be different and express myself!" they say, but they look just like every other teenager out there, at least when viewed from the comfortable perch of middle-age.

This theory may explain why computer dating services don't work.   You fill out a form and they try to find someone "just like you!" who has all the same interests, religion, and social values.  You end up hating them.   No one wants to marry a mirror, they want someone to compliment their lives.  Or at least that is my theory, opposites often attract.

I am not sure this concept is related to this blog, although it may help us explain some of our own behaviors.  It may explain, for example, why we seek status, in order to differentiate ourselves from others who are basically just like us.  It may also explain why we resent and compete with others that are too like us.