Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Narcissism Of The Small Difference

Why is it that the most vicious and protracted human conflicts - such as those between Bosnian and Serb, Hutu and Tutsi, and Indian and Pakistani - occur between groups of people who have the most in common, ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and otherwise? That's the question pondered by an uncharacteristically restrained Christopher Hitchens in his latest essay in Slate, and it's a good one. Hitchens doesn't really attempt at an answer at why this is - his closest attempt is a half-hearted stab at blaming (what else?) - religion - but he does express his hope that humanity can overcome this tendency.

Having lived now in both Japan and Korea, and observed from both ends just such a fratricidal feud (albeit one that has died down somewhat in recent years), I have developed my own theory, which is essentially that the peoples who live the closest to each other and hence are the most likely to have ethnicity, culture, language, and so on in common, are also the most likely to have come into historical conflict over land, food, and other resources. In the age of plenty in which we now live we tend to forget this, but as recently as a few hundred years ago famine was a regular occurrence in much of the world, and it was never a sure thing that in any given year there would be enough food to feed everyone. When confronted with the prospect of starvation our instinct as a species is to fight like hell for survival, first our own and then that of our immediate genetic relations. Historically speaking the group of people most likely to rival us for scant resources, and hence to present the biggest threat to our survival, would have been those close enough to contest control of territory, food and water supplies, and the like, but distant enough that they'd be unlikely to share much of our DNA and hence fall under the protected category of genetic kin. On account of geographical proximity and likely common ancestry such a rival group would almost certainly share certain attributes with us culturally, ethnographically, linguistically, etc., yet they'd have to be different enough in some regard - creed, dialect, what have you - that they would immediately be recognizable as one of the out-group. Hence our psychological tendency to zero in on and exaggerate minor differences. Combine this with the unfortunate truths that we are a species with a near-bottomless capacity for lasting animus against those we perceive as having wronged us, and a prodigious gift for feeling outrage at the transgressions of others against us while remaining ignorant of our own against them, and you arrive at a recipe for enduring tribal hatreds. Sunni and Shiite, Bosnian and Serb, Sinhalese and Tamil, Palestinian and Jew - as long as these groups remain caught up in nursing centuries-old grudges that date from different times, when life really was a Darwinian struggle and conflict rather than cooperation may well have been the best strategy for ensuring the survival and the survival of one's survival of one's kin when dealing with distant cousins, they will continue to hate and war against each other, over differences that to an unbiased outsider appear utterly petty and absurd.

Hitchens cites Sigmund Freud's formulation of our tendency to hate those with whom we have much in common as "the narcissism of the small difference", but Freud was hardly the first thinker to have taken note of this human failing over the centuries. Some, such as Homer, have observed this irony and seen it as tragic - the Iliad goes on at great length about how alike Greek and Trojan truly are, even as they slaughter each other, and of course Shakespeare used this sort of conflict as the back story of Romeo and Juliet. Others have looked at it and mined from it the bitterest of humor - Jonathan Swift, embroiled at the time himself in the battle between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, one of the ongoing conflicts Hitchens discusses, ridiculed the feuding peoples of Europe by turning them into miniscule gymnasts engaged in a desperate blood-feud over the proper way to crack a boiled egg. Given that this is a recurring theme in history, art, and literature, I think it's safe to say that it's part of human nature.

Hopefully, that does not necessarily mean that its effects are unavoidable. Psychologists have found that when groups of people, even those who dislike each other, are forced to work together to accomplish a common end, their enmity fades. Some, such as Robert Wright, who lays out his case in his book Nonzero, think that globalization and modern technology are bringing us closer to a world in which cooperation with outgroups is the optimal strategy, and we will be forced to work together. I'm not quite as sanguine about that possibility as optimists like Wright or Thomas Friedman, but I hope they're right. Reason being an imperfectly apportioned quality in mankind, I don't put much faith in Hitchens' utopian vision of a humanity which has renounced its superstitions and bigotries coming to pass, and what I think is likely to be the alternative - a future in which tribal conflicts persist, but are magnified by the destructive power of modern technology - is not a happy prospect.

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