The English and the Scots. The Serbs and the Croats. The Sunnis and the Shiites.
If you look at some of the fiercest and bloodiest rivalries in history, what’s striking is not how different the opposing groups are, but how similar. Sure, they often hold different beliefs, but they live as neighbors, share ancestry, and hold similar customs.
In his 1930 essay “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Sigmund Freud commented on this dynamic, noting that it is frequently “communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other.” Elsewhere he notes that the phenomenon is not limited to ethnic or religious peoples either: “Every time two families become connected by a marriage, each of them thinks itself superior to or of better birth than the other. Of two neighboring towns each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt.”
If as a teenage football fan you were caught up in a cross-town rivalry with another high school, you know of which Freud speaks.
So what accounts for the peculiar hostility between groups of people that are in many ways quite alike?
Freud chalked it up to the innate human proclivity for aggression and the desire for distinct identity. To see one’s neighbors reflect and mirror oneself too much threatens a person’s unique sense of self, and superiority. It’s what political scientist Stephen Brooks calls the “uncomfortable truth of resemblance.” To alleviate this injury to one’s ego, one downplays their similarities with others and emphasizes their divergences — which can be amplified into seemingly unbridgeable rifts.
Freud called this phenomenon “the narcissism of minor differences.”
While this idea is interesting to apply to ethnic and religious conflicts, global affairs, and even local peculiarities, it’s also a revealing prism by which to examine the behavior of individuals, including our own.
The Narcissism of Minor Differences in the Modern West
For tens of thousands of years an individual’s identity was almost entirely subsumed by the tribe to which he belonged. His people — that was who he was. Each tribe felt it was superior to others, and the veracity of this claim was easily and simply determined; one village would clash with another, and whoever was stronger and craftier came out the victor. Until they battled again. A man built up his sense of worth by contributing to the strength and reputation of his people — through the provision of knowledge and meat, martial prowess, and siring children.
Ever since the end of tribal living and the rise of civilization, we have been casting about for pieces with which to assemble our sense of identity. Genealogy is no longer enough; the modern self is composed of personality, career, location, hobbies, and, most predominantly, tastes. Taste in music, in clothes, in politics — what you like and don’t like.
Modern culture and consumerism provides an avenue by which you can tweak a thousand little details of your possessions and lifestyle. You can own a rugged truck or a sports car; go Paleo or vegetarian; live like a swinging bachelor or a settled suburban dad.
Yet really standing out has become increasingly difficult; globalism has ensured that millions around the world are watching the same shows, eating at the same restaurants, and shopping at the same stores. Unique traditions, dialects, and pastimes have evaporated.
If the peoples of old trafficked in the narcissism of minor differences, we might be said to engage in the narcissism of micro differences.
Our egos fear those moments when we look at the people all around us, and catch a glimpse of this truth — the realization that while we’re Apple fans and they’re Windows people, we’re really much the same and aren’t very special after all. To keep this dissonance at bay and protect our sense of self, we must ever buttress and artificially inflate the significance of the minor differences we use to construct our identities.
This phenomenon is particularly heightened in communities that share more in common than the general population. Take the Christian college, for example. Here you’ll invariably find those students who want to make sure others know they’re not like the conservative, hardline, “conformist” Christians that walk around campus advocating for Pharisaical rules. They’re not “Christians” at all but “Christ Followers,” distinguished by their open-mindedness, subscription to Relevant Magazine, and skinny jeans.
Or travel to Utah. With 60% of the population being Latter-Day Saints, it’s hard for the average Mormon to feel unique. Thus if you cruise the highways, you’ll see lots of billboards for plastic surgery — an avenue by which a Mormon gal might make herself just a wee bit prettier than her competition. And then there’s plenty of conspicuous consumption; the Mormon dad hopes the size of his house will help him stand out in a sea of peers that look, talk, and think in very similar ways.
The same dynamic operates in non-religious communities as well, of course. You’ve got to work harder to feel unique, in say, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, where hipster style reigns, than you would being an artistic type in Omaha. And being a farm-to-table localvore in Portland won’t make you very special; you may need to take it up a notch, perhaps by personally visiting the farm where your chicken comes from.
The Problems With Creating an Identity that Leans Too Hard on Minor Differences
While I’ve been a little cheeky in sending up the above groups, there’s really nothing inherently wrong with adopting a lifestyle that jives with your beliefs. People have been seizing on minor differences to set themselves apart since time immemorial; tribes in the Amazon will go on and on about how different they are from a neighboring village, and even war with them over this rivalry — even though they split off from the very same bloodline just a generation prior!
And yet there are two potential problems that grow out of leaning too heavily on the narcissism of minor differences: 1) the tendency to define yourself by what you’re not, and 2) a focus on trivialities over fundamentals:
A Negative Self-Identity
Humans are naturally drawn to conflict, and latching on to minor differences to bolster our sense of self is really just a submerged form of aggression and hostility. Standing out is essentially a competition for status — one that allows us to feel distinct and superior to others.
The easiest way to achieve this separateness is to concentrate on the ways in which we are not like other people. “My tastes aren’t mainstream.” “I’ll never take a boring 9-5 job.” “I’m not close-minded.” “I’ll never settle for a mediocre life.”
By focusing on what you don’t like and who you don’t want to be, you turn people who you think exhibit those traits into a foil for yourself, a kind of adversary to push against on the road to selfhood. Drawing lines between ourselves and others has always been an effective means of building identity, even amongst those who claim the greatest tolerance; as Freud wryly notes, “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.”
As Dr. Meg Jay writes in The Defining Decade, comparing yourself to others is an okay starting point in building a sense of self, but an inadequate ending point:
“Distinctiveness is a fundamental part of identity…But different is simple. Like the easiest way to explain black is to call it the opposite of white, often the first thing we know about ourselves is not what we are—but what we aren’t. We mark ourselves as not-this or not-that…But self-definition cannot end there. An identity or a career cannot be built around what you don’t want. We have to shift from a negative identity, or sense of what I’m not, to a positive one, or a sense of what I am. This takes courage.”
“Being against something is easy,” Dr. Jay tells her 20-something clients. “What are you for?”
Creating an affirmative self-definition requires moving beyond talking about the minor ways you do, or want to, differ from others, and towards staking claim to the things you really believe in and working to bring them about. Taking real action to build the life and the world you want is one of the surest ways to actually separate yourself from your peers. It’s the mark of a mature man, after all, to actually create something rather than to simply consume and complain.
A Focus on Trivialities Over Fundamentals
One of the dominating labels that nearly every red-blooded American has fought against for at least a century is that of conformist. We pride ourselves on being rugged individualists, and watch ourselves for tendencies to follow the herd. This impulse presupposes the existence of a pure strain of attainable individualism from which we might deviate; if people all walk, talk, think, and dress alike, the thinking goes, they are being compelled to and don’t have the strength to resist the pressures of mainstream culture.
But what if the thing we fear most isn’t actually conformity at all, but uniformity? That the thing we least wish to face is the fact that humans are, at the bottom, pretty much alike? I realize this is anathema to the citizens of modernity, but let’s face facts here: we all do pretty much the same things, all over the world. Nearly everyone “conforms” to a life of relationships, various levels of education, eating, sleeping, fornicating, reproducing, working, etc. Sure, some men are factory workers and some are writers, and some live in cities and some in the country, and some drive cars and some ride bikes, but most of us are doing the same categories of things.
Hanging the hat of our identities on small differences in lifestyle acts as a hedge against having to acknowledge this plainly evident uniformity. As Dr. Sam Vaknin writes in Malignant Self-Love, the narcissist of minor differences ends up attributing “to other people personal traits that he dislikes in himself…In other words, [he] sees in others those parts of himself that he cannot countenance and deny.”
For example, embracing the identity of a “cool” Christian distances oneself from “boring” close-minded Christians, while at the same time obscuring the fact that both types of believers have chosen to conform themselves to the gospel. Are they on different parts of a spectrum? Perhaps, but they’re closer neighbors than they’d like to admit.
The ironic thing about being deathly afraid of conforming is that it actually prevents us from creating a unique self that does significantly differ from that of our peers. In being unable to recognize that we are all conformists to one degree or another, and to countenance the fact that the building blocks of a human life — work, relationships, spirituality, etc. — are common to all, we choose instead to toil at the very edges of our identity and spend our days tending to trivialities.
Instead of worrying about whether we perform the human fundamentals in a slightly different way or style than others, we should simply care about doing them excellently.
Rather than worrying about the hipness of your faith life, concentrate on loving your neighbor.
Instead of caring about whether you’re a cool urban dad or an ordinary suburban one, the question should be: am I an excellent father?
Instead of fixating on whether you have a job that’s more unique than that of your peers, focus on whether you’re adding value to the world in whatever work you’re doing.
Instead of seeking after building a big house, concentrate on the structure of your integrity.
Becoming a man of your word in this day and age? Now that would be a significant difference.