The Narcissism of Small Differences

The narcissism of small differences is a social phenomenon that describes a situation in which groups which are closely allied are more likely to engage in feuds, ridicule, and violence over minor differences of belief and opinion than they are to display the same vitriol towards groups that are vastly different. Although Freud first coined this term in 1929 in Civilization and Its Discontents, it is a practice that is as old as time.

Historical Examples

Atrocities committed among rival denominations of the Christian faith is a familiar example of this. European history is rife with wars over minor differences concerning how individuals should practice this religion. As monarchs came to power in 1600’s England each one would declare the nation Protestant or Catholic, followed by mass executions of the unfortunate adherents of the unfavored sect.

When the protestant Church of England was established, other sects emerged with differing opinions on various beliefs and practices. The Puritans were among those sects that escaped to the American colonies to avoid persecution. Even in modern times, the violence between the Irish Republican Army and the English in the fight for Irish independence had a Catholic vs. Protestant aspect to it.

One would think that the common belief of the divinity and resurrection of Christ would serve to unite many allies. Particularly so, since the message of that very figure was one of peace and love. Instead, the most basic tenets of the religion were turned on their head due to minor differences of opinion about the nature of communion and the authenticity of saints.

One need only look at the centuries of unrest among various sects of Islam to verify this. Political struggles between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, or Bosnians and Serbians, also confirm it.

The Consequences

The psychological reasons behind why human beings participate in this kind of tribalism is not as important here as the far-reaching consequences. How can a group effectively guard itself against external forces and promote its philosophy and aims when so much energy is placed on internal warfare and that group’s political opponents seize every opportunity to leverage these internal conflicts? The divide-and-conquer strategy is nothing new.

If the most important step to solving a problem is identifying the problem clearly, the first step to overcoming the problem of infighting within an organization is to recognize and acknowledge that you are doing it. A sensible next step would be to take stock of the situation and consider priorities. Determine what is more important—the overall goals, or the minor differences that lead to energy-draining internal disputes.

Which should have been priorities for those promoting Christianity in the Middle Ages—the message of love and salvation that Jesus delivered or a pedantic point of that belief? Was it worth sacrificing the former with violence and bloodshed in order to try to achieve the latter? What authoritarian institutions gained a foothold because bickering factions could not unite around the many beliefs that they shared?

Moving Forward

The events of 2020 set the country, if not the world, on a trajectory of unprecedented tyranny with a continuous flow of authoritarian policies and state-heavy ideas. Libertarians do not have the luxury of falling into the trap of the Narcissism of Small Differences. Too much time has been wasted hashing out our 20-percent differences rather than focusing on our 80-percent consensus. It is time to come together and use our combined energy to resist tyrannical government and push for freedom. Our very lives and those of future generations may depend upon it.

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