Sunday 11 September 2016

On the Narcissism of Small Differences

In his 1929 book Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud commented on "the narcissism of small differences", the idea that people who are very similar to each other become extremely attentive to the very small distinctions that differentiate them. When I came across a reference to this idea recently, it reminded me of a discussion in Milan Kundera's novel Immortality, in which Kundera discusses two ways of differentiating ourselves from others: by addition (highlighting a positive characteristic that makes us unique) or by subtraction (highlighting how we are unique in lacking a negative characteristic). In his usual wordy way, Kundera writes:
"The method of addition is quite charming if it involves adding to the self such things as a cat, a dog, roast pork, love of the sea or of cold showers. But the matter becomes less idyllic if a person decides to add love for communism, for the homeland, for Mussolini, for Catholicism or atheism, for fascism or antifascism. [...] Here is that strange paradox to which all people cultivating the self by way of the addition method are subject: they use addition in order to create a unique, inimitable self, yet because they automatically become propagandists for the added attributes, they are actually doing everything in their power to make as many others as possible similar to themselves; as a result, their uniqueness (so painfully gained) quickly begins to disappear. We may ask ourselves why a person who loves a cat (or Mussolini) is not satisfied to keep his love to himself and wants to force it on others. Let us seek the answer by recalling the young woman [...] who belligerently asserted that she loved cold showers. She thereby managed to differentiate herself at once from one-half of the human race, namely the half that prefers hot showers. Unfortunately, that other half now resembled her all the more. Alas, how sad! Many people, few ideas, so how are we to differentiate ourselves from one another? The young woman knew only one way of overcoming the disadvantage of her similarity to that enormous throng devoted to cold showers: she had to proclaim her credo 'I adore cold showers!' as soon as she appeared in the door of the sauna and to proclaim it with such fervor as to make the millions of other women who also enjoy cold showers seem like pale imitations of herself. Let me put it another way: a mere (simple and innocent) love for showers can become an attribute of the self only on condition that we let the world know we are ready to fight for it."
The narcissism of small differences (and the unfortunate human drive for it) explains much of the insanity in the world in general, and in the current US election cycle in particular.

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