Draft April 5, 1999


Ethnic Violence and the Narcissism of Minor Differences

Alvin G. Burstein

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

I feel a sense of awkwardness in pursuing this topic. Although the unfolding events in Yugoslavia bear witness to the importance of the themes outlined in Michael Ignatieff's The Warrior's Honor, at the same time intellectualizing about the er uption of death exploding before our eyes seems in some way decadent. On the other hand, I suppose that intellectualizing effort can be a guard of some kind against brutishness.

In Robert Browning's poem, A Likeness, an intellectual anticipates the pleasures of a visit by an old friend, envisioning that they will "pull the cork out of an old conundrum and watch the paradoxes fizz." Paradox has an appeal that is, well, paradoxical. Inverted logic seems to carry a kind of conviction that is hard to deny. Paradoxical statements sometimes seem not to receive the same skeptical scrutiny accorded more conventional assertions.

In his book Ignatieff leans heavily on a paradox attributed to Freud. The paradox has to do with what is called, "the narcissism of minor differences" and is said to consist in the anomaly that minor differences between individuals and groups are part icularly prone to be the occasion of bitter dispute and hateful acts. Ignatieff invokes this concept to explain ethnic conflicts, like that between the Serbs and the Croats, in which lived relationships of intermarriage, commercial exchange and shared lab or are washed away and replaced by minor differences inflated into lethally competing fictional identities. This paradox of internecine conflict being especially related to small differences seems broadly accepted. Just a few days ago I noted an exchang e in which this paradox was taken as an indisputable given on a listserv connected with the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Two hundred years before Freud Jonathan Swift satirically noted the very same phenomenon in his description of the wars between the Lilliputians in the habit of breaking their breakfast egg at the big end and those who used the small end, an observat ion that seems to lend even more weight to Freud's paradox. And though I don't know whether Swift was consciously alluding to Shakespeare's Hamlet, there is the coincidence of Hamlet's bitter reference to Fortinbras' willingness to make war, "…even for an eggshell." At the very least, we have three deeply sensitive depicters of human nature agreeing on humankind's capacity to engage in the extremity of mass murder for reasons that seem objectively inadequate.

That capacity may be irrational, but it is not paradoxical. The paradox inheres in the notion that small differences are more likely than major ones to cause such eruptions. Is that what Freud said? Is that what he meant? Is that the explanation fo r these lethal antipathies?

Freud first introduced the notion in a 1918 paper, The Taboo of Virginity. In a discussion of taboos in relation to defloration of virgins, Freud refers to a generalized element of anxiety in the relationship between the sexes in what Victorians call ed "primitive" societies, suggesting that the anxiety might be "based on the fact that woman is different from man, forever incomprehensible and mysterious, strange and therefore apparently hostile." However, he goes on to ground this formulation in the work of a British anthropologist, Ernest Crawley, saying, "Crawley, in language which differs only slightly from the current terminology of psycho-analysis, declares that each individual is separated from others by a ‘taboo of personal isolation’, and th at it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them (emphasis mine). It would be tempting to pursue this idea and to derive from this 'narcissism of minor differences' the hostility which in every human relationship we see fighting successfully against feelings of fellowship and overpowering the commandment that all men should love one another."

Thus it would appear that the source of the paradoxical observation is Crawley and not Freud. In fact, Freud is saying that he is tempted to pursue Crawley’s notion. The source of Crawley’s observation is said to be Crawley’s study of primitive relat ionships between the sexes, "The Mystic Rose," published in 1902. Freud may also have been familiar with Crawley’s earlier exposition, outlining his observations and inferences that appeared in three articles in the 1895 Journal of the Anthropo logical Institute. In both works, however,Crawley clearly says not that minor differences are especially problematic, but that any difference is problematic. Crawley characterizes the primitive world view as one in which natural and supern atural forces are not differentiated and each individual believes himself surrounded by invisible dangers. From such a perspective, Crawley argues, danger is felt to "inhere in the strange and unknown" (TMR p. 23) in any realm and to any degree . This fear of the unknown extends into human relations. Crawley asserts that any differences between individuals are the occasion for fear and suspicion. For example, "Thus all persons are potentially dangerous to others, as well as potenti ally in danger, in virtue simply of the difference between man and man. The individual qua individual is potentially in danger from other individuals and dangerous to them. This egoistic sensibility and caution are intensified when things or pers ons present some unexplained strangeness, and we may conclude that the mere fact of sexual differentiation is enough to form the basis of a similar religious caution between men and women." (TMR, p. 39-40). Crawley sees this fear of otherness as existing in tension with and limiting the expression of affiliative needs, including those strong affiliative needs between the sexes. In an argument that is not germane here, but was intriguing to Freud, Crawley goes on to extrapolate from the superior physica l strength of men a gender-wide fear on the part of men of being weakened or contaminated by contact with women.

Crawley's argument is not subtle, and it would have been difficult for Freud to mistake it. Moreover, Freud in other writings asserts that greater differences between groups lead pari passu to greater enmities. For example, in Group Psychology, he writes, "Closely related races keep one another at arm’s length; the South German can not endure the North German, the Englishman casts every kind of aspersion on the Scot, the Spaniard despises the Portugese. We are no longer astonished that g reater differences should lead to almost insuperable repugnance, such as the Gallic people feel for the German, the Aryan for the Semite, and the white races for the colored." (SE Vol. XVIII, p 101)

Ignatieff, like others, sees Freud as muddying the distinction between major and minor differences in moving from a consideration of individuals to groups. Reluctant to relinquish the force of paradox, they suggest that there may simply be an inconsist ency here, a Freudian slip. That does not seem to me to be the case. If we assume that Freud and Crawley, whatever their Victorian limitations, were in agreement that in the primitive core of our humanity there is fear of otherness and that all differen ce is an occasion for anxiety and distrust, we can understand Freud as offering a psychoeconomic explanation for how that suspicion and dislike is set aside in the formation of groups. Simply by displacement, by finding aliens toward whom that dislike ca n be directed. Thus, in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes, "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 aggressivenes s. I once discussed the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other as well, that are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other—like the Spaniards and the Portuguese, for instance, the No rth Germans and the South Germans, the English and the Scots and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of the ‘narcissism of minor differences’…." In other words, when people are alike in most respects, it is precisely the minor differences, which will be made to serve, faute de mieux as the basis and rationale for the innate aversion to otherness.

So we are bereft of a paradox, but left with a view of human nature as essentially egoistic, capable of forming groups only by virtue of shared enemies, a prospect made more depressing because it posits group identities as fictitious, contrived on the basis of denial and distortion. The in-group exists by virtue of a denied egoism and a deflected suspicion; the outgroup by virtue of the innate suspicion displaced toward it and rationalized on the basis of difference, however minor.

It is important to note clearly that neither Crawley nor Freud privilege this "primitive" egoism. They see it as innate and existing in tension with civilization understood as the cultivation of relationships with others. Ignatieff makes a distinction that is not explored in Freud (or Crawley) between lived relationships and fictitious ethnic identities. He paints a stark and compelling picture of how generations of intermarriage and other forms of social interaction can be erased by creati on of politically contrived group membership. Thousands and thousands of individuals who fifty years ago thought of themselves as Yugoslavs and who had a common civic life now see themselves as Serbs and Croats or ethnic Albanians…and internecine enemies . He understands this particular development as arising from the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslavia, with its population constituted as a group by its enemies, the Soviet Union and the capitalist West. With the death of Tito and the end of the cold war, Yugo slav nationality lost its constitutive enemies and ethnic warfare erupted like some dreadful autoimmune disease.

For both Freud and Ignatieff, the prospect of one world seems dim indeed. The most that Ignatieff hopes for is nation states with a monopoly of force and capable of codifying the ways and means of violence. For Freud, too, the prospect of one world s eems an unlikely one, at least in the absence of an extraterrestrial focus on which to displace our basic fear of each other.

Perhaps Freud’s grim view of human nature, shared by Ignatieff, as having an inescapable element of aggression can be accepted, but balanced by extending Ignatieff’s notion of lived relationships. Humankind is born of humans and we live in, and by vir tue of, relationships. The psychoanalytic view is that those essential relationships are inherently ambivalent. That can only mean that they contain, in tension, both positive and negative elements. Self develops in the context of recognition of othern ess, otherness experienced as the source of both gratification and frustration. Thus the fear that Crawley and Freud point out exists in tension with need and attraction. Not only that, but difference in and of itself has allure. I wonder if Crawley has n’t overstated the case in assuming that all novelty is inevitably seen as dangerous. Most animals, including humans, show an innate interest in the novel, an urge to explore the unknown. I take the fear of getting lost or injured to exist in balance aga inst the excitement of exploration.

But these are all speculations. The reality is that as I write, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are galloping through Kosovo, clan warfare is unresolved in Somalia, and Rwanda is beset with tribal conflict. At times we seem to be teetering on an abyss of self-destruction. That may be. But I have a sense, shared by Ignatieff, that there is a new morality taking root. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at Paris, December 10, 1948, was the descendant of the Magna Carta, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the United States Bill of Rights. And the Declaration was the child of the Holocaust, a recognition by the civilized world that it had been complicit in looking away from that atrocity. One might plausibly argue that the intervention of the United Nations in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was motivated by the West's selfish need to maintain access to crucial oil supplies, but the intervention in Kosovo seems less driven by short term national interest. It is a statement that the murder of civilians, however different from us, and the burning of their homes, no matter how distant from us, is a matter of concern to all. This is a moral recognition. It is doubtless mediated by television, subject to commercial and political exploitation and, perhaps, futile in practical terms. But it is a moral statement, and it is one that would not have been made a century ago. To the extent this is true, there is hope.