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The Narcissism of the Small Difference

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In ethno-national conflicts, it really is the little things that tick people off.

Reviewing the sudden spasm of violence between the Uzbek minority and the Kyrgyz majority in Kyrgyzstan recently, many commentators were at a loss to explain why the two peoples should so abruptly have turned upon one another. Explanations range from official pandering to Kyrgyz nationalism, to sheer police and army brutality, to provocations from Taliban-style militias hoping to create another Afghanistan, but none go very far in analyzing why intercommunal relations became so vicious so fast. As if to make the question still more opaque, several reports stressed the essential similarity—ethnic, linguistic, cultural—between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations.

But that in itself could well be the explanation. In numerous cases of apparently ethno-nationalist conflict, the deepest hatreds are manifested between people who—to most outward appearances—exhibit very few significant distinctions. It is one of the great contradictions of civilization and one of the great sources of its discontents, and Sigmund Freud even found a term for it: "the narcissism of the small difference." As he wrote, "It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them."

The partition of India and Pakistan, for example, which gives us one of the longest-standing and most toxic confrontations extant, involved most of all the partition of the Punjab. Visit Punjab and see if you can detect the remotest difference in people on either side of the border. Language, literature, ethnic heritage, physical appearance—virtually indistinguishable. Here it is mainly religion that symbolizes the narcissism and makes the most of the least discrepancy.
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TAGGED: BEHAVIOR, COMMENTARY, HATE


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