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The Narcissism of the Small Difference
In ethno-national conflicts, it really is the little things that tick people off.

differences in people who are otherwise
By Christopher Hitchens
alike that form the basis of feelings of
hostility between them."
Updated Monday, June 28, 2010, at 1:49
The partition of India and Pakistan, for
example, which gives us one of the
Reviewing the sudden spasm of violence
longest-standing and most toxic
between the Uzbek minority and the
confrontations extant, involved most of
Kyrgyz majority in Kyrgyzstan recently,
all the partition of the Punjab. Visit
many commentators were at a loss to
Punjab and see if you can detect the
explain why the two peoples should so
remotest difference in people on either
abruptly have turned upon one another.
side of the border. Language, literature,
Explanations range from official
ethnic heritage, physical appearance—
pandering to Kyrgyz nationalism, to
virtually indistinguishable. Here it is
sheer police and army brutality, to
mainly religion that symbolizes the
provocations from Taliban-style militias
narcissism and makes the most of the
hoping to create another Afghanistan,
least discrepancy.
but none go very far in analyzing why
intercommunal relations became so
I used to work in Northern Ireland, where
vicious so fast. As if to make the
religion is by no means a minor business
question still more opaque, several
either, and at first couldn't tell by
reports stressed the essential similarity—
looking whether someone was Catholic or
ethnic, linguistic, cultural—between the
Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations.

But that in itself could well be the
explanation. In numerous cases of a
pparently 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

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but to the outsider business gets started. it was not possible to tell if the time to notice that Tamils are prone to be donor was Greek or Turkish. The two claim.aspx?action=print&id=2258127 Print Powered By 2 of 4 06/30/2010 05:20 PM . with the original Very often. who specialized in the malady.. question of "How can they tell?" In Rwanda and Burundi. It's just that it's the to strike the outsider would be the dominant question locally. There is a small underlay of advantages possessed by the other. it is somehow the hitherto thought that different nationalities were made out of different Advertisement genetic material. the expressed could guess with a fair degree of hatred took the form of extremely accuracy. Michael Ignatieff spent some time trying to elucidate what it was that made soldiers in the Balkan Wars—physically indistinguishable from one another—so eager to inflict cruelty and contempt http://www. it still doesn't seem enough of common sickle-cell blood disease called a difference upon which to base a thalassemia. even if it is true. http://www. from a blood In Sri Lanka. In his book The Warrior's Honor. I once interviewed a doctor genocide. I thought I case might be. that Hutu and Tutsi vary in height peoples have been on the same island for and also in the delimitation of their so long that they even suffer from a hairlines. as the Protestant. but the main thing it is impalpable. but most of the inhabitants of provincial and local rivalries. and the island remains sternly partitioned. I had to stop slightly smaller and slightly darker than myself from asking him if he had the Sinhala here again there are latent Gaels being a little darker and smaller nationalist and confessional differences than the blonder Scots who were to act as a force multiplier once the nasty imported as settlers. it is extremely hard some colonial anthropologists used to to tell a Greek from a Turk. inflamed by Belfast seemed able to do it by some kind jealousies over supposed small of instinct.slate. and he solemnly told me that. Of ethnic difference there.slate. After a while. where again it takes a long sample. The Narcissism of the Small Difference upon Serb or Croat or Bosnian. There have been almost no recorded cases of intermarriage between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.. as Likewise in Cyprus.

we would all be the same Shiites or Sunni Iraqi saying that religion breed.slate. One most important information that either of the great advantages possessed by population possesses. If this secession occurs.. we manage to want to see an expression of sheer racial find excuses for chauvinism and racism disdain. unobtrusive differences in the world—the line that separates French from Flemish- Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for speaking Belgians—is about to be Advertisement forcefully reasserted in a bid to split Belgium in two. So pity the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz as they peer suspiciously at one another during a s udden time of scarcity and insecurity. undone by one of the smallest distinctions of all.slate. This is why Iraqi co-religionists are brothers under condemnation of bigotry and the skin. let alone other mammals." Since we left Africa. And it doesn't take Homo sapiens is the amazing lack of long for one population to start saying variation between its different that the other one has too many children. The next example of this phenomenon will be among the most serious as well as Like Slate on Facebook. We do not suffer from the didn't really count. primates. One of the most the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter. Every time he heard a were dogs. Follow Slateand the least dramatic. try giving to an Iranian Shiites on the most minor of occasions and then the impression that you think he and his to make the most of them. The Narcissism of the Small Difference ingredients of tragedy—and of irony. And all this contains the true http://www. and to knew the exact faith allegiance of disfigure what could be our everybody else in the room. If we about hygiene. superstition is not just a moral question but a matter of survival. we have takes too much leisure. http://www. said my friend enormous differences that separate other Patrick Cockburn in his book on Baghdad. then the headquarters country of NATO and the European Union will rather narcissistically cease to exist. Their mutual miseries may be just Print Powered By 3 of 4 06/30/2010 05:20 PM . As if he noticed that every single one of them to spite this huge natural gift. And if you overwhelming solidarity. is too casual diverged as a species hardly at all. "branches..

http://www. The Narcissism of the Small Difference and the Roger Mertz media fellow at the Hoover Print Powered By 4 of 4 06/30/2010 05:20 PM .. Advertisement http://www.slate.slate.