A man was standing on a cliff about to jump when another man yelled: Stop, don’t do it!
Jumper: Why shouldn’t I?
Second man: Because there is so much to live for!
Jumper: Like what?
Second man: Are you religious?
Second man: Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?
Second man: Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?
Second man: Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?
Second man: Great. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?
Jumper: Reformed Baptist Church of God
Second man: Me too. Are you reformation of 1879, or reformation of 1915?
Jumper: Reformation of 1915.
Second man, while angrily pushing jumper off the cliff: Die, you heretic scum!
I came across this witticism while researching Sigmund Freud’s theory of the “narcissism of small differences.” In his thesis, Freud argues “it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.” He called this phenomenon the narcissism of small differences.
In political science, the narcissism of small differences offers an explanation as to why communities with similar ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds, and often in adjoining territories, tend to engage in feuds. In many cases of ethno-nationalist conflict, the deepest hatred is shown by communities that, by most appearances, exhibit very few significant distinctions.
For instance: the violence in Kyrgyzstan between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations, the toxic confrontations in the Punjab, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, and in Belgium between French and Flemish-speaking Belgians; the cruelty of the Balkan Wars, the Hutu and Tutsi viciousness in Rwanda and Burundi, the Iranian Shiite-Sunni conflict, and many more. Of course, once a conflict begins, other differences and topics act as multipliers for the hostility.
- Read more: Cuba’s Bizarre Soft Power
With his narcissism of small differences, Freud gave us an analytical framework but not much more than a causal explanation. It has been suggested that the distress is narcissistic in nature because it is as if we are looking at ourselves in a mirror.
I have come to think of the narcissism of small differences when contemplating schisms in opposition movements, particularly in Cuba’s history from the wars for independence of the 19th Century to the last six decades of opposition to the Castro regime. Some episodes, such as the shameful abandonment of Cuban patriot Carlos Manuel de Céspedes by his compatriots, had tragic consequences. Céspedes, who in 1868 freed his slaves and launched Cuba’s Ten Year War, was later deposed in a leadership coup. The new Cuban government would not let him go into exile and denied him an escort. Left unprotected, Spanish troops killed him in 1874.
Cuban opposition to the Castro regime, since its origins in 1959, has been fragmented, made up of myriad groups lacking in operational unity. Often the schisms had political or philosophical underpinnings, but they also resulted from tactical differences, revanchism, and personal ambitions for protagonism. This disunity perseveres to this day, often initiated or exploited by Cuba’s ever-present counterintelligence services. But these are all Cuban nationals that tragically fight each other viciously, notwithstanding an overriding common objective of opposition to communist ideology. Is this a manifestation of the narcissism of small differences?
Understandably, opposition groups cannot aspire to agree on the whole of their diverging political-economic programs. But, as was the case with the United States’ founding fathers, it is necessary to work together with those who may have different political ideas but who are willing to unite over specific issues and rights.
Rather than a criticism, Freud’s narcissism of small differences offers opposition groups a template for constructive introspection.