Small Differences

I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member. — Groucho Marx (popularized by Woody Allen)

According to the latest information from the United States Census Bureau, the current global population is about 7 billion people and may increase to an estimated 16 billion people by 2100. It should be obvious that continuous growth of this sort demands innovation for sustainability and the recognition that a global civilized society must be established if the future of humanity is expected to flourish without a massive depletion of natural resources or recurring episodes of excessive conflict. However, selective cultural traditions, destructive beliefs, and monolithic ideologies continue to balkanize and segregate people as if all sociocultural differences consigned humans to an eternity of hopeless incompatibility. Sigmund Freud coined the term “the narcissism of small differences” just before the end of WWI to describe the phenomenon of being overly sensitive and reactionary to the details of interpersonal differentiation. Culture often exploits these differences between people, both individually and collectively, resulting in negative partitions that serve to reinforce the assurance of a unique identity and feelings of safety in provincial communities.

We are biologically predisposed to distrust those with whom we are unfamiliar (as an adaptive response to perceived threats). This protective disposition developed during our evolutionary history and allowed our ancestors to detect or avoid potential harm while securing their survival in the face of real danger. However, the same defense mechanisms that engage the sympathetic nervous system when a threat is real can also innervate anxiety when we encounter a false alarm. This phenomenon is known as a Type 1 error in cognition (aka a false positive). A common example of a Type 1 error is when someone perceives a shadow to be a predator. Nonetheless, we can also see why this mechanism of preparedness would be useful in situations when the shadow turns out to be an actual predator. Type 1 errors in cognition have probably saved the skin of many individuals throughout history, but an ongoing persistence of this perceptual bulwark is likely to cause continued anxiety and provoke unnecessary hypervigilance. Subsequently, manufactured fears without evidence will perpetuate defensive or aggressive behavioral responses which may result in devastating interpersonal and social ramifications.

The sociologist Erving Goffman described the process of social identification as a complex combination of individual, role, and group identities. Goffman also contributed to ideas associated with game theory to elucidate how symbolic interactionism (i.e., people acting towards things based on the meanings those things have for them) influences political and ideological allegiances and emotional investment in sectarian belief systems. The resulting compensatory behavior employed to maintain a sense of individual or community identity often leads to in-group favoritism and out-group derogation. Likewise, discrimination and polarization become more pronounced in societies when a denial of human universality becomes predominate. As an inevitable outcome of reactionary thought processes, compensatory attempts to assert dominance serve to reduce anxiety while consolidating consensus (e.g., hegemony, totalitarianism, nationalism, and racism). In conjunction with these ideas, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that denying our own “creatureliness,”combined with the perception of others as inherently inferior, acts as a pernicious impediment to accepting our common biological origins, the nature of reality, and the inherent connectivity of all social mammals. In addition, the poet William Blake recognized the unnecessary social limitations and intellectual restrictions humans place on themselves (derived from forbidding conceptual imaginations) and described these erroneous belief systems as “mind forged manacles.” These unfortunate products of the mind can keep us chained to dysfunctional social constructions and impose limitations on interpersonal well-being regardless of whether they are traditional, consistently promoted, or superficially believable.

The creativity required for establishing social cohesion must prevail over the creativity of manufactured hatred, terror, and subjugation. One is inclusive and the other is relentlessly divisive.
Universally ethical principles required for addressing global issues should not have to be advocated for; they should be developed, understood, and maintained. The only guarantor of multicultural pluralism and universal human rights is a system that denies showing partiality towards ideologies that implicitly disenfranchise our terrestrial neighbors through prejudice, hatred, discrimination, unfounded beliefs, or violence. There are differences worth celebrating and there are differences worth extricating, but different approaches to achieving human solidarity should make all the difference worth having. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that our entire species originated from a small region of Africa before embarking on an extensive migration across this planet approximately 100,000 years ago.

(This article appeared in the Nashville Psychotherapy Institute newsletter, Fall edition, 2014).