You know when you have held an idea for a long time and then discover there’s actually a term for it, that it’s “a thing”? It’s always exciting when that happens.
I have long been amazed at how otherwise very similar individuals and especially groups of people seem to take offense at tiny differences between them. In the animal rights/vegan movement too, all of us who are in it have so much in common, but sometimes we tend to get lost on the differences.
So anyway, there’s an expression for this, and it stems from – wait for it – Sigmund Freud. In his (quite interesting) Civilization and its Discontents, he called this “the narcissism of small differences“.
The question of course is: why? Why are groups of people that are so very similar, sometimes so hostile to each other because of the relatively minor stuff that they differ in? Why do vegans infight over feeding one’s cats meat, whether someone like me who indiscriminately drinks wine can call himself a vegan, or whether we should improve the lives of pigs by welfare reforms or not? If some of these things don’t seem small to you, I urge you to look at the bigger picture that we agree on: we all want an end to the suffering, use and killing of animals. At least compared to the general population who has no such ambitions at all, this is a huge point that we have in common. Yes, huge.
One possible explanation for the narcissism of small differences – and one that Freud himself offers – is our need for distinct identities. We may somehow, subconscioulsy, become hostile because our identity is threatened by others who are too much like us, so we overemphasize the (often tiny) differences.
Which brings me again to the vegan club vs vegan world topic. Maybe a club that gets too big is a threat to our identity too. Maybe after a while we are not feeling exclusive or special enough anymore, and that might be why we need to make sure entrance to our ingroup doesn’t become too easy. The membership fee, in this sense, has to be high enough. The vegan police is there to guard the door.
All this has to do with the different motivations we have as humans. All of us vegans and activists have a desire to make the world a better place. But most of us also have much more mundane and less lofty tendencies and aspirations. We also want to belong. We want to be with likeminded people. We want to feel at least a tiny bit important. These frailties will not help us in our cause, but they are all too human. It is good to be aware of them. Always.
PS I’m sure there are psychologists, sociologists and evolutioniary biologists who can speak about with much more expertise than I can. I welcome your input, links, studies…
Check this article for further reading, and part of the inspiration for this post