I recently encountered this phrase twice in as many days. I can’t remember where I first encountered it (if only I could search my Instapaper history!), but the second place I encountered it was in a review of Peter Baldwin’s recent book that takes the phrase as its title. The book examines at the supposed differences between the United States and Europe, highlighting how minor those differences are through a series of charts and graphs. As an American who has lived in France and currently lives in the U.K., this is fascinating stuff.
But it’s the phrase, “the narcissism of minor differences” that really caught my attention. I brought it up in a conversation with Andrew, and he went off and did some research (he does this a lot). It comes from Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. The original German is Der Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen, which I’m reliably informed is better translates as “the narcissism of small differences,” but I vastly prefer “the narcissism of minor differences.” Here’s Freud on the genesis of the idea:
I once discussed the phenomenon that is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other — like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of “the narcissism of minor differences”, a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.