Bennelong Papers

The Narcissism of Small Difference

aborigine spear‘The narcissism of small difference” was a phrase coined by Sigmund Freud, but only mentioned by him, seemingly en passant, on a handful of occasions. It describes the intensity of feelings that arise between groups of people with seemingly trivial differences, leading to a desire to maximize the importance and centrality of those differences and use them as the basis to distinguish themselves from, and attack others. Think Aussies taunting Kiwis about their dreadful accent or their deep affection for sheep.

The pivots around which groups of humans have organized their differences are the usual culprits — religion, politics, culture (more broadly) and ancestry. To outsiders, many tribal differences, even those that lead to wars, can appear quite trivial. The further away from the strife you are, the more trivial they become. Conversely, the closer you are to the protagonists, the more important these differences seem.

It is sometimes important to take a stand on positions of difference, and sometimes it is better to leave well enough alone. Possessed of sound judgment, we can properly ignore a schoolyard squabble between rival gangs, yet urgently intervene, like the West shamefully failed to do in catastrophes such as the Rwandan genocide.

The ‘Uluru Statement From The Heart’ is a challenge to the notion of ‘difference’ within our own borders. Briefly, it is a statement of claim to change the Constitution, to work towards a treaty and a parallel, but separate, democratic process. Australians may well be asked to take a position on the premises articulated in this document. Since it is entirely uncontroversial to say that this is just the beginning of a process to entrench, or as some would have it, to restore proper differences, how far we allow this to progress rests to some degree on how legitimate and substantial these differences are.

The case for legislatable or rules-based differentiation of indigenous from non-indigenous Australians is, in principle, not really any different from circumstances other places in the world where there are fights over borders and racially or ethnically based claims to specialness and separateness. It starts with the assertion that one particular group was there first (the sovereign people) and then follows an assertion that that group is both sufficiently homogeneous and different with respect to culture and DNA from their rival groups to be considered the natural heirs of the sovereign people. This being true, it follows that they should inherit the separate rules, privileges and powers accorded to sovereign peoples.

‘Who was here first’, seems a fairly uncontroversial issue. There were plainly people — groups of stone-age tribes, with much less in common than most nation states today — scattered over the continent long before the Union Jack was first raised in New South Wales. How long before and how much that matters, considering the years that have passed since the deaths of the original protagonists, exercises the passions of both sides of the debate. Defining the modern descendants of those waiting on the shore as “first peoples” is wishy-washy. It is almost a reductio-ad-absurdum to therein describe the descendants of groups of impossibly unrelated people, living unknowable years ago and out of the reckoning of even the most generous oral history. Attaching the implied reverential “60,000 years” as a grab-bag descriptor is casuistry.

Ancestral status as defined by belonging to a particular race is the second appeal to the notion of significant difference. We all seem to agree that there is a certain level of significance when it comes to expressions of our DNA that, right at the pointy end of the taxonomic ranking of organisms, allows separation into and the denomination of ‘race’. We can measure differences in DNA. However, there are many good reasons why, in the years since Dr Goebbels sharpened his calipers to distinguish Aryan from Jewish heads, we sensibly eschew this kind of thing.

That said, in the matter of ancestry, the narcissism of small differences tells us that the assertion of 1/16th indigenous ancestry is an unreasonable basis, in the absence of an extraordinarily compelling cultural argument, to claim membership of a group seeking to establish substantial difference — particularly when odds of membership of the opposing group are running at 15/16ths.  The inflation of a tiny fraction of provable heredity as a means of defining an identity that compels special recognition and action by others is likely to be found unacceptable to most.

Put simply, Erin, the blonde from Emerald State High has no right to any special treatment simply on the basis of her heredity.

That brings us to culture, the least physical and least measurable and therefore the most controversial aspect of difference. Culture is almost entirely a product of the human imagination and, unlike things that can be carbon-dated or genetically sequenced, the most susceptible to distortion, deception and frank unreality. The most extreme example of delusional cultural identification is that of the white female activist Rachel Dolezal who has altered her appearance and disguised her past not just to feel sympathy for, but to actually be (in her mind) an African American.

The Uluru Statement, apart from a reference to ‘more than 60,000 years’ is entirely preoccupied with issues of cultural difference. That’s not surprising. Most foundation documents are, and should be if they hope to describe and distinguish the uniqueness of the relevant group on its thinking and behaviour rather than its biology.

However, this will be the departure point for many Australians who will not accept that there are large numbers of people, particularly those not living traditional Aboriginal lifestyles, who are sufficiently different from them to be recognized in a change to the Constitution. They will object to other people’s fairy stories and, in many cases, dumb delusions about themselves, being written into legal documents that affect them.

Murray Walters: Shrink-wrapped Racial Identity

Most fair-minded and decent non-indigenous Australians (let’s accept, for the sake of clarity, that indigeneity is a relevant distinction)  have been bought up to believe that the kindest approach to out indigenous brothers and sisters is to treat them as we would like to treated. We have accepted and respected, perhaps even admired, their assertions of an indigenous identity substantially different from our own.

Without thinking too hard about it, we have always instinctively recognized that some groups of people within Australia (let’s call them other ‘cultures’) speak another language and eat very different sorts of food. This is the old argument that, to most Australians, multiculturalism means a variety of tasty eateries on the main street.

There is no doubt that some indigenous communities pass this ‘pub test’, for want of a more propitious metaphor. There is no doubt that there are Aboriginal Australians, those from the Western Deserts for instance, who speak English as a second language, eat different foods and live very different lifestyle from most Australians. These are people who, by any metric, possess a culture of some substance and form that, were it to come to it, could conceivably form the basis of a negotiation with the Australia of the 21st century on the premise of significant difference.

But there are many, many Australians who want to be treated separately and who do not pass the pub test. Now that we are coming to the pointy bit of the argument — Constitutional change – fair mindedness and tolerance may not be enough for many Australians to overlook the nonsense they have politely tolerated for a long time. I suspect many will have had enough of the narcissism of small differences.

They will bristle, for instance, at the sight of Beryl from the Wednesday morning tuckshop roster, fronting the cameras in her Mrs Slocombe perm, floral sateen jacket and specs on a chain around her neck, singing songs about how long she has a moral and genetic ‘right’ to ‘own’ the school oval.

Really, Beryl? You can’t even turn up on time to defrost the sausage rolls and fill up the sauce bottle and you want us to change the Constitution for you?

For many non-indigenous Australians, the ABC, particularly ABC radio, has been the voice of aboriginal Australia. Many of us heard our first proper interviews and speeches from articulate aboriginal people on radio. Sometimes they were from aboriginal people, no different from other Australians, who were poor orators and whose arguments were repetitious and vacuous, even if genuinely felt.

Whatever the case, there would be many Australians — those not prepared to stop thinking as soon as someone says “southern skies”, “the Dreaming”, “attachment to country”, “nature”, “ancestors” or “60,000 years” — who assumed they were the unluckiest listeners in Australia. These people have been, for guilt-strewn decades, tuning in the radio or watching Q&A and longing for someone to define those magic words and totemic incantations that might define these words. They have for more than gnomic utterances and arcane references to hidden knowledge they were too ignorant or culturally naive (and more lately ‘privileged’) to grasp.

Nonetheless, they sensed it was really important to try to understand these things because the bits that came next, things attentive listeners could grasp, were starkly real, urgent and ghastly: sickness, poverty, addiction, abuse, crime and all the myriad other consequences of disastrous socioeconomic disadvantage. Sadly, being born under the southern sky and having an animal totem makes no difference to these things, as they apply to all cultures. Decent people were prepared to suspend judgment for a while.

I recall one such interview on ABC radio when, naturally, I had tuned in too late to understand what an exasperated indigenous mother meant when she said that the school was not teaching her son “our culture” and “our history”.  But experience has taught me that there was no missing explanatory preamble. And she had not, just a few moments earlier, given some examples of these omitted cultural and historical parts of the curriculum. She could say no more than what I heard because there was nothing more to say. All she knew was that, somewhere along the line, she had been told that there was important cultural knowledge she had never really thought to question, that ought to exist and ought to be taught. This lady, I have no doubt, will be lining up to assert that her difference ought to have the imprimatur of a new element of the Constitution.

Modern Australians understand that for most Aboriginal people brought up in rural and regional Australia, those who have no experience of a traditional lifestyle, and nearly all of the Aboriginal people who were brought up in the city, there is absolutely nothing: no system, no feeling, no vision – external or internal – and no special knowledge or perception that gives them a connection with nature, animals, ecology, timelessness or any other kind of transcendence to distinguish them one iota from non-indigenous people. There are no words or objects –  no ‘walking on country’, no mongrel coat of imported New Zealand possum skin –  that confers any experience more authentically spiritual than is possessed by anyone else. For most, it is no more than a childish wish in support of a spectral self-concept. Not to mince words, it is a sad fraud.

It has taken me tens of thousands of hours to become proficient in my specialty. I have been to many conferences, lasting as long or longer than the Uluru convention. Yet even in these forums I have endured long, supposedly ‘academic’ sessions entirely devoid of meaningful content. I am experienced in the legerdemain of the psychosocial disciplines. I have had to endure the gobbledegook and waffle. What Don Watson describes as “anaesthetic words” have put me to sleep and left me bored out of my brain. So it defies imagination to wonder, legal and political machinations aside, what enervating repetitions of empty words like culture, country, connection, spirituality and other pabulum attendees at the Uluru conference must have endured.

There would have been many other misuses of symbolic and impressionistic language – language that meant nothing when it should have meant a lot. Sadder than all of these musings on the frailty of words was this sentence from the Uluru Statement From the Heart:

Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them.

Except that many indigenous adults, for all the usual tragic reasons, do not know how to love, are too damaged to love, or are so feckless or habitually intoxicated that, if love is to have any meaning beyond the capacity to feel the heartbreak of broken attachments, of separation and grief, they truly do not love their children.

My sense is that most Australians understand that there are groups of traditional Aboriginal people sufficiently different from them to support some sort of special agreement. They are unlikely to agree to the extent that they endorse a referendum question.

There are probably even more Australians who intuit the ‘narcissism of minor differences’ in many of their indigenous brothers and sisters. They hear it in their words, or rather in their lack of words, to describe a difference they desperately wish to possess.  I suspect most Australians will vote ‘no’ to any proposition to enshrine in law those abstractions.

Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist

3 thoughts on “The Narcissism of Small Difference

  • mags of Queensland says:

    I agree with the thrust of your article but there are other things which also contribute to this narcissism. Firstly they are constantly fed the line that they are victims of white settlement, by activists and the perpetually offended who do nothing practical to help overcome the problems many aboriginal people ( of whatever degree) are subject to. Secondly, it wouldn’t matter how much help was given or sympathetic hearing or anything else, it would never be enough.Claiming aboriginality with less than 50% blood tie is a scam and a disgrace. Decrying your other heritage for financial benefit is disgusting.And those who get offended the most from being called out on this are more likely to be those same activists who screech loudly but contribute nothing to the betterment of ” their ” people.

    Claiming that they love their children is not good enough. They should show it by feeding, clothing and protecting their children; by ensuring that they go to school and aren’t roaming the streets at night getting into mischief. Monkey see monkey do. They see their parents behaving as though the law is for everyone else but not them. How does that teach respect?

    I realise that it is hard to go from a prehistoric tribal life to one in the modern world but more than 200 years have passed since white people came here. Either they are really stupid ( which they are not) or they want the best of both worlds – as long as someone else pays for it.

    • Peter Sandery says:

      The way I read the article, mags, the writer addressed all of the issues that you highlight as “other’. Did I read the some article or is there some form of Queensland English that us Townsvilleans are in the dark about?

  • says:

    This article, like the ones about Islam, CAGW, gender fluidity, white guilt, One World Government and similar notions which are damaging western culture are inevitably repetitive, because it’s all been said before so every author valiantly tries to rephrase the message. Those of us on the same wavelength enjoy reading them and despair.

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