August 25, 2014

Northern Ireland's vanity of the small difference

The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry - A series of 6 tapestries partly inspired by Hogarth's A Rake's Progress
It was W. H. Auden who wrote in his poem about partition: "Two peoples fanatically at odds, With their different diets and incompatible gods." Yet to outsiders, the two communities in Northern Ireland look, seem and act identically. Eugene Robinson wrote in the Seattle Times about how Northern Ireland Protestants and Catholics are at the same time identical and alien. He said:
"When I was the Post’s London correspondent in the early 1990s, I covered the Northern Ireland conflict. The first thing I went to see in Belfast was the notorious "peace line" between the Falls Road, a Catholic stronghold, and Shankill Road, a Protestant redoubt. Everything looked the same on both sides — the houses, the shops, the people — yet it was as if they were two different countries. Animosities had been passed down through generations. Even now, 15 years later, a civil exchange between two of the leading antagonists — Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams — is big news."
Kevin Myers wrote:
"Visitors to this archipelago [Britain and Ireland] are baffled by the differences that are so passionately cherished: for what they usually perceive are similar hedgerows, Georgian architecture, endless rain, common law, wigged judges, unarmed police officers, right-hand drive, a mysteriously ubiquitous brown sauce, tea, fish and chips, and midnight drunks seeking to reduce complete strangers to smears of DNA."
Christopher Hitchens wrote about Northern Ireland:
"I used to work in Northern Ireland, where religion is by no means a minor business either, and at first couldn’t tell by looking whether someone was Catholic or Protestant. After a while, I thought I could guess with a fair degree of accuracy, but most of the inhabitants of Belfast seemed able to do it by some kind of instinct. There is a small underlay of ethnic difference there, with the original Gaels being a little darker and smaller than the blonder Scots who were imported as settlers, but to the outsider it is impalpable. It’s just that it’s the dominant question locally."
He also said:
"In numerous cases of apparently ethno-nationalist conflict, the deepest hatreds are manifested between people who—to most outward appearances—exhibit very few significant distinctions. It is one of the great contradictions of civilization and one of the great sources of its discontents, and Sigmund Freud even found a term for it: "the narcissism of the small difference." As he wrote, "It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them."
Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford wrote:
"On the island of Ireland, we had two branches of Christianity literally at each other’s throats in the name of nationalism and mutual religious intolerance. Why was this? The answer to the question comes, I think, in an essay by Freud nearly 100 years ago on the subject of what he called “the narcissism of small differences”. Freud’s contention was that it was precisely in the groups which had relatively little to distinguish each other that the jealousies, the narcissism most easily led to violent attempts to mark that difference and to want to obliterate those who most nearly resembled you. The read across to Northern Ireland is clear enough. 
To circumvent these “minor differences”, to move away from nationalism and tribalism/sectarianism involves reducing the extent to which people feel secure and understood only among people like themselves. Put another way, we need to find a way to overcome what has been described as social autism. The Canadian author and latterly politician Michael Ignatieff put it well “the pathology of groups so enclosed in their own circle of victimhood or so locked into their own myths or rituals of violence that they can’t listen, can’t hear, can’t learn from anybody outside themselves.” We need to overcome, in Northern Ireland, this bell-jar mentality by discounting and rejecting sectarianism in all its sinister forms and promoting not just trust but the kind of individualism that can survive only in conditions of trust. The murderous attack made against NI police officer Ronan Kerr for daring to join the new integrated police service in Northern Ireland is, of course, anathema to that approach and a classic example of intolerance and of the collective gangsterism in which paramilitary structures thrive."
It's Christopher Hitchens who is last and the best on it:
"Condemnation of bigotry and superstition is not just a moral question but a matter of survival."

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