Obama and the Language of Contention

I’ve been a little surprised at the number of people who want the President of the United States, a man of dignity and diplomacy, to sound like some macho character out of a movie. Obama has lately been chastised for not labeling ISIS an Islamic threat and identifying its specific religious motivations. I personally have no problem recognizing the religious roots of ISIS despicable behavior and have even pointed it out myself on occasion. But it is not fitting for the President who speaks to numerous audiences and is responsible for maintaining the peace and representing the interests of diverse groups (even mainstream Muslims).

When it comes to the language of contention as soon as you label a group that label begins the construction process – the construction of characteristics and emotional responses associated with the group. “Naming” is the first step in the stereotype and prejudice formation process. As soon as ISIS or some other jihadist group is named and becomes increasingly defined as “Muslim” the name becomes the basis for perceptual discriminability and these characteristics are more likely to become the basis for defining groups.

Very simply, by labeling these groups as Islamic the act of categorizing them triggers negative stereotypes associated with the term “Islamic.” Consequently, the problem is exacerbated rather than managed. Moreover, labeling extremist groups as Muslim exaggerates ingroup-outgroup biases and increases the sense of essentialism that accompanies the definition of outgroups. Having a world leader label the international criminal behavior of groups such as ISIS just makes them more salient.

The Narcissism of Small Differencesnarcissism of small differences

Hate is a powerful unifying passion and it is even more dominant in extremist movements. As soon as a movement or ideology is associated with “hate” other meanings creep in – meanings such as disgust, fear, contempt, and others. Elites and those with regular public voices (such as the President of the United States) can more easily energize the feelings of ordinary people against groups labeled negatively in some way. And this activates what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” The story below exemplifies the fragile state of group relationships when they are isolated and differentiated to such a degree that “any difference seems to be a difference”.

I was walking across a bridge one sunny day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: ‘Stop. Don’t do it.’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he asked.
‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’
‘Like what?’
‘Are you religious?’
He said: ‘Yes.’
I said. ‘Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?’
‘Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
‘Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’
‘Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?’
‘Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you reformed Baptist Church of God?’
‘Reformed Baptist Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?’
He said: ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915.’
I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.

If the President of the United States begins to label mainstream Muslims, who are more like us than not, as dangerous or violent or any other even minor characteristic then the narcissism of small differences triggers because according to Freud and a few that follow him we reserve our most intense dislike and feelings of threat for those who are more like us than not like us. The very strange “other” can certainly be threatening but we don’t identify with that person or group. But the more a group or an individual is “nearly-me” the more I project my own distasteful qualities. The narcissist’s natural tendency to distinguish and separate himself from others causes him to exaggerate differences in the service of his narcissism. So, small differences that should be ignored or evaporate become big differences. The President of the United States can halt or prevent this process by carefully choosing his language and avoiding the “language of contention.”

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on February 22, 2015, in Political Conflict and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I thank you for explaining Obama’s bizarre behavior. As misguided as I believe it is, at least there is a method to his madness.

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