APU Careers & Learning Intellectible Podcast

Podcast: Repairing National Division by Understanding the Narcissism of Small Differences

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, and
Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D, J.D., Faculty Director, School of Business

What brings people together and what pushes them apart? In this episode, Dr. Gary Deel talks to APU professor Dr. Bjorn Mercer about the “narcissism of small differences,” the idea that minor and often insignificant differences often lead to major conflicts and even warfare. Learn how today’s charged and divisive political climate originates from minor differences in opinions and beliefs and what can be done to find common ground and repair the growing divisiveness.  

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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today we’re talking about the narcissism of small differences. My guest today is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Bjorn is a Program Director in the School of Arts and Humanities. Bjorn, welcome to Intellectible and thank you for being our guest today.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Thanks, Gary. It’s an honor being here to be on your podcast and I’m excited about the conversation.

Dr. Gary Deel: Likewise. I appreciate it. One of my first guest appearances was on your podcast, The Everyday Scholar, so I’m happy to return the favor and reciprocate. Thanks again for being here. I’ll admit to our listeners that you were the first to introduce me to this topic.

I found it a rather fascinating one and we’ve since written an article together about it and talked about it a little bit, but I wanted to really dive into get to the heart of this issue. I guess to get us started, can you explain to our listeners what the narcissism of small differences is and where it originated?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Sure, I’m happy to. First thing I want to say is I’m not an expert at any of this, not a trained psychologist since this term technically originates with Freud, but I was introduced to it when I was watching actually a YouTube channel. The YouTube channel is called Religion for Breakfast.

Andrew Henry who studies religion was talking about, “What did the Gnostic Christians believe?” He’s talking about Gnostic Christians 18th centuries ago. I think, with most people who study Christianity they’ve heard of Gnostics, but what do we know about Gnostics besides they were a heretical sect, but then even then, what does it mean to be heretical?

One thing that Andrew Henry stated was heresy is viewed as dangerous or invited exile precisely because it involves outsiders trying to become insiders or insiders that other insiders were trying to push out.

This infighting exemplifies a phenomenon called the narcissism of small differences, which he describes as an unnecessarily complicated term. That means when closely related communities, whether religious, ethnic or political engage in near constant warfare. It’s because they’re small differences are more threatening than some distant foe. Really, the latter part of that is a really important part.

When he’s talking about Christians and Gnostics, especially when you’re talking about something 18 centuries ago, how can you even wrap yourself around something even 100 years ago or even 200 years ago? It’s extremely difficult.

When we think about something that is so far back in, say, human history, what could their differences possibly be? The Gnostics still believe in Jesus. They still believed in God, but there are certain things that were so the main line Christianity at the time felt they were heretical, that they had to push them out. Typically, in the past, when somebody is a heretic, that means that, say, violence could be done upon them.

That really made me think, what is that term, the narcissism of small differences? Because logically, it seems extremely common sense. The small little differences can really create intense infighting.

An easy way to think about that is with family. If our listeners have a brother or a sister or aunts and uncles, which we all do, how often do we fight with them? Do we have disagreements? Oftentimes over the smallest things that honestly don’t matter. That’s really how I view this, the narcissism of small differences, is that when people who are similar, fight over things that really, really don’t matter. We’ll get more into that in a second, especially when you talk about the evolutionary roots of the phenomenon which is very fascinating.

To give a little background on its origin, there is an anthropological origin, which I’m not familiar with, I have to apologize, but Freud talked about it in “Civilization and Its Discontents,” a book from 1930. Now, this book, the latter part of Freud’s life, I would describe it as a slog. It is a tough read honestly and which is a tough read for most of Freud. I’ve talked to people who speak German and they say even in German, Freud is a tough read. When you read it in English, it’s still a tough read.

In the Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud really goes over ideas and concepts, including religion. He’s really talking about trying to find happiness in a cruel world. He really has a prolonged discussion of sex, aggression and violence. Sounds pretty Freudian, to use the term.

Really, the book is overall pretty pessimistic, that civilization is driven by aggression, which don’t really disagree with and this is about three years after a book called “The Future of an Illusion,” in which Freud really talks about religion as an illusion. I guess you can say he was for the most part an atheist and somewhat discounted religion.

As you’re reading “Civilization and Its Discontents,” you don’t get to the narcissism of small differences until around page 33. The quote from Freud is, “I once discussed the phenomenon that it 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 the South Germans, the English and the Scots, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name, the narcissism of minor differences, a name which does not do much to explain it.”

Since then, it’s been changed to the narcissism of small differences. It really makes you think, “Why do people fight?” That’s a consistent theme in my own life and my own studies and pretty much everything I’ve studied, I’ve oftentimes thought, “Why do people fight? Why can’t people just get along?”

It’s something that has been always confusing for me because I don’t get it. I really don’t. If people just go to the table and just have a conversation, you could probably resolve 90% of all conflicts, with 10% of conflicts potentially being so far away that some other means have to be figured out for the conflict to be resolved. Now, is that a good overview, Gary?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, absolutely. I think that summarizes the main points and you have me thinking about Rodney King’s father, “Can we all just get along?” Would that we could.

But yeah, it’s an interesting concept and I’m really glad that you introduced me to it because it got me thinking about the way that we have a natural propensity for aggression or hostility toward others. I thought, well, this might have a silver lining in the sense that it might unite us against some common enemy in different contexts.

I found myself thinking back to 9/11 and I was a teenager at the time. I know we’re going to get into the politics of the US toward the end of this. It was political divisiveness at the time, not nearly what it is today. I think it’s exploded for reasons that I can’t quite articulate, at least not in a comprehensive way.

But there was a unity after that moment and I distinctly remember, everyone putting aside their blue signs and their red signs and uniting around the cause of American patriotism and the values that our country stood for. It was, I believe, a certain sense of, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This idea that we had an external threat that took greater precedence or priority over our subtle differences between ourselves here in the country, but yet I reflect then, and try to reconcile that with what’s happening today and again the political division, I think, has grown considerably since then and we face a threat, but it’s different now.

I wonder if it’s because it’s not personified in the sense that we are now recording this in October of 2020. We are in month, nine, I guess, of the US’s exposure to the COVID pandemic. That seems to have done nothing really, to unite the country, at least the conservative and progressive wings of our political factions around this idea that, we need to rally together for the better of our nation.

It’s interesting to me that that juxtaposition between what happened 20 years ago and us rallying around a cause against, you could argue a man in Osama bin Laden, you could argue a group in terms of the terrorist extreme factions in the Middle East, you could argue a cause, but today we have this biological threat and that does not seem to have the same effect on our ability to see past these subtle differences and move together in lockstep.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. COVID is interesting, because it also requires people to recognize and acknowledge scientific realities of the virus. For some people, health concerns, if they can’t see it, they don’t believe it.

For a certain percentage of people, they just won’t believe that there’s a problem because maybe in their lives, nobody has COVID. For some smaller communities, very few people, or it’s just not as rampant. Well, I knew somebody and it was pretty mild. It’s very easy to discount something if it’s not directly influencing you. Then, part of the reason I started the series, the narcissism of small differences, which you contributed too, so thank you so much, was exactly leading up to the 2020 election and watching the Democrats and the Republicans constantly fighting.

It’s something that I’ll not say, Trump didn’t invent it. It’s been building for years. If you remember, during W, everything W did, according to CNN and MSNBC was pretty terrible. Then when Obama came in to office, Obama was a fascist. You watched FOX at the time and you’re like, “Obama’s going to do all these things.” And it’s one of those things that as an adult, I really started being disappointed in my fellow adults and my elders. I say that with a heavy heart because our elders are the ones who are supposed to be wise and guide us and then you realize that a lot of people out there whom have power are as stupid as we are.

I use that term stupid directed back at me because I am not brilliant. I’m not a genius. I’m just a normal person, but then people who get power and have influence are actually just normal people too, such as what’s going on with COVID where you have someone, for example, Dr. Fauci, a brilliant guy, years and years of good solid work and he makes one mistake, I put that in a quote, with the masks thing at the beginning of the COVID thing and then people are pointing back to that, “Well, he made a mistake. Why should we trust him?”

How many mistakes did you make today? That’s the tough thing when you’re doing public policy. Sometimes when you make a mistake, it costs people’s lives and then you have to try to adjust.

Really with the narcissism of small differences, and you were talking about 9/11, I’ll go back even further with the Cold War. There’s nothing that brought Americans together more than those darn Commies and the Red Threat.

All history is complicated. Whenever I talk about anything, everything is complicated after World War II and the Red Scare and McCarthyism was not a good thing, but the one thing that communism per se did is it brought together many aspects of American culture and united them.

Now, was that a positive Cold War? That sounds funny because really no wars are positive. No, it was absolutely horrible. There’s so many secondary conflicts that killed millions of people because of the conflict between communism and capitalism, that none of that was worth it. Can you apply the narcissism of small differences to capitalism and communism? I don’t know. They seem pretty polar opposites, but at the same time, are they? I’m digressing.

Dr. Gary Deel: No, I think these are valid points and it’s interesting, you were describing how if you’re not affected personally by something that it may not have the same impact and change your life in the same way.

As I was reflecting on that, in 9/11, I lost an uncle who was at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers at the time. In COVID, at least thus far, I’ve not lost any immediate family members and/or friends. I’ve known people who have lost others but hasn’t had nearly the same intimate impact on my life, but we’re actually recording this on the day that the news came out this morning that President Trump and his wife have both tested positive for coronavirus. It caused me to pause and think if that will change anything, but maybe I’m cynical, I have zero faith that that will make any difference at all.

It is interesting that, it seems that in order to unite, we have to share and unite around a disdain for some other third-party extrinsic to us that we can’t find an intrinsic way to bond and find communal relations or commonality that in the sense of the Cold War that you described, it was necessary for us to rally around our mutual hostility toward the Soviets in order to bond together as Americans.

I think there was a sense of egocentrism and an idolatry around US values that have fallen short of their ambitions in recent years. People are beginning to realize as they reflect upon at least recent American history.

You can always go back to the founding fathers who were slaveholders and conveniently left out the fact that the 13th Amendment wasn’t part of the original Constitution, despite the fact that people hold the document up as this bastion of perfect values.

Then you look at Vietnam and you look at other ways in which we’ve interfered in global affairs that probably were not in the interest of altruism, but it does make me wonder, and not to be a pessimist either, but whether it’s possible to unite people around something other than an external threat.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I don’t know. I would describe myself as an optimistic nihilist. I always think things will get better. With that said, they don’t always.

It’s one of those realities that I think a young Bjorn came to realize that the world is tough and complicated and ugly and sometimes it’s disgusting and violent and murderous, as I’m describing all these horrible terms. But overall, things do go okay. Sometimes it takes a generation though. That’s a very tough thing to look at.

America, for the most part has lived in a pretty good situation for a long time. Now, of course, like you’re saying, there’s a lot of very difficult history. There’s still a lot that has to be done, say, with minority representation and income inequality and equality. There’s just too much to talk about when it comes to all these other things that need to be addressed.

The reason for the original series about the narcissism of small differences is really just to highlight the fact that although it seems we’re so divided today, Democrats and Republicans are divided, we’re really not. We still believe in the Constitution. I would say, my own thing, we still follow a lot of the excellent points from the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers, I always like to say this, that’s not a Republican thing, that’s an American thing. Even if you don’t know anything about Hamilton besides, the Broadway play. His writings in the Federalist Papers are amazing and what they talked about in 1780s is still exactly applicable today.

That’s one of the things about history that I love, nothing changes, absolutely nothing changes. Whatever we’re dealing with today, Caesar dealt with or not even Caesar, the soldier that worked for Caesar because who cares about Caesar? Those people all had to deal with the same thing.

Americans, even though our politics seems fractured, I would push back on that and say, “Is it fractured in your hometown, in your locality?” When you talk to your neighbors, do you have a CNN-FOX fight where everybody’s yelling at each other and talking over?”

No, I’ve never encountered that with my neighbors. Maybe it’s because we’re polite. We don’t talk too much about politics, but I do talk politics. I talk religion with people and 9.5 times out of 10 we get along.

Dr. Gary Deel: I think the media deserves a healthy amount of blame for the exacerbation of this because of the factions that have divided the major news networks politically and both sides are to blame. We could bicker about who’s worse, but at the end of the day, there’s a little bit of spin in everything.

Some of that may be inadvertent, some of that may be difficult to avoid. It may be a product of bias that people don’t even realize that they have, but you have to realize that a fair portion of it is a product of intentional engineering, of media consumption of information that is spun one way or another based on political allegiances. There seems to be just total disregard among these networks that are exclusively focused on their ratings to offer truth to offer unbiased information. There’s complete mistrust on both sides.

To your point earlier, I do my very best. I’m certainly as susceptible to social pressures and the desire to be polite as anybody else, but I do my best as well to try to engage people in polite conversation, respectful conversation, and politically or specifically among people with whom I disagree.

But to your point you were mentioning, we don’t have these kinds of fights with our neighbors and friends and family, sometimes with family, I suppose, but particularly with people we don’t have very close relationships with for fear of offense or hostility and creating a bad reputation for oneself.

I think we’ve lost something in that because we now fear talking about difficult subjects and having difficult conversations for fear of offending someone rather than seeking out opportunities and ways of having difficult conversations respectfully where we can sit down at the table and share different ideas and disagree but then get up from the table and shake hands and remain friends.

I fear that that aspect of a democratic society that we’ve lost. Now we retreat to our camps, we don’t talk to each other, we just throw stones over the walls is an omen for the future that worries me substantially.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. I guess something we should have talked about was really what is narcissism? Here’s a quick, although I tell my students don’t use Wikipedia, for sources in their papers, I love Wikipedia, it’s truly amazing, it’s an amazing feature that is crowdsourced and considering it’s correct most of the time, but academically don’t use it.

Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s idealized self-image and attributes. It’s really looking at oneself. The narcissism of looking at oneself. Again, when we look at the narcissism of small differences, you’re so consumed with yourself or your group that you will not listen to others.

The presidential debates, we just had the debate which as history will go on will probably be described as probably one of the worst debates ever, if not the worst debate ever.

Dr. Gary Deel: Indeed.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s one of those things when you have a narcissist debating, there’s no debate and you are a debater. A debate isn’t always about changing or changing the other person’s opinion, but it’s about talking about something in a logical and hopefully articulate and civil manner, I’m assuming. Civility has to be there in a debate or else you’re just shouting at each other.

That’s what we saw, people just shouting at each other. All that does is it entrenches two sides of the political spectrum with everybody in the middle just being turned off. As we go to the 2020 presidential elections, I always get so tired of people saying, “Oh, the decline of the American,” enter description here, people say empire, although you should never describe us as an empire because that’s not exceptional when we talk about American exceptionalism. Being an empire is not exceptional. There’s been empires that have risen and fallen throughout history, and all they do, empires only fall.

When you really look at narcissism, you have to go beyond the self. It’s not that you don’t care about yourself, you’re only caring about others. That’s unrealistic also, but when you only think that you’re correct, in whatever culture you grew up in or whatever environment you grew up in and that’s what’s so confusing about the current politics. I say current politics because it’s mainly just as we were talking about the media outlets.

FOX on one side and CNN and MSNBC on the other side only have to care about up to 10 million people each that are diehard viewers. If you think of FOX has about 10 million, MSNBC and CBS have about 10 million, that’s 20 million Americans. 20 million Americans are guiding the viewership of a country of 300 and, how big are we, 40 million?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, something like that at this point.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: When you look at the viewership of the major networks, it’s laughably small.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I was reading I think earlier this week that Joe Rogan’s podcast has a wider viewership than most of the major news networks at this point. That form of media is changing drastically and he’s spurred this new movement around long-form conversation, which I absolutely applaud.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rogan has to say, but I do enjoy his inquisitive nature and his seeking to understand and his willingness to take the time to have the difficult conversations that are longer than a soundbite on a major news network will allow and they bring a pundit on and they said, “Okay, Bjorn, you have 30 seconds. Please describe the state of political affairs in the United States. Then we have to cut to a commercial break.” You’re not going to get at the root of what you’re looking for there.

I think the other piece of this is a feeding of a confirmation bias where you mentioned debates earlier. I think the spirit behind a debate is a seeking to understand and particularly seeking to understand a point of view that you might not agree with prior.

If you disagree with me on an issue, my aim ought to be as an interested inquisitive person and a participant in a democratic society that I share with you to understand your point of view and to try to figure out where the daylight is between us and how we might close that gap one way or another, whether that’s meeting in the middle or one of us persuading the other on a point or just agreeing to disagree, which is okay too.

There’s a comedian, Bill Burr, who I enjoy his standup and he has a bit that he talks about, “Everybody today just goes to imright.com and gets fed the daily dose of, ‘Don’t worry about what the other side has to say. They’re crazy. They’re lunatics. You’re right. Just keep on doing what you’re doing. Don’t seek to understand.'”

I think that that’s a really big part of the problem. After the presidential debates that you were describing earlier, I was in the car with my father on a trip across town and we were discussing what an absolute circus that was. I have to give him a lot of credit, I’m very proud of him because he’s far more conservative than I am as a product of a very different Baby Boomer generation.

That’s to be expected to a certain extent, although no generation is a monolith, but he remarked to me that this is really astonishing and shameful in the sense that this is our representation on the world stage and this is the very best we can do.

As what once was the bastion of stability and leadership among the free world, we appear to be, and in some senses, I would say, appearances are telling here, a destabilized nation that is just shaking at the foundation as we try to figure out which direction we’re heading in and we can’t agree on virtually anything.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s again going back to what brings us together versus pushes us apart and it seems like right now, as we go towards the 2020 election, what pushes us apart are really on the fringes.

I saw an interview, a brief interview with Michelle Bachmann where she was saying, “If Biden gets elected, the Marxist takeover is going to happen. They’re going to do this. They’re going to do that.” It’s like, “I don’t even know to say. What are you talking about?” I would have to ask someone like that, who I’m assuming is very much a supporter of capitalism, “What do you think capitalism does? What is your view of capitalism? What is your view of freedom? Is everything Soviet-style communism in your head because different aspects of our country and especially different aspects of different industries are already socialist? If you’re rich, pretty much everything’s fine, but if you’re rich, everything’s fine everywhere. It doesn’t matter. With healthcare, why wouldn’t you want to have socialized medicine?”

Of course, then it’s like, “Well, then it’s going to be terrible and there’s going to be waits and Canada is terrible and all this all these different things.” It’s like, “Yeah, but the problem is that everybody who makes the decisions, they’re all rich. They’re all our congressional leaders who are all rich.”

Of course, I’m generalizing, they’re not all rich, but do they really have had to go and have a baby in which for a year you constantly get bills? I can’t tell you how many bills we got with good insurance a year after we had our first and second child, not knowing how much we’d have to pay when we are in the hospital or having our second baby. At that time, I knew what I was doing.

I was like, “How much is this going to cost?” They’re like, “I don’t know. You have to bill your insurance company and then they send something.” I’m like, “How does that make any sense? None of this makes sense.”

With COVID, at least hope with COVID that would have at least shocked people into the need for some better healthcare system, but no, if you think you have COVID, especially at the beginning, “Oh, well, I don’t know if I have to go get a test. I don’t know where to get a test. I might have to pay for it. I’m not going to go get a test and I can’t lose my job, I have to go work.”

How many potential cases of COVID could have been stopped if we had universal healthcare in which people just went and got a test, “Oh, they don’t have, I’m going to work.” “Oh, I do have it, self-quarantine,” versus so many people not knowing, not wanting. Even our family, which is okay and I’ll say privileged to point, we are hesitant to go to the doctor sometimes because it’s like, “Well, how much is this going to cost us even with good insurance?”

Dr. Gary Deel: Right. I think there’s a critical component there of reasoning and argument skills that are missing among the general public. Maybe it’s not so much a fault of their own as it is the society that raised them and the fact that we have classes in K-12 on all manner of different disciplines and interests and hobbies, but we don’t really teach people how to think critically about things.

You will always have town criers like the Michelle Bachmann example of lunatics who are willing to shout from the rooftops that the sky is falling and just blasphemously misrepresenting arguments from people that never occurred.

We know, as a debater, you learn certain skills and you understand fallacious arguments for what they are, for one example. That’s a classic example of something called a straw man attack. You mischaracterize the other person’s views as something bastardly and then you just beat that up and until the audience is convinced that you’ve won the argument when really you’re fighting something that doesn’t exist because there’s nothing, at least by any reasonable interpretation, of the Biden platform.

Again, I’m not here to advocate or stump for Biden. I’m just stating that as it pertains to a Marxist socialist revolution, we’re talking about a platform that is strikingly similar to the Obama administration’s platform. That should be no surprise to anybody else. We were not a Marxist socialist country at that time nor would we be if we have a President Biden in the future.

There’s plenty to criticize and straw man attacks occur on both sides, but it’s important, I think that people are intellectually honest about the arguments they’re making. You will always have people who are dishonest, but the ability among a public to recognize dishonest arguments when they hear them I think is lacking and that’s part of the problem that we have today.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Again, as we’re talking about going to the 2020 election, it’s so ripe for discussion, so the narcissism of small differences, it really, again, what are our differences? Since we’re talking about healthcare, I would say the one thing that is oftentimes left out, for some reason is, what is ethical?

Now, ethical and ethics are extremely gray. They change with every generation, but if you’re a capitalist, you want to make money. That’s fine, make money. Do you also want millions of people who are going to tax the healthcare system, which they can’t pay for, which then the government has to pay for any ways, in which it’s pretty much government supported anyways?

There’s all these different things that say with Republicans and Democrats and I remember having conversations with my mom and she was talking about Republicans, those darn Republicans, about some tax or something. I was like, “They just viewed taxation a little different than Democrats and Republicans.” I’m not talking about the far-far right or the far-far left. I’m talking about your normal average Democrat and Republican.

They’re not that different, especially today. Democrats are pretty corporate. Republicans are pretty corporate. A lot of things really go to protecting corporations which is also a different problem.

Did you want to talk about the evolutionary roots of the phenomena?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I was just going to mention it. I know we glossed over that briefly earlier, but I think this phenomenon extends far beyond the ramifications of our political system and the election that’s coming up because this was the avenue that I decided to pursue on the topic when you had approached me with it.

I think, as I began pondering it, “Why are we predisposed for this?” was the question that I asked myself. What I arrived at least, my working theory on this is and we wrote about this in an article together is the idea that every human being alive today is a descendant of a survivor of our entire line of ancestry.

We’ve made it to this point because every member of our lineage, our great-great grandfather and our great-great-great grandfather and so on and so forth going back hundreds and thousands of generations survived long enough to be able to procreate and pass on the genes that ultimately are responsible for us existing in the first place.

If that is true, then you begin with a gene pool that is diverse and then the environment begins to hone that gene pool under, obviously, the postulates and theories of natural selection in Darwin’s work.

The environment shapes the organisms that live within it based on the needs and what we described together in our interview article was, it’s not hard to imagine this, a situation where looking back thousands of years or millions of years, your ancestry, the organisms that would eventually give rise to you through the generations would be faced with all manner of threats in the external environment.

But you have to remember that for most of human history, both the recorded part and prior to that, every day was sort of a crapshoot. You didn’t really know what you’d be faced with in terms of disease or in terms of external threats, again whether it’s a bear or anything else that could eat you or hurt, a rattlesnake or what have you, something that could poison you and spell the end of your story.

Those humans that were not properly cautious and wary of the unknown in a certain respect of things unfamiliar to them, so we described in our article together a scenario where you can imagine a caveman of sorts or some early ancestor sitting in the bush, eating berries or something, just sitting around the fire and there’s a there’s a noise nearby in the brush.

There’s a certain recipe of human being that would be more curious about that or less concerned with it than those who would be cautious and wary and even paranoid, you can argue to a certain extent.

Those human beings that didn’t use enough caution didn’t make it, right? You can imagine that scenario where if you are not sufficiently scared about the environment around you so as to avoid danger, you were a victim to something that ate you or killed you and that was the end of the story of your genes.

Those that survived were those that had an abundance of caution, that were wary about everything and treated anything unknown or slightly different or unfamiliar as hostile for the sake of safety.

All to the good to the extent that it led us to where we are today that you and I are privileged enough to be here to have this conversation, but we are, in fact, in the genetic sense, the product of those people who survived.

When I think about that, I think about the fact that we have to, to a certain extent be predisposed for certain wariness, an abundance of caution and maybe even a paranoia toward things that are unfamiliar.

When I look at the modern world today and I see this narcissism of small difference play out in our lives, I’m really not terribly surprised, because I think that that was written into the cards that whoever made it this far would have to be that way to a certain extent.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. In the same respect, as we go towards the 2020 election and really thinking of the narcissism of small differences, besides what you might see on Twitter, where somebody says, “Get rid of all police,” most people don’t want to get rid of all police.

Some people might want to defund the police, but that’s redirecting funds towards mental healthcare, having other people who can help the public in a way that a fully armed police person doesn’t have to do.

Whenever I’d like to talk about it, I would say, somebody tried to break in our house few years ago. We called it in. The police came here and a policeman came, gun in the car, AR-15. My question is, “Do you need to fully train the person who just goes to a house and takes a report and maybe investigates that? Does that person need to be fully trained on all weapons and have all weapons on them or should a small percentage of the police be specially trained, drilled all the time in firearms handling for those specific situations?”

Now, of course, you never know when things could happen, but if you call for one thing, it’s a police. If you call for another issue, it’s the police. I think that narcissism of small differences applies to the police perfectly. People are concerned about safety, of course. They want to be protected. They want their family to be protected.

Because the polarizing media, the discussion is laughable. Honestly, some police departments are laughable too because they don’t want to change and they don’t want their budgets to change. I remember growing up where the budgets for police and fire departments were actually really strapped and now they’re not.

Dr. Gary Deel: I think there’s something akin to that and it’s interesting what you’re proposing because as you were talking about the scenario where you’d have different levels of law enforcement training for different specific applications, I started thinking about SWAT teams and tactical assault teams that are obviously specifically designed for certain very high risk of violence situations and only sort of those situations.

But what you’re describing is a more tiered structure with separate levels going further down the level of from a full-blown hostage situation or explosive situation down to routine reports that don’t necessarily require someone to show up in paramilitary gear and weapons armed and so on and so forth. I think that might be a fair argument.

I think what we described earlier is key that we’re all after certain basic values, safety. We don’t want violence. We don’t want crime. We don’t want people to starve. We don’t want people to get sick and die.

But with a finite amount of resources, we’re all arguing about how best to accomplish these goals in the most effective and efficient ways, whether we need socialized healthcare or nationalized healthcare, however, you want to describe that, whether we need universal basic income, whether we need social safety nets, whether we need more law enforcement or less law enforcement to solve the problems of crime and violence.

We could talk about drugs. We could talk about all manner of different issues that we’re wrestling with today, but it seems people have forgotten those core values that we’re all after the betterment of society.

What’s really struck me is an interesting twist on the situation, if you will, and this was going back to 2016, I believe in the election that Donald Trump won. I remember distinctly seeing in some news reports, photographs of rallies that Trump had held and there were attendees with T-shirts on that said something to the effect of, “I would rather be a Russian than a Democrat.”

As we were describing earlier, the Cold War and what used to unite us around that and I thought to myself, “That’s interesting” because Russia has obviously been implicated of late in election meddling and putting bounties on the heads of US soldiers operating in the Middle East and all manner of other things that should be troubling to anybody.

And yet, we’re now at a situation where it seems that some men in our society are more comfortable saying that they would rather align themselves with those external forces that used to be a uniting piece than those within the same proverbial national family. I’m not sure what that says for us, but it doesn’t strike me as comforting.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Well, and in any kind of political discussion which going back to I think our theme, “Is media bad” when it comes to having a quality constructive discourse? What is the purpose? As with anything, even so when students are writing papers, “What is the purpose of your paper? What are you trying to convince me of? What are you trying to communicate?”

So often, people get so bogged down with their own opinion first of all or not supporting whatever their assertions are that they’re just talking and they’re talking and they’re talking and they’re just saying stuff. If you’re talking to someone who agrees with you, then “Oh, yeah, it’s easy.” When I talk to you, Gary, I’m like, “Yeah, I agree with 98% of everything you say. I love it.”

I have friends who are very different than me and it’s a little more difficult, but you know what? I’m open. I listen. At the same time, if there was a situation where they have political power and I political power, I also know that their number one goal is to make everybody stronger, to make everybody safer.

The narcissism of our peers and our elders is just disappointing. I say that on the national scene and I say that because of what we see. That’s why I always tell people, “Don’t watch the cable news. Don’t watch CNN. Don’t watch FOX. Just turn it off. Vote with your dollar and stop giving them money.”

Dr. Gary Deel: I think that’s why again I’m such a fan of the model that Rogan has created. I don’t want to necessarily give him credit for being the only one or the pioneer, but he was certainly one of the first to make this a mainstream, the long-form conversation. Because we’re going to talk for the better part of an hour today before we conclude, and yet, Rogan’s podcasts, I don’t know what the average timeline is, but it’s usually well over two hours, sometimes over three hours.

He allocates the time that is necessary, particularly when he has guests like Bret Weinstein who’s been on several times, Sam Harris who’s been on several times, Neil Tyson, all manner of philosophers, doctors, scientists and politicians and media folks and celebrities. Of course, he’s a comedian, so he’s got buddies in comedy and actors who go on.

But whatever they’re talking about, there’s no sense, there’s no pressure to wrap it up, so that we can get on to the next point in whatever we have to do to cover our network ratings or whatever we’re after.

In today’s 24-hour news cycle, I think that that’s the problem is, we’re just, “Okay.” You think about all the things that happened in the last four years, all of the newsworthy information. I’m not just speaking about Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s plenty to unpack there. But just everything in the world, and yet, it’s absolutely exhausting to try to think about everything that occurred.

I’m certain that I’ve forgotten about many of the most important pieces of what occurred in the last four years of my life because you turn on the news the next day and it’s like, “We’ve moved on from that entirely,” and there was never really a thorough discussion had about a lot of these issues that deserved it. I think that that’s what we’re missing.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, I would totally give a plug to Joe Rogan too. He’s not the most, how do you say this? Graceful person. He’s a comedian and he likes to be crass. There’s that, of course, and he’ll say things that will offend people, of course.

Dr. Gary Deel: I think that blunt honesty is refreshing at least in my view and that was part of the inspiration for me asking permission from our university to be able to do this podcast, and not only that, but to be able to ask to do it at least for as long as we’re doing it today and not like a 15 or 20-minute—that’s better than a 30-second soundbite but to at least get an hour in on these episodes for us to be able to try to unpack. I’m certain if we had the time and the bandwidth, we could sit here for four hours and talk narcissism of small differences. Absolutely.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: When I think of Joe Rogan, I think of a few podcasts which are my favorite, Bernie Sanders. That’s the first time I’d heard Bernie Sanders talk for more than three minutes and it was brilliant. If anybody could actually listen to him for an hour, you would agree with stuff he says and you disagree, but you’d agree with the fact that he has good reasons.

It’s just the fact that people won’t sit there and listen to Bernie Sanders on Joe Rogan and still just portray him as a commie which he’s not or the socialism he might advocate for which is definitely more Scandinavian than Venezuelan.

In the past, if he supports Venezuela, the leader who died, Chavez, yeah, he’d probably support him because at the beginning, it looked like Venezuela was doing good. Well, then as with many communist regimes, it fell apart.

Then another Joe Rogan guest was Tulsi Gabbard, absolutely brilliant what Tulsi Gabbard talks about, and because she’s on the hit list, I’d say that metaphorically, of the Democratic Party is because she confronts the power and the control that the Democratic Party wants over their own Democrats.

An absolutely wonderful politician in Tulsi Gabbard whom is completely sidelined, even though she could be an advocate and someone who could really help the Democrats with centrist people, but they completely put it to the side.

One of my favorite ones was Richard Dawkins. Although I don’t agree with a lot of with how Richard Dawkins discusses things, hearing what he talks about is important because then you realize, even if you’re talking to an atheist scientist, “You know what? We still have a lot in common. Yeah, it’s okay.”

I still like to listen to Bishop Robert Barron, Catholic bishop in LA. Again, I don’t agree with everything he says, but when you listen to someone like that, you have to respect and you find the commonalities between a Catholic bishop and an atheist scientist and you realize that we’re all in this together.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, you grow through exposure to foreign ideas. I think a classic example of that is I tend to lean left politically, admittedly, but I held the belief almost by virtue of identity politics that guns are bad because that is a left talking point and I just habitually adopted this idea that not having been a gun owner myself, prior to that point and just held the belief that look at all the violence is coming from this, clearly this is a bad thing and Team Blue is on board with that. This is who I am, I guess.

I was subsequently, this was years ago, exposed to Sam Harris’s essay that I believe he titled The Riddle of the Gun. Then he followed that up with a podcast that was at least an hour and a half, two hours, just elucidating his points on the fact that, yes, we’d like for all violence to end including gun violence if we could, but made an absolutely compelling and convincing argument that completely reversed my view on the situation.

Now, I am a gun owner today. I’m not a gun advocate. I don’t go hunting and I’m not packing AR-15s or anything to that effect, but I do see the value and the necessity for public stability and personal protection in the firearm today. At least until something that is equally effective at stopping bad people with bad motivations and without the lethal component is available. But yet, until we have that Harris made an absolutely ironclad, in my opinion, bulletproof argument that explains why this is a necessary evil for the time being at least.

Through that exposure to, a contradictory idea and a lot of Sam’s ideas happen to be ideas that I agreed with, a priori, but in this particular case, this was something that I had heard him speak about here and there and I thought, “This doesn’t seem to mesh with my ideology,” but rather than turn the channel off and switch to something that, again that imright.com, I took the time to listen and better for it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Guns, I think is another one of those things that we could easily talk about the narcissism of small differences because if you exclude the extreme peripherals, everybody should have a gun. Nobody should have a gun, right? There’s a lot of commonality.

The US, because of its heritage, because of the Second Amendment, it’s a very gun-friendly country and that’s the way it is. Here in Arizona, of course, these podcasts will age, but one of the advertisements you see against Mark Kelly, who is currently running for Senate here, is well Mark Kelly is totally antigun.

Well, his wife was shot and almost killed by a shooter in Tucson, Arizona several years ago, probably eight years ago now. I’m pretty sure if anybody had that happened to their spouse, they would think about guns a little more than the theoretical that most people think about guns, “Well, people should have guns. Good guy should have guns.”

Now, in any kind of situation which luckily I haven’t been in where there is an active shooter, who is the active shooter? It’s not a video game where you’re shooting Nazis wearing a Nazi uniform and you’re like, “Oh, that’s the bad guy.”

Life is so much more complicated than good and bad or that’s the obvious target. That’s why just the gun debate, it’s complicated. It’s so multifaceted. It’s so wrought with how we describe as money that goes back generations, that it will take something very large to change anything or it’ll just keep on going, unfortunately.

Dr. Gary Deel: One would have thought that would have been Sandy Hook or one of these absolute tragedies, especially with little kids that would have inspired that and I should be clear with my statements earlier, I’m certainly not advocating everybody should have a gun. There are cases for it and reasons for it that I’ve since recognized from my exposure to these ideas, but I’m certainly not a card carrying NRA member or a big fan of the idea that we surround ourselves with these things anymore that are absolutely necessary for, again, the safety of ourselves and our families and that’s pretty much it, full stop, the defense of our country.

I’m not even an advocate necessarily of the Second Amendment reasons for this, but insofar as it serves a necessary purpose and is a necessary evil, I’ve come to acknowledge that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: An interesting conversation long time ago, and I’m probably misrepresenting this to a point because time clouds one’s memory and a conversation with someone, we were kind of arguing about, “Why should people be able to buy as many guns as they want?” And he said, “Well, you like to buy guitars,” and I’m like, “Well, yeah, I do.” He’s like, “Well, some people like to buy guns and like to collect them.” I’m like, “I don’t disagree with that.”

There’s nothing more than I would want to get as an original 1911, from 1911 or from World War I or a Luger from World War I or World War II, those historic guns that have seen history, but at the same time when I collect guitars, they don’t kill anybody. When you collect weapons, they have the potentiality to kill.

It’s confusing again because most gun owners I know, even when they own ARs are extremely safe, extremely responsible, but then when you look at the Las Vegas shooting, nothing about that guy tipped anybody off, law-abiding citizen until one day he cracked. Because he had an arsenal, he was able to kill dozens and dozens and wounded hundreds. You would think that after Sandy Hook as you said and after Las Vegas, something would have changed. No.

Dr. Gary Deel: We’re stuck in this political gridlock on that subject that unfortunately is holding everyone back from progress that would make common sense in terms of the strictest barriers to gun ownership, licensing and training that is on par with military exercises to make sure that people that do choose to own guns are absolutely as well trained as they can possibly be. There’s a lot we can do to improve on the status quo, but we seem not to be able to get there at least in the current environment.

There’s another comedian that I often reference in this topic because we talked about, he has a whole 15-minute bit on guns. It’s Jim Jeffries, an Australian comedian. He describes in a very, very funny way how society unfortunately can only move as fast as the slowest person.

In one of his bits, he talks about how most people can drive safely over the speed limit and perhaps a fair margin at that without any problem, but unfortunately, there’s that 1% of people that do it unsafely and run over a family and that’s why we have speed limits, right? These restrictions are not necessarily for the 99%, but they’re necessary to protect the 99% from the 1% who would abuse it or are not capable of self-management.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree and I would say things don’t change because of narcissism. Because there’s certain people that think they’re right and because of how they talk about and their egos and their desire to keep things as is. The can has been kicked down the road, it’s been kicked down the road: social security, all these different things.

When it comes to guns and I feel bad saying this, well, first of all, it’s completely unethical how guns are in this country today also because I’ve got several cops in my neighborhood and I would be stressed if I was them. You pull someone over. You don’t know anything. You don’t know if they have a gun. Everybody could be carrying. There’s more guns in this country than people.

No gun legislation will truly or substantially change until, and I feel terrible saying this, until somebody important until their kid gets killed in a mass shooting. Everybody else, we’re just normies. It doesn’t matter. That’s a horrible thing. That’s the nihilist coming out to me, but unfortunately, change, like you said, what did you say, sorry?

Dr. Gary Deel: We can only move as fast as our slowest person as a result of that. We have the auspices and are told that in a democracy, it’s popular vote that counts, but unfortunately, and this is getting back to your earlier comments about corporate interests and organizational interest, that the lobbying mechanisms that work, at least at the federal level are powerful enough to circumvent what most Americans by far are in favor of when it comes to safe gun legislation and so on and so forth. The majority interest is ignored in favor of these corporate special interests.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Just one more thing, since we’re talking about the narcissism of small differences, I would also say that narcissism and egotism really leads to most problems, of course, it’s a generalization, that we find in politics today because most people think they know the answer and they try to control.

I would have to say, once you realize you can’t control things, that’s when you can truly start to change things. But, most politicians are on the authoritarian scale. We’ll pass laws to help protect everybody. That makes sense. We’ll pass laws because we want to control everybody. Well, then you’re all being communists.

Dr. Gary Deel: Well, I know we’re running to the end of our hour, Bjorn. Was there anything else that you wanted to cover before we wrap up?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: If you give enough time to go by, you’ll realize that most of our problems are completely inconsequential. That’s my big thing about the narcissism of small differences, is just share a meal with somebody, share a drink, I recommend wine, red wine, because it chills you out and talk and that’s it. You’ll probably solve most your problems.

Dr. Gary Deel: I think keeping it in context is the message there. I’m reminded of one of the many, many cutaways from a Family Guy episode, and unfortunately, much of them have nothing to do with the plot, so I can’t remember what episode it was, but there was a cutaway where one sect of Christianity, maybe Protestants or Evangelicals meets a Seventh Day Adventist and they introduce each other on the streets. They say, “Look, I’m this kind of Christian and we believe in Jesus and the resurrection and all of the tenets of the Bible and we worship on Sundays.”

The other person says all of the same things in a 30-second rant, “We believe in Jesus and all the tenants of the Bible and we worship on Fridays.” They both look at each other and they go, “What?” Then they start a battle there on the street side. I think your point is well taken.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That goes straight to, I’ll just say, da capo of what we were talking about in this podcast is right at the beginning, we’re talking about “Religion for Breakfast” and the difference between Gnostic Christians and what we now call Catholicism and Orthodox. What’s the big difference between Catholics and Orthodox?

Even if you go to Protestantism, Lutheranism, they all believe in Jesus, they believe in God. Some believe in the Trinity. Some don’t. You throw in Islam, they take out the Trinity and it’s a direct relationship with God, yet there’s been centuries, millennia of warfare and murder because people disagree on how they perceive God.

Dr. Gary Deel: Over the minor details.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yes.

Dr. Gary Deel: Well, thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives with us on these topics today, Bjorn, and thanks for joining me on this episode of Intellectible.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Thank you much.

Dr. Gary Deel: Thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics and more by visiting the various AP US-sponsored blogs. Be well and stay safe everyone.

About the Speakers:

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Gary Deel

Dr. Gary Deel is a faculty member with the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds an M.S. in Space Studies, an M.A. in Psychology, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership, an M.A. in Criminal Justice, a J.D. in Law, and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches classes in various subjects for the University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida, Colorado State University, and others.

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