Friday, March 25, 2011

Why like-minded people end up disembowelling each other

Someone wiser and more worldly than I may be able to explain why people who fundamentally agree on most things often end up falling out with each other. There must be a name for it.

I’m talking about the phenomenon whereby people who are closely aligned overall on matters of politics and ideology end up tearing each other’s throats out because they differ slightly on certain points or strategies. Their disagreements become magnified to the point where they completely overshadow all the things they have in common. Put another way, they end up being so focussed on the two percent of issues where they are at odds that they forget they are compatible on the other 98. Ironically, they often end up hating each other more than they do the supposed common enemy.

The far Left provides the textbook example, and I’m not just talking about the fact that Leon Trotsky ended up with an icepick in his skull because of his differences with Stalin. The Communist Party in New Zealand, in its various manifestations, was famous for its bitter schisms. One of the reasons the far Left never got traction here is that its members were so busy trying to disembowel each other, figuratively speaking, that the filthy capitalists were left to screw the proletariat unopposed.

But the other side hasn’t escaped unbloodied either. Just look at the self-inflicted damage suffered by ACT last year, when the party’s factional split became so ugly it could no longer be disguised.

Even the not-for-profit sector seems stricken by the same problem. Charities are notorious for their dysfunctionalism and infighting, as Dave Armstrong wittily observed in a recent Dominion Post column. Commenting on the apparently endless feuding between Wellington SPCA board members (whom he accused of fighting like cats and dogs), Armstrong wrote: “I’m no vet, but I suspect the SPCA board has picked up a bad case of CBD – Charity Board Dysfunction, usually caused by TME (Tossers with Massive Egos) and transmitted in meetings.”

As Armstrong astutely observed, the SPCA isn’t the only charity where personal clashes and conflicting agendas distract people from the job they are ostensibly there to do. I reckon his CBD should be recognised in psychological textbooks as a clinical disorder.

What caused me to reflect on this is that I recently came to a parting of the ways with someone whose friendship I had enjoyed for many years. This was triggered by a relatively innocuous column that I wrote (reproduced on this blog) about Radio New Zealand. My friend and I agree on most things but I have come to the conclusion, after many spirited exchanges over the years, that the price of her friendship was that I was expected to fall into line with her very firm views – including her opinion of Radio New Zealand, which is somewhat less generous than mine. Eventually I found the lecturing intolerable.

I would like to think our views on the big issues are still compatible, but the friendship has foundered over a relatively minor difference. This strikes me as an example, in microcosm, of the ideological schisms referred to above.

This is a problem that seems to arise only when people have particularly strong convictions, as in the case of both the far Right and the far Left. Those who deviate even slightly from the approved line are considered to have betrayed the cause. Thus it’s possible, paradoxically, to have a less strained relationship with someone whose views are wholly at odds with your own than with someone who’s nominally on the same side, because you accept that those on the other side of the ideological divide are beyond redemption; not worth the effort. With that acceptance comes a tolerance that isn’t necessarily extended to those in your own camp.

At least that’s the way I rationalise it, but others may be able to explain it better. Whatever the explanation, it helps us to understand why the pragmatists in the political centre – those whose beliefs are flexible enough to bend with the wind – almost invariably end up winners, while those with firmer convictions are left to fume impotently on the sideline.

1 comment:

Rob's Blockhead Blog said...

I don't think its actually about the extremity of the views, whether they're of the left or the right, although that can be a factor.

Its about the ability to deal with the fact that there are other views to one's own, and the ability to engage with those divergent views without necessarily ceding one's own views or personalising the difference.