The Outsider Advantage
“Judean People’s Front?! We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”
–The Life of Brian
“Ned, have you considered any of the other major religions? They’re all pretty much the same.”
-Reverend Lovejoy, The Simpsons
Intellectually speaking, how far apart are each of the following pairs?
1. Democrats and Republicans
2. Catholics and Protestants
3. Sunnis and Shiites
4. Trotskyists and Stalinists
My conditional prediction of your answers hinges on how you see yourself. For each pair, tell me if you strongly identify with either side. If you say yes, I predict you will think the difference between the two sides is vast. If you say no, I predict you will think the difference between the two sides is modest.
My reasoning: All of these pairs are, in the broad scheme of things, variations on a theme. Democrat and Republican are both variations on American nationalism. Catholic and Protestant are both variations on Christianity. Sunni and Shia are both variants on Islam. Trotskyist and Stalinist are both variations on Marxism-Leninism. All you need to see these truths is some intellectual distance. As long as you’re an outsider, you’re well-positioned for objectivity.
Insiders have a corresponding disadvantage. Their identity hangs in the balance: If the differences are minor, there’s no good reason to strongly prefer one side over the other. And if there’s no good reason to strongly prefer one side over the other, why have they in fact embraced one side as their own? Talk about cognitive dissonance.
As an insider, of course, it’s tempting to rebuke outsiders for their ignorance. If they understood the issues, the outsiders would realize that the world really does hang in the balance. And in any case, if the differences are minor, why are their rivals attacking them so viciously?
The outsiders’ answer, of course, is the cynical one: There’s nothing to explain. Human beings passionately fight over trivia all the time. If Catholics and Protestants could fight the Thirty Years’ War over religious minutiae, why is it so hard to believe that Democrats and Republicans are polluting Facebook to determine which variant on nationalism and social democracy is the One True Way? The problem, as usual, is that insiders are too emotionally invested in their group identity to see how trivial their differences really are.