One of the difficulties of talking about identities is a certain asymmetry that does not often get enough attention. When we judge identity for those who are close to us, we have the ability to make all kinds of very subtle distinctions in terms of who belongs where and have a precise understanding of where people fit and belong. When we judge outsiders, though, we tend to lump people together in very broad categories where the people in those categories are upset about being lumped with those with whom they recognize a great deal of difference. Indeed, we can know a good deal about the identities that matter a lot to us by knowing how sharply we can define various different related but distinct groups. To the extent that we paint with a broad brush, we are talking about outsiders, those whom we know and care little about, but to the extent that we can paint very fine and subtle distinctions, we are dealing with identities that are very near and dear to us.
This particular subject came up in a discussion about the politics of the world, where someone had mentioned that it was the Netherlands that had a long period of time with no organized government and I replied that I thought it was Belgium . The other person said that they all were the same. This is quite patently false, for though an outsider might think that the Benelux countries were all the same, an insider would never make that mistake. After all, all of these nations have history with each other. The Dutch ruled over the entire area after the Napoleonic War, and the Belgians were dissatisfied with this on religious grounds. Within Belgium itself there is a sharp divide between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking areas, and Luxembourg has a tradition of being bullied around and having its land stolen by the Belgians. While the three nations can all be at peace with each other now, they are all different and recognize a great deal of difference, from language to religion to history and culture, even within a small area of Northern Europe.
One of the ways that we can counteract our tendency to judge others as being more similar than we are is to recognize that every related set of identities has a great deal of distinction made between them that may not be obvious to outsiders, and to respect that these differences exist. For example, I may not be able to recognize the difference between various sects of Shia Islam, but I know there are fivers and twelvers and others who fall under that umbrella and they will see themselves as different from each other because of their different beliefs. The same would be true of divides in Judaism or Buddhism, where I would be aware that such divides exist even if it would not always be easy for me to recognize the distinction between different groups. Knowing that there are distinctions that I would be prone to lump together is a way to remind oneself that other people have the same level of nuance and complexity in their own near groups as I do in mine, and is also a good way to give and demand respect.
As human beings, it is very easy for us to divide into hostile groups. Anything that leads some people to be treated different than others or or to be given more respect or attention will lead people to divide. Anything that allows us to see some people as insiders and others as outsiders will be the source of hostility and conflict. Somalia is, for example, a nation that is considered to be a reasonably compact nation-state with considerable unity for Africa, but it is terribly divided in large part because of differing clans and regional identities that have never been fully sorted out. Even in a smaller area like Somaliland there are still smaller areas like Zeila that do not feel happy about being lumped in with others. These sorts of divides make unity extremely elusive and provoke conflict over any kind of central authority that seeks to oppress a minority. And oppressed minorities who fear what governments and authorities can do in the hands of enemies and rivals are always to be found.
. See, for example: