Beyond the Normal and the Pathological
  • Dusan Kecmanovic
Part of the Path in Psychology book series (PATH)


People who have remained “uninfected” by nationalist attitudes and beliefs cannot help being astonished by nationalists’ behavior, their arguments, and their ways of looking at themselves and at people of other nationalities. Their astonishment is all the greater if they see somebody became a fervent nationalist all of a sudden, almost overnight, as is all too often the case. But when small- and large-scale confrontations start, military clashes between members of individual national groups begin, and reports of unprecedented crimes and atrocities committed by them spread across the world, people keep asking: Are they (the nationalists) mentally sound, are they normal?


Rational Argument Social Scene Inconsistent Belief Insufficient Reason Paranoid Patient 
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  1. 1.
    This bias in social perception has been described by social psychologists as the fundamental attribution error. In interpreting events and the actions of others people overestimate the importance of some intrinsic properties or dispositions of persons, playing down the external or circumstantial causes.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    There are a great number of authors who regard nationalism and even the national identity as pathological phenomenona. Thus Berke (1989:258) writes that nationalism is “the expression of a perverted or pathological self-absorption and pride,” and Tipton (1995) concludes that “the national identity, in short, is a psychiatric delusional syndrome, at once grandiose and persecutory”. The same point is made by Partridge (1928:92): “It may be assumed that within any group there is a tendency towards or possibility of the production of motives, adjustments, and behavior, which are relatively pathological: a striking and perhaps sufficient illustration is the behavior of the national consciousness, particularly in its motivations in war.”.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sanf ord and Comstock (1971:3) remind us of a cabaret joke popular in the early 1930s in Germany: “Show me one Nazi.” “What do you mean? Here is a whole room full of Nazis.” “Yes, but show me one Nazi.” The account of this joke does not mean that we identify ethnonationalism and Nazism. Although they have many points in common (the idea of the Volk, the appeal to collective will and brutal drives, and so on), they differ in many aspects.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Nairn (1981:348-9) accounts for the irrationality of nationalism by pointing to the fact that it is “through nationalism that societies try to propel themselves forward to certain kinds of goals... by a sort of regression—by looking inwards, drawing more deeply upon their indigenous resources, resurrecting past folk heroes and myth about themselves and so on.” Nairn resorts to a personalized metaphor in order to suggest the origin of irrationality of nationalism. “In mobilizing its past in order to leap forward across the threshold, a society is like a man who has to call on all his inherited and (up to this point) largely unconscious powers to confront some inescapable challenge. He summons up such latent energies assuming that, once the challenge is met, they will subside again into a tolerable and settled pattern of personal existence. But the assumption may be wrong. In the social trauma as in the individual one, once these well-springs have been tapped there is no real guarantee that the great forces released will be ‘controllable’ (in the sense of doing only what they are supposed to do, and no more). The powers of the id are far greater than was realized before Freud exposed them to theoretical view. In the same view, the energies contained in customary social structures were far greater than was understood, before the advent of nationalist mobilization stirred up and released them from the old mould.” Not only nationalism, but ethnicity and nationality as well are partly nonrational, even irrational phenomena. “The non-rational, even irrational dimensions of ethnicity are an undeniable aspect of contemporary ethnic mobilizations throughout the world” (Stack, 1986:2). And Connor (1993) points out, “Conviction concerning the singular origin and evolution of one’s nation, belong to the realm of the sub-conscious and the non-rational (note: not irrational, but non-rational).” One could largely endorse the conclusion made by Eller and Coughlan (1993): “All sociologists and anthropologists would agree that emotion is a crowning feature of ethnic identity.” This basic affective quality of ethnic attachments renders them nonrational. Nodia (1994:6) made the same point as far as nationalism is concerned: “Nationalism is a nonrational phenomenon.”.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    In that sense Atkin (1971) is right when he says that the characterization of war as a social psychosis is superficial and scientifically unsound.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Hoffmann (1986) rightly warns: “Even if one accepts the metaphors of collective disease or pathology, one must understand that the ‘cure’ can only be provided by politics.”.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    What are psychiatrists to do with their observations; keep them for themselves or report them publicly? It is hard to be prescriptive, to give psychiatrists any advice, or recommendation. However, one thing is certain: The social effects of their publicly presented observations, or more precisely their warnings, depend primarily on the strength of the social forces that support and incite the spread of nationalism, openly or covertly.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    As said earlier, projection is one of the most favored defensive mechanisms that nationalists resort to. Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich (1975:246) point out that whenever the mechanism of projection is resorted to, we are confronted with a threefold failure: “(i) insufficient reality-testing (which may be described as harmless credulity or, more correctly, as an incorrigible proclivity to prejudice), (ii) insufficient drive control (manifested in an antisocial release of aggression—aggressive and libidinal tensions are discharged onto victims whose weakness makes them a national prey, perhaps because they happen to be a minority), (iii) insufficient integration of the ego (plainly shown in our acceptance of the alien ego and its judgments, and the access we allow it to the control of our behavior.” Money-Kyrle (1951) also states that, as a consequence of projection, reality testing becomes inoperative.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    The same holds for the various more or less institutionalized tendencies to close, to strictly separate one’s own region, territory, group, and so on—tendencies that are almost unavoidably accompanied by the overvaluation of “ours” and the disparagement of “theirs.” “I disagree with those,” writes Argyle (1976:52), “who try to show that... nationalism differs significantly from the processes that are variously labelled as tribalism, regionalism, communalism, or separatism.” Geertz (1963:106-107) shares the same opinion.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dusan Kecmanovic
    • 1
  1. 1.SydneyAustralia

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