Has it ever occurred to you that one of the basic presumptions of the motorcycling community is truly strange? Note that I write “motorcycling community”, not “motorcycle community”. This does not involve the industry, be it manufacturing or retail. It is reserved for us riders and owners of bikes. It is also largely, if not completely, limited to English-speaking motorcyclists.

Yes, you can hustle a Harley along. © Lyndon Marceau / marceauphotography

It is of course the divide between Harley-Davidson owners and everyone else. Sometimes the former group is seen to include cruiser bikes in general, but even then, the immediate perception is of the Motor Company’s customers. That is not an unreasonable simplification, seeing that almost all cruisers are copies, in one way or another, of Harleys.

Most of the animosity comes from the non-Harley riders. I prefer not to go into details of the many faults of which Harley owners find themselves accused because that would probably take the rest of this article, but much of the criticism can be summed up by saying that they are “not real motorcyclists”. The reasons are mostly spurious, including things like the lack of ground clearance and loud pipes of the bikes and the tendency of riders to wear outlandishly decorated clothing.

Harley riders do not have a similar, easily summarised opinion of the other group, which may be at least partly responsible for the relative lack of response. It is easy enough to say that “they ride rice-burners” but that neither describes everyone in the group, nor is it an easily understood criticism. What is a rice burner, and why is it a disgrace to ride one?

On the one hand, then, it is not easy to summarise an overall objection to the other group, even if one cared to – and it is far from clear that many Harley riders care enough to criticise in the first place.  But many non-Harley riders also have loud pipes on their bikes and dress in outlandish riding gear.

Leaving limited ground clearance as the only true difference between the groups sounds a bit silly, but wait a moment. It may be enough to explain the animosity.

The late Christopher Hitchens, in an article for Slate.com called The Narcissism of Small Differences written ten years ago looked at “the sudden spasm of violence between the Uzbek minority and the Kyrgyz majority in Kyrgyzstan recently,” and noted that “many commentators were at a loss to explain why the two peoples should so abruptly have turned upon one another.”

© Lyndon Marceau / marceauphotography

Hitchens noted that “several reports stressed the essential similarity — ethnic, linguistic, cultural — between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations,” but he wondered if that in itself might be the explanation. He continued by examining several other such outbreaks of communal violence, and the reasons given by either side for their hatred of the other.

He thought that this is one of the great contradictions of civilization, although he discovered a term for it produced by, of all people, Sigmund Freud who called it “the narcissism of small difference.” Freud wrote that “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.”

Hitchens went on with several revealing examples of Freud’s analysis.

“The partition of India and Pakistan, for example, which gives us one of the longest-standing and most toxic confrontations extant, involved most of all the partition of the Punjab. Visit Punjab and see if you can detect the remotest difference in people on either side of the border. Language, literature, ethnic heritage, physical appearance — [are] virtually indistinguishable.”

“In Cyprus, it is extremely hard to tell a Greek from a Turk. The two peoples have been on the same island for so long that they even suffer from a common sickle-cell blood disease called thalassemia.”.

There are many other examples, despite the genetic difference between human beings being so small that, “If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed,” in Hitchens’ summary. And yet, “we manage to find excuses for chauvinism and racism on the most minor of occasions and then to make the most of them. This is why condemnation of bigotry and superstition is not just a moral question but a matter of survival.”

Motorcycling is under attack from many fronts, ranging from citizen initiatives to ban it because of annoying loud pipes to medical suggestions that riders take up an inordinate number of hospital beds. If we are going to prevail against this sea of troubles, it might be an idea to overcome the narcissism of small difference.

(All photos are of The Bear, to ensure that nobody feels insulted)

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