Erik Erikson on youthful fanaticism

Reading Erik Erikson’s “The Eight Ages of Man” (1966) for other purposes last night, I came across an eerily prescient* passage on p. 290 that could describe the young British citizens who are alleged to have plotted to blow up airplanes:

Young people can also be remarkably clannish, and cruel in their exclusion of all those who are ‘different,’ in skin color or cultural background, in tastes and gifts, and often in such petty aspects of dress and gesture as have been temporarily selected as the signs of an in-grouper or an out-grouper. It is important to understand (which does not means condone or participate in) such intolerance as a defense against a sense of identity confusion. For adolescents not only help one another temporarily through much discomfort by forming cliques and stereotyping themselves, their ideals, and their enemies; they also perversely test each other’s capacity to pledge fidelity. The readiness for such testing also explains the appeal which simple and cruel totalitarian doctrines have on the minds of the youth of such countries and classes as have lost or are losing their group identities (feudal, agrarian, tribal, national) and face world-wide industrialization, emancipation, and wider communication.

*”Eerily prescient” appears 67,000 times on the Web, according to Google, which qualifies it as a clich?. Apologies.

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