As human beings, we are inherently biased in our judgment of issues and others- by others I mean those who do not belong in the same socio-cultural group we ascribe to. Our inborn predilection to take a subjective view of reality leads to the common-and equally incorrect- assumption that we are right in our ways, while ‘others’ are wrong in theirs. This tendency of biased notions of cultural superiority in relation to other cultures is what political scientist William G. Sumner (1906) summed up with the coinage of the term ‘ethnocentrism.
’ By definition, ethnocentrism is the tendency by individuals to believe, unconsciously and through false assumptions, that their culture is better than that of others. Notably, there is a running thread of collective concurrence among whites that ‘we westerners’, with our western civilization and attendant lifestyles, are superior to the backward races of Africa, which we conveniently label a jungle of savagery. The negative effects of ethnocentrism are manifest in international relations, where effective intercultural communication is hampered by cultural differences and culture transitional challenges (Moran, Harris and Moran, 2007, 265).
Nonetheless, to avoid collective generalizations by claiming that it is ‘we westerners’ rather than ‘I, me and myself,’ who suffers this cultural prejudice- a claim by which I unwittingly admit my ethnocentric conditioning to include fellow tribesmen in my narrow worldview corner- I hereby set out to examine how I have severally paid homage to this populist bandwagon of cultural subjectivity in judgment. Finally, I will outline the course of remedy I have chartered to liberate myself from the blinding ignorance of ethnocentrism.
Was it me, really, now that I’m thinking from a relatively wider perspective? Late last year, I accompanied a close friend of mine from Saudi Arabia (whom I will not disclose for the pang of guilt that gnaws at my conscience) to pick some forms from our embassy. Well, it seems that since September 11, a kind of phobia for our Muslim brothers has eaten into our national psych. At a personal level, I always change lanes every time I meet one donning a flowing white garb and…. err, an unusually long beard.
Anyway, the security man at the embassy just ran the metal detector over my body and patted me on the back. But when it was my friend’s turn, the security guy, perhaps seeing Osama’s ghosts, took a deep breath and started what was the most rigorous personal search I had ever witnessed. He yanked the garb from the underside and ran the detector inch by inch, grinned with relief upon finding nothing (read bombs) and then allowed him to pass through. However, the issue here is not the security man’s exaggerated fears, but the fact that I took it as normal, without bothering to question why it wasn’t.
The culture I grew up in had taught me to regard some religions as being synonymous with terrorism, and to dismiss others as pagan idolatry and pure superstition. In my evaluation of world religions, I’m often tempted to associate Islam with terrorism, a belief that is largely fed by media stereotyping in relation to incidences of suicide bombings. As for most traditional African religions, customs and rituals, I always found ‘evidence’ to dismiss them as the demonic chants of a pagan charlatan.
Their polygamy I considered the ways of an uncivilized society that still harbors the wild caveman’s genes. On this score, my blindness was informed by the western glorification of the nuclear family unit, which greatly contrasts with other cultures’ recognition of the unifying aspect of extended families and kinship systems (Moran, Harris and Moran, 2007, 11). In regard to religious convictions, the only true Supreme Being I believed existed is the Christian God I worship, whom I assumed held in contempt the ungodly ways of unchristian religions.
For such a long time, I erroneously believed that with the exception of Christians, all other believers are doomed for hell. This ethnic and cultural belief that the religion in which one belongs is centrally important (Andersen, 2006) is one of the sub-divisions that promote ethnocentrism. Personally, it was my honest conviction until I realized that every believer thinks likewise of other religions. Remarkable is my said friend’s vehement assertion that Jesse the son of Mary (Christ) was an imposter whose legend deceived people that he was the son of God.
Instead, he argues that Mohamed is the true messenger of Allah, the creator of everything. Nonetheless, it will be a self-contradiction for me to consider my system of beliefs as not being the right one and the most appropriate. It is an inconsistence and admission of its falseness, which I consider the height of ideological hypocrisy. I recognize the reality that I belong to a particular culture; and the fact that to fit in my society I must conform to its cultural beliefs and value systems.
However, to reconcile my cultural beliefs with other cultural worldviews, I find insight in the principle of cultural relativism by Franz Boas, who argued that “civilization is not something absolute, but is relative, and our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes” (Degler, 1992 p 67). Accordingly, people’s behaviors, customs and beliefs should be understood in the context of their cultures. When we use the lens of our cultures to understand other cultures, there is always the risk of prejudice and biasness.
The problem of ethnocentrism leads to failure of constructive communication and misunderstandings, which in turn causes cultural differences and conflicts (Moran, Harris and Moran, 2007, p 4). Similarly, the theory of functionalism by Bronislaw Malinowski posits that cultures are systems of structures by which different societies function. Each society, therefore, has unique needs which can only be served by its own culture. As such, we can only understand the behavior of other cultures when we take that culture’s viewpoint, to avoid the misconceptions created by our experiences within our own culture.
References Andersen, M. L. (2006). Sociology: understanding a diverse society. New York: Thomson/Wadsworth. Degler, C. N. (1992). In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. US: Oxford University Press. Moran, T. R. , Harris, P. R. , Moran, S. V. (2007). Managing cultural differences: global leadership strategies for the 21st century, 7th Edition. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann Sumner, W. G. (1906). “Folkways. ” In McCann, C. R. (2004). Individualism and the social order: the social element in liberal thought. New York: Routledge.