The Dilemma of Ethnocentrism

The question of the ultimate truth and the universality of good and evil is an unsolvable one, so it seems. After all, not even our alleged omnipotent creator was able to make his world view clear enough to us – or why else would the world religions fight against one another so fiercely? It is a simple fact that major differences exist between cultures, religions, nations, and individuals. The crucial question is therefore: How are we going to deal with them?

The White Man’s Burden

In the days of colonialism, it didn’t even cross the minds of the European emperors for a second that the invasion and suppression of formerly free people could possibly be unjust. It was the duty of the educated and civilized European nobleman to help the natives make their way out of their barbaric and uncivilized habits, so they genuinely thought. The Western, or European, way of life was the most desirable one and helping others out of their primitive state was regarded as a humanitarian act. As time went by, the locals grew sick and tired of the foreign suppression and intensified their struggles for independence. They realized that, despite noble claims, the colonialists primarily followed their own interests, exploiting the country. Nevertheless, for many countries under foreign rule it took major historic events such as world wars to regain their independence thanks to a weakened empire. The former colonial powers might still say however, that their influence benefited the people and countries that were under their rule in the past. More objective scholars, on the other hand, claim that imperialism has damaged and scarred the suppressed peoples considerably. Is an objective evaluation of this issue possible? Isn’t it true that the colonial powers increased medical aid, upgraded local infrastructure, and introduced modern politics to the natives? Isn’t it also true however, that they did not consider the suppressed people as human beings with full rights and privileges, and that they always followed their own interests first?


What does Ethnocentrism mean?

The colonial powers were convinced that their concept of good and bad, progressive and underdeveloped, modern and primitive was the only one and true concept. Hence, countries that did not share the same values could not have been civilized and needed help. The European powers applied their own world view to people far away that lived under completely different circumstances. That train of thought is Ethnocentrism: Evaluating other cultures and people by the standards that one grew up in. It is still tempting to look at the world from that simplistic point of view – and in fact many countries still do. Why shouldn’t we? Aren’t we a role model regarding human rights, diplomacy, living conditions, and education?

The world is not that simple, of course, and calling yourself the “city on the hill” as the Americans like to do, whose ambition it is to force their way onto all other people, is as ignorant as it is arrogant. This is not a solid foundation for a fruitful dialogue between nations. How could one objectively define perfect or better than anyone else? We can’t, and there is certainly plenty of room for criticism of our Western cultures. Outsiders might criticize our societies and they might have good reasons for doing so. Tolerance is the key, as much for us as for foreigners. Without it, coexistence becomes impossible as shall be exemplified by a simple case.

Millions of people, in some way or another, wear a certain symbol of religious dogma. For those of a different religion that very same symbol could stand for torture, death, suppression, lies, and hypocrisy. They are appalled when they are confronted with such symbols in public. Coming from a different cultural and social background, they would like to remove all of those symbols from the public. Since they are a minority in many countries regarding their views toward the religious symbols, they wouldn’t have a chance in achieving these goals. After all, the local population would be outraged by such demands, calling them – unconsciously – ethnocentristic. They have a point. Circumstances are different, and minorities or migrants have to accept that habits or beliefs will not be changed just because they, with their different backgrounds, think they are wrong. The main example behind this point is Christians (in Germany, e.g.) who won’t take down their crosses just because minor religions might feel offended or unequal.

So is Ethnocentrism a bad thing?

So far, the case has been made for the awareness of cultural and social differences. Who is right and who is wrong can often not be determined on an objective basis. However, the hesitation when it comes to the application of Ethnocentrism has its limits. If you think that Ethnocentrism is bad in general and should never be applied, you are either a coward who doesn’t want to take a stand, a hypocrite, or both. At some point in your life you have to make a decision: Do you advocate human rights? Do you think everyone should enjoy the same level of freedom and safety as you do? Are all human beings equal?

Especially when it comes to the protection of basic human rights, anti-ethnocentrists have to explain how they can just stand by and watch when people get hurt. In many parts of Africa young girls still get their labia cut off with rusty blades, only to be sowed up again so that the future husband has the privilege to penetrate the mutilated vaginal opening violently. In some Arab countries people still get stoned to death without trial – not to mention the death sentence in general. In India, dozens of cases of women who are set on fire by their husbands because their parents couldn’t pay a satisfactory dowry are reported daily. Within some religious sects, innocent minors are promised to and raped by much older men just because dogma commands it. Why should any country have intervened when the Nazis tried to annihilate the Jews? It was just something that happened in that society at that time and people didn’t have a problem with it. All of these examples are clearly human rights violations. Interfering with them would be ethnocentric as such habits are widely accepted in the respective societies. Yes, we can call it arrogant to judge events that happen outside our borders. Nevertheless, it seems rather to be more cowardly than tolerant to stay silent and do nothing. Can you really look an Afghan woman in the eyes, whose face has been mutilated with acid because she tried to go to school, and tell her that it is not your problem and that she and her society have to deal with it by themselves? If you were on vacation in a country that didn’t value human rights as much as we do and if you were imprisoned or punished for dubious reasons, would you silently accept the treatment since it might be the status quo in that society? Or would it be different because you are affected? And if so, which human rights apply to you that do not apply to the locals?

It is not about force, it is about choice

What most people don’t understand who are passionately against ethnocentrism is that it is not about forcing our ways onto others but about giving them a choice. Women have fought and died in Europe to achieve equal rights, such as the right to vote. If women who are familiar with the concept of equality then go to Africa to teach local women, they won’t say: “You have to vote!” but instead “You have the right to vote because men and women are equal.” If women in western countries decide to wear a headscarf due to their Islamic belief system, they are welcome to do so because they could actually decide freely without fearing ramifications. However, the picture is different in the Arab world. Obedience is the key and women are everything but equal. If they dared to go out without a headscarf or burka, they would be punished severely. Calling this wrong is ethnocentristic, but most of all it is humane. If you saw a Turkish man beating his sister unconscious because she dressed too revealing in his eyes, would you still say it is wrong to judge or intervene? If you do, you have to question your ability of feeling compassion for other human beings or, in other words, your empathy.

People should have the right to live freely without fearing punishment, to be regarded as full and equal members of the society, to make choices of their own, and to be protected by the Human Rights Charter. It should be our goal and our desire to enable them to live the life that we take for granted. Let them decide if they want to accept the changes or not – but give them a choice!

It is obvious that the problem remains of how to open the eyes of others. The way the United States, for example, spreads its ideas of democracy and freedom forcefully and without thinking of those upon which their ideas are being brought is clearly not the weapon of choice. The way of intolerance and war is not right under any circumstances. So what can, or should, we do? For starters, we should have the guts to name injustice when we see it and live and act as advocates of human rights, no matter where we are, because human rights should neither be limited by borders nor by social taboos.

I have the right to protectionSource:

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