Monday, May 29, 2017

follies of ethnocentrism

More and more as of late, I've noticed that commentary about right-wing American evangelicals has been asserting that their racist leanings are beyond question. I realize that there is excellent past and present evidence that supports this generalization. I agree that, for a substantial portion of them, it's applicable.

However, in the portion who I know through personal experience—which I confess only represents a subgroup of a subgroup—the prejudice I detect is a smidge more complex...or at least flows along more complex channels. For lack of a better label, I'll use "the respectables" to refer to this set. (Yes, I'm glad to report that I'm familiar with some whose warmhearted behaviors and outlooks are unobjectionable. I'm not referring to them.) The respectables are shocked by accusations of racism. After all, they never suggest that race is at the innermost core truth of someone. It's not a biological limit on abilities or personality. It isn't destiny.

Part of the reason why is because the respectables treasure the sentiment that all people are targets for the duty of universal evangelism. Attendees of any race are admitted to public events. In large gatherings, some of the regular goers are likely to be in the so-called "diverse" category. Officially, all people-groups domestic and foreign need to be afforded every chance to convert. Adventurous stories of evangelism in faraway nations are more praiseworthy, not less, when the setting is "exotic", and that goes for the exoticism of the setting's races. Although the pompous and intrusive quest to Christianize all humanity is nauseating, it certainly undermines the very idea of using race alone to disqualify people.

So the respectables aren't hostile toward races in theory. They don't believe (or believe but refrain from saying?) that a race is genetically inferior or superior. Adopting a child of another race is accepted, as is marrying a spouse of another race. Their anxieties have oozed in a less obvious direction. In the most general terms, they're dismissive and fearful of dissimilar cultures. They rank each one according to their estimate of its deviation from their own. Whatever else they're disciples of, they're disciples of ethnocentrism.

Its effects are less vicious than raw racism but unfortunately are tougher to discern and exterminate. It might not motivate angry attacks, but it'll motivate avoidance, or just chilly distance. The barrier it creates isn't necessarily impossible to cross, but in any case it's significant. Individuals face the extra burden of first overturning the immediate verdicts that were assigned to them. They aren't utterly excluded, but they have...unsettling questions surrounding them. In the race for social status, they begin from behind the starting line.

Like any human behavior, the kind of apprehensive ethnocentrism I'm trying to describe doesn't stay neatly contained in the boundaries of its dictionary definition. It's a frequent teammate of the racism of thinking that a race is synonymous with a culture. With this link, the outcome of stigmatizing the culture becomes, well, synonymous with stigmatizing the race. The difference is negated.

Nevertheless, at least race isn't a unique cultural sign. Ethnocentrism's domain is broader than race, because culture itself has many details occurring in endless varieties. The list of additional cultural signs to exploit includes clothing, hair/skin styling, etiquette, economic class, language, slang, accent, geographic region, religious adornment, occupation, food/music preferences. To the ethnocentric person, race as well as any of these may end up functioning as clues of reassurance or dread about the culture that controls the stranger. Because they have rationales about why theirs is the best, they choose which signs matter the most to them and which cultures are better or worse approximations of theirs. A stranger who displays enough signs can be successfully pigeonholed as a member of an admired culture, despite showing some signs of a scorned culture too.

Yet, ethnocentrism's potential to take several observations into account at once cannot manage to compensate for its unfair perceptions. Usually it's already committing a pivotal error: it's really sorting among slanted and incomplete abstractions (impressions, clich├ęs) of cultures. This is to be expected. A vast culture, with a long history and a wide footprint, has numerous types and subsections and components, and upsides and downsides of each. It cannot fit as well into ethnocentrism's coarse rankings of worthiness unless it's drastically pared, flattened, summarized, frozen in time, severed from outside influences. A largely uninformed collection of selected fragments is hammered into a convenient lens. And the distorted lens is used to impatiently classify anyone who has (or seems to have) some of the signs. The problem with this result is predictable. Regardless of the culture's shared elements, it probably accommodates a host of almost opposite opinions on a host of topics. There's no visible hint to distinguish where the stranger falls in this range.

Furthermore, patchy awareness of the culture could be magnified by patchy recognition of the various levels of influence that cultures have. In order to believe that the culture the person supposedly signifies can sufficiently explain them, their capacity to make their own decisions needs to be disregarded. Again there's a spectrum. Some are devotees who fully embrace it. Some opt to be nominal: primarily detach their identities from it. And some are selective in what they absorb or ignore, and these selections can change over time. Depending on their environment, they could simultaneously be selecting from other cultures, even if they're overlooking the logical incompatibility of the mixtures. Or to some degree they could be declining a preexisting path, instead inventing special ideas and novel ways of life. The point is that perhaps the majority of their choices are dictated by a culture, but that can only be speculation until their personal stances are known.

The pitfalls of pursuing ethnocentrism don't end there. Its approach is characterized by warily eying culture mostly from the outside, i.e. not by talking to the participants. It should be no surprise that it's prone to misinterpreting the actual practice and meaning of the contents. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Statements might not be serious or literal. Symbols might have obscure, even ironic, meanings. Problematic items might be rationalized or downplayed. To add to the confusion, the pronouncements published by "authoritative" organizations often diverge from what many of the participants genuinely think. The area of interest should be how the culture is lived, not on naive, superficial analyses of its minutiae. If everyone within it views a puzzling story as a mere exaggeration for dramatic effect, then highlighting the story's outlandishness accomplishes nil. An external critic's disagreement about what is and isn't a figure of speech isn't pertinent to them.

In combination, these considerations justify being initially unmoved by the declaration, "I'm not a deplorable racist—I'm a respectable citizen who's concerned about the cultural mismatches between us and them". Clearly, placing focus on "culture" nonetheless provides an abundance of chances to maintain one-sided ideas about massive numbers of human beings, hastily erase all fine distinctions, and typecast the undeserving. The possible consequence is another pile of simplistic attitudes which are barely an improvement.

Cerebral followers, who've learned their lines well, can swiftly repeat the customary retort to remarks such as these: the horrifying spectre of moral relativism. Namely, they assert that people with positions like mine are obligated to say that the morality of every piece of every culture cannot be judged consistently. But I'm not that extreme (or that hypocritical). I cheer well-done critique, if its aim is narrow and precise. And, as much as possible, I prefer that its aim isn't excessively pointed toward, or conspicuously avoiding pointing toward, any singular group of cultures. Thoughtfully learning then delicately responding to an issue isn't the same as sweeping demonization of an entire way of life or of the people who identify with it. When disputing a specific item, I want to hear an explanation of it violating a nonnegotiable ethical principle, not its level of contradiction with sacred tenets or with some alternative's "common sense". Cultures, like other human creations, have sinister corners and blind spots that thoroughly earn our distaste. But we can extend the courtesy of not presuming that sinister appearances are always correct and of reflecting on whether a startling difference is trivial or shallow rather than perverse.

Sometimes this is easy to decide and sometimes not. If it were never complicated for the people deciding, I'd wonder if they're paying enough attention to the whole picture...or if, like an ethnocentrist, they make up their minds beforehand anyway.

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