The dangers of ethnocentrism

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David Epps

When I was in undergraduate school at East Tennessee State University, I came across a sociological term with which I was unfamiliar. That term was “ethnocentrism.”

Ethnocentrism is the “evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.” That is, we judge other cultures by our own culture. Almost everybody does it and does it all the time.

One example would be eating utensils. In many Asian countries, people take their meals with chopsticks. In the West, meals regularly are eaten with knives, spoons, and forks. Both methods are effective and one is not better than the other.

However, many Asians look askance at people who spear their food with miniature pitchforks and many in the West see chopsticks as something from the uncivilized past. One culture is being evaluated in the light of the others’ own culture.

This behavior starts very early in life. When I was growing up, my neighborhood was my world. I didn’t venture very far past it for a number of years. I tended to believe that my neighborhood and the way we did things there was better.

My father was blue collar and I learned that the real work, the true accomplishments, were done by people who got their hands dirty. The management, the white collar workers, were over-educated people who “wouldn’t know real work if it bit them in the (hind parts).” So, when my dad wanted me to go to college and be an electrical engineer, I was confused.

High school was very ethnocentric. We were a city school. All the surrounding high schools were county schools and thus inhabited by hicks and rednecks. Conversely, the country students viewed us as privileged snobs.

We wore our letter jackets with pride knowing that we were the best and the others were not. When I went to a football game at Lynn View High School, I smugly looked with scorn on the facilities. The stadium was small, the band was small, and the conference they competed in was small. Not so, us. Our stadium was huge, our band was monstrous, and we were in the Big 7 Conference and we were big time. That’s arrogant, I now realize.

It’s likely that many of those boys played multiple sports because the school was small and it took people doing a lot to make the programs work. One player I knew earned letters in football, baseball, track, and basketball. That was almost unheard of at our school. And I bet he felt sorry for us because we were at the big school and never had much of a chance to letter in more than one sport.

College football season is upon us and ethnocentrism is on display everywhere. Auburn v. Alabama, Clemson v. South Carolina, Georgia v. Georgia Tech, Michigan v. Ohio State, and on it goes, each believing themselves to be superior to the other.

The same ethnocentrism extends to the military as well. The Air Force believes it is smarter than the Army, the Army thinks it is better than the Navy, the Navy looks down on the Marines, the Coast Guard is proud of its uniqueness, the Marine Corps believes itself to be superior to all the rest. Which it is, of course. Some things are just facts.

So, ethnocentrism is rampant. It is everywhere. It always has been. The Romans believed themselves to have the superior society. So did the Greeks. So did the English and the French and the Germans. So, too, does America.

It’s not a contest, although it leads to contests, such as the World Cup, the Americas Cup, and the Olympic games. People are seen as competing for the pride of their culture — their nation.

When the U.S. National Hockey team played the Soviet Union in hockey in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., no one expected the Soviet team to fall. They had won the gold medal for four straight Olympic competitions. It wasn’t just a game between teams. It was a contest between countries, between ideologies, between cultures. This was ethnocentrism on steroids.

At the end of the second of the three periods, the USSR led. In the final period, the United States scored two goals to win the game 4-3. At the final buzzer, pandemonium broke out. Chants of “USA,” “USA,””USA,” were deafening. The victory became one of the most iconic moments of the Games and in U.S. sports.

Equally well-known was the television call of the final seconds of the game by Al Michaels for ABC, in which he declared: “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” In 1999, Sports Illustrated named the “Miracle on Ice” the top sports moment of the 20th century. As part of its centennial celebration in 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) named the “Miracle on Ice” as the best international ice hockey story of the past 100 years. You would have thought the USA had won the gold medal. But they hadn’t.

It wasn’t even the championship game. That would come later when the United States defeated Finland and won the gold. But who remembers that? We weren’t locked in a political and ideological battle with Finland. We weren’t at war, cold though it might have been, with Finland. We liked Finland.

Our ethnocentrism told us that the U.S. was a better country than Finland already. But the Soviet Union — they dared to think they were better. And they weren’t. At least they weren’t that day on the ice. The team won, the country won, and more importantly, the Soviet Union lost.

And that’s what ethnocentrism does, in the end. We use it to unite with people like us, who understand us, who think like us, and live like us, but ethnocentrism divides us as well. It pits us against them, whoever “them” may happen to be. There must be winners and losers, the strong and the weak, those who matter and those who do not.

Some years ago, I was reading the news about a plane crash. The plane went down somewhere in South America with no survivors. Hundreds were dead. I scoured the news report and I was greatly relieved to discover that no Americans were among the dead. I ceased reading, went on to do something else, and gave no further thought to the crash.

Later, I realized that my actions might have been taken to indicate that the non-American lives did not matter. And they didn’t — at least not until I realized what I had done. And that is a terrible flaw in ethnocentrism, normal though it may be. It says that “my people” are important and “those people,” whoever they are, are not. And that is a lie.

Ethnocentrism says that “my group” matters the most. And, if it does, then I am freed to treat other people as though they do not matter. They are the “other,” and the “other,” while not all bad, is not equal in importance to “my” people, group, race, religion, sex, or nationality. And that, too, is a lie.

If ethnocentrism is taken to the extreme, it is not enough to simply discount people. Now we must control them, debase them, dis-empower them, and even eliminate them. Ethnocentrism is a normal response designed to serve as a protection, but it has the capacity of great evil.

If there’s one thing that science and the Bible agree on, it’s that we all came from the first parents. Whether one argues for evolution or for intelligent design, whether we believe in Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden or hold to the Mitochondrial “Eve” of East Africa, we are all related. At the very least, we are distant cousins of every person on Earth. They are not the “other.” They are family.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]