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Universalizing Ethnocentrism

There is a widespread insistence among those who readily invoke the notion that ethnocentrism is a universal condition. All cultures, the argument goes, express enthnocentric attitudes toward others. This might be called the "universality of ethnocentrism" claim. It is the supposition that everyone necessarily stands inside one—and perhaps only one—culture. It would follow that we must (cannot but? always?) express inherently partial judgments about others from inside the inescapable frame, whether or not we thereby assume our own cultural commitments to be preferable or better.

This claim suggests that there is a spectrum of ethnocentrisms. They supposedly range from the less to the more pernicious, from judgments about others inescapably expressed from, and expressive of, a cultural stance not theirs to a dismissal of cultural differentiation as inferior, as lesser. Analysts or commentators usually define ethnocentrism in the latter sense, that is, as belief in or claim to the superiority of one's own culture, as this article suggests earlier. For example, mainstream Japanese society is deemed ethnocentric for its sense of discriminatory superiority over "Burakumin," or social outcasts, those deemed barely human and good only for menial employment (Weiner). Defined as such, ethnocentrism is seen as deeply linked, or leading to, the scapegoating of those deemed inferior or difficult, demanding, or incapable. Consider the enmity between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda during the 1990s Those deemed "incapable" are often identified as the cause of things gone wrong in society, of dangers threatening, of social conditions gone sour, of frustrations with socioeconomic concerns turning to ethno-tensions and fast exploding into violence. "They" are the cause of "our" difficulties. If "we" have "failed" it must be "their" fault. But it also reveals that the socially produced responses to such ethnocentrisms vary widely from avoidance or dismissal to outright rejection or, worse still, to outright attack, purging, or ultimately to genocide.

The universality claim thus expressed, however, undercuts critical judgments against ethnocentric commitment. If we are all party to such narrowness, if we are inescapably of and judge from (inside) our culture, then it cannot be that bad. After all, those so judged have their own culture not only from which to render their inescapably ethnocentric judgments but also as a form of defense. Ethnocentrism as a claim to universal inevitability conceptually reduces to a case of culture war.

The universalizability claim is considered by self-satisfied critics as revealing the poverty of extreme forms of relativism. Value universalists cannot be so smug, however. The "universality of ethnocentrism" claim on the more extreme relativistic side has its characteristic correlate among bigoted universalists too. Call this by contrast the "ethnocentrism of universality" claim. Tzvetan Todorov revealingly defines ethnocentrism to capture just this characterization. Ethnocentrism, he writes, takes the values of one's own society without warrant as universal, as applying to all anytime, everywhere.

Consider Keith Windschuttle's characteristic assumptions in attacking what he questionably deems the "ethnocentrism of [the anthropologist] Clifford Geertz," who Windschuttle reads as the quintessential relativist.

From its origins in classical thought and Christianity, Western culture has always had a strong tendency towards universalism. This principle has long been expressed in the idea of the unity of human kind and the belief that all human beings had a common origin and were equal before God. During the European Enlightenment, these Christian concepts were secularized to produce the notions of a common human nature and universal human rights.… In other words, the universalizing principle has been one of the great strengths of Western culture and has been central to the self-assurance and development of Western civilization.

Here the universalizing project of "Western Enlightenment," precisely in the name of criticizing relativistic ethnocentrism, is the project to universalize its values. This is to insist that, because these are universal values, they ought to be universally recognized. Blaise Pascal writes that "We have to admit that there is something astonishing about Christian religion … though I was born in it, I soon found it astonishing" (p. 23). So astonishing, it turns out, that its values—the only religion whose values are rationally produced, Pascal says—should hold for all, absolutely, everywhere, always. The assertion of the universality of one's society's or religion's values fails to acknowledge that even such general values as liberty and equality are open to interpretation and inflection. Liberty and equality may be general values aspired to very widely. But value universalists all too often generalize the specific interpretation or meanings of those commitments from within their own sociocultural boundaries, insisting that they should apply universally, thereby denying interpretations to these terms diverging from dominant, usually Western conceptions (though prosyletizing Islamic universalists, for example, might be guilty of this too).

These presumptively universal values and interpretations, which proponents such as Windschuttle seek to generalize and have rule the world, turn out invariably to be those of a relatively small group of people. They are a distinct minority actually in the global scheme of things, with a particular history of domination and subjugation. Critics of ethnocentrism often contrast ethnocentric disposition to that of tolerance, which is promoted as the proper response to ethnic distinction and differentiation. It is curious consequently to note accordingly how critics of value universalism are dismissed by proponents such as Windschuttle as incorrigible relativists, or even worse as relativistic multiculturalists. These are charges that themselves reveal the ethnocentric reification of such universalistic claims, not to mention the distinct horizons of application and scope when it comes to tolerance, which after all is always expressed from a position of power (Goldberg). But as Todorov points out, regarding what he calls the "ethnocentric spirit" exhibited by Pascal, having absolutized local values or interpretations ethnocentrists then judge their own values and practices as universally ordained. The "ethnocentrism of universality" becomes at once the rationalization of local values imposed universalistically.

The "ethnocentrism of universalism" and the "universalism of ethnocentrism" thus converge in the end. The ethnocentrism of universalism ends up flattening out all distinction. If I universalize the values of "my" culture (given that I can identify a coherent universalizable set) to apply to all cultural and social arrangements, I effectively deny or belie what makes those cultures unique. And if I insist, seemingly by contrast, that all societies, universally, are ethnocentric, and so their members do and perhaps can only exercise value judgments from within their cultural horizons, then effectively I must be claiming that the universalism of ethnocentrism amounts to no more than the ethnocentrism of universalism: my judgment from within a culture is, from my point of view, all there can be, and so must perversely be the grounds of universal judgment. The ethnocentric disposition at least implicitly denies historical relations connecting the ethnically dominated to the ethnically dominant. Whether taken substantively as a standpoint from which judgments are expressed about others or as an analytic framework for understanding historical circumstances, ethnocentrism implodes on the common claim to social homogeneity.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEthnocentrism - Definition, Universalizing Ethnocentrism, Conclusion, Bibliography