Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Chronological Ethnocentrism"


Relevant passage:

 Despite such evidence, one reason why Americans find it hard to believe Buchanan could have been gay is that we have a touching belief in progress. Our high school history textbooks’ overall story line is, “We started out great and have been getting better ever since,” more or less automatically. Thus we must be more tolerant now than we were way back in the middle of the 19th century! Buchanan could not have been gay then, else we would not seem more tolerant now.
This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.
Chronological ethnocentrism plays a helpful role for history textbook authors: it lets them sequester bad things, from racism to the robber barons, in the distant past. Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all “know” everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now. Unfortunately for us all, just as ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from other societies, chronological ethnocentrism makes us less able to learn from our past. It makes us stupider.
For the love of God, stop throwing around these throw-away gripes like "ethnocentrism." Not to mention neologisms like"chronological ethnocentrism." Academicians love this crap. If I had a nickle for every time I've had to hear about the horrors of ethnocentrism I'd be a rich man. Add some cash for every laudable mention of "diversity" and the coin really starts to stack up...

If you're going to whine about something like "ethnocentrism," you need to get straight about what's going on. First and foremost: there is nothing wrong with thinking that your own culture is better than another in some respect or other, so long as you're right about it--or, more precisely, so long as your belief is justified. We're better at the freedom thing than, say, Iran. It's not (horrors!) ethnocentric to acknowledge that.  It's not even ethnocentric to falsely think that your own culture is superior to some other. Ethnocentrism is something like automatically or unthinkingly or dogmatically thinking such things.  So the author above is on the right track when he denigrates thinking that "...we must be more tolerant now than we were...in the...19th century." (Note, however, this is not an "ideology." It's an idea.)

However, the "ideology" [sic] of progress does not amount to "a chronological form of ethnocentrism." ('Temporal' would probably be better than 'chronological' here, actually.) There is nothing wrong with the belief that we "now live in a better society" than did folks at Buchanan's time. See, we do live in a better society. No slavery for one thing. For another: women can vote. One could go on.

The author goes on to say that "ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours." Nope. Or, rather: few people have a very clear idea what they mean when they throw around the PC term "ethnocentrism." But if ethnocentrism is supposed to be bad, then it can't be that. Because at any given time, some society is going to be best (or tied for best), and it can't be wrong for the folks in that society to acknowledge this. The second half of the sentence is closer to being right, but still misses the mark. The error is to think something roughly like: the contingent nature of my own society defines what goodness for a society is. (Funny. Cultural moral relativists on the left actually think something closer to this than do folks on the right. CMR is, roughly, the view that however we happen to do things is--roughly--by definition the right way for us to do them. Conservatives at least have the good sense to generally think (or so it seems) that we are contingently right about everything, not necessarily so...)

Nobody, of course, ever thinks any of that stuff explicitly. So the actual error made by actual people is to unthinkingly accept more-or-less whatever their own society does, and to treat it as if it were the standard by which all others are judged. That's quite different from just thinking that your own society is best...which is, again, fine, so long as your thought is justified--as some such thoughts will be.

So, anyway: there is progress--note that we got rid of slavery, for example. Note also that we're generally more accepting now of homosexuality--the actual case in question--then we used to be, say, in the 1950's. We'll backslide on some things, of course. Nobody said progress was always permanent. But the arc of the universe, though long, bends toward justice. Recognizing that progress is possible--and sometimes actual--in no way makes it impossible to learn from the past. In fact, it makes learning from the past a worthwhile endeavor. If progress were impossible, then learning of any kind would be futile. But it isn't, so it isn't.

There's an idea buried in the passages above...but a little precision goes a long way. And such imprecision takes a helpful truth and turns it into a pernicious falsehood.

Argh. Sorry that's all so cranky. But I'm just really losing my patience with this kind of stuff.


Blogger The Mystic said...

Why? Why do you read this garbage? It serves only to annoy you. Nonsense has already compelled me its avoidance. You should try it.

For the first few days after you kick the habit, you'll feel compelled to find something to read and denigrate, but after a week or so you wonder why you ever wanted to do such a thing at all. A few weeks later, you're reading something important and interesting, you haven't a clue what's gotten the media in its latest tizzy, and you rightfully do not care.

And why can't you ever make a link properly on the first attempt?

I demand answers.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


1:21 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Someone get this man a blanket and some hot tea.

There, there now, son. It'll be ok. We'll get you cleaned up.

1:53 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home