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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Is One Culture really Superior to Another?

The root of ethnocentrism is our human tendency to respond to other people's ways by using our own affective assumptions, and to reinforce these responses with deep feelings of approval or disapproval. When we are confronted by another culture, our own is called into question. Our defense is to avoid the issue by concluding that our culture is better and other people are less civilized.

But ethnocentrism is a two-way street. We feel that people in other cultures are primitive, and they judge us to be uncivilized. This can best be seen by way of an illustration.

Some North Americans were hosting a visiting Indian scholar at a restaurant, when one of them who had never been abroad asked the inevitable question, "Do you really eat with your fingers in India?" Implicit in his question, of course, was his cultural attitude that eating with one's fingers is crude and dirty. North Americans may use fingers for carrot sticks, potato chips, and sandwiches, but never for mashed potatoes and gravy, or T-bone steaks. The Indian scholar replied, "You know, in India we look at it differently than you do. I always wash my hands carefully before I eat, and I only use my right hand. And besides, my fingers have never been in anyone else's mouth. When I look at a fork or spoon, I often wonder how many other strangers have already had them in their mouths!"

Ethnocentrism occurs wherever cultural differences are found.

North Americans are shocked when they see the poor of other cultures living in the streets. People in those societies are appalled when we surrender our aged and sick and the bodies of our departed to strangers for care.

Ethnocentrism can also be found within a society. Parents and children can be critical of one another because the cultural frames in which they were raised are different.

People from one ethnic group see themselves as better than those in another;

urban folk look down on their country cousins; and upper-class persons are critical of the poor.

The solution to ethnocentrism is empathy. We need to appreciate other cultures and their ways. But our feelings of superiority and our negative attitudes toward strange customs run deep and are not easily rooted out. One way to overcome enthnocentrism is

to be learners in the culture to which we go,

for our self-centeredness is often rooted in our ignorance of others.

Another is to deal with the philosophical questions raised by cultural pluralism. If we do not examine them, we will be unconsciously threatened by accepting another culture, for to do so calls into question our implicit belief that our own culture is right and others are wrong.

A third way to overcome ethnocentrism is to

avoid stereotyping people in other cultures, but rather to see them as human beings like ourselves.

The recognition of our common humanity bridges the differences that divide us. Finally, we need to remember that people love their own cultures, and if we wish to reach them, we must do so within the context of those cultures.

Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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