Ethnocentrism is under-rated. Most college students are exposed to the concept only if they take a course in Introductory Sociology or if they should chose to major in sociology. Even then, the concept of ethnocentrism is presented as an evil to be extinguished by fostering the value of anti-ethnocentrism.
For those who are not well-versed in the language of sociology, ethnocentrism refers to the tendency to judge other cultures by the standards of one’s own culture. Since this is a natural human tendency, the task of fostering anti-ethnocentrism is difficult, to say the least. But it is also self-defeating.
Technically speaking, sociologists form a sub-culture with their own set of values, beliefs, and practices. And they are the only sub-culture that is known to promote the value of anti-ethnocentrism. Therefore, when sociologists tell people of other cultures (non-sociologists) that it is bad to judge people of other cultures by the values of their own culture, they are doing just that: judging people of other cultures by the values of their own culture. In fact, the value they impose on others (anti-ethnocentrism) cannot be imposed without engaging in ethnocentrism. It is intellectual Onanism. It produces no fruit.
While anti-ethnocentrism fails the test of internal consistency, its greatest weakness is external. That is to say, it fails when applied to real-world problems – problems outside the realm of theory and abstract sociological jargon. Who can read about the Rape of Nanking or the Nazi Holocaust and remain convinced that we should somehow refrain from judging that which is self-evidently wrong?
Today’s college student is just as intellectually capable as yesterday’s college student. But he (and increasingly she) often suffers from moral atrophy. We need to combat this atrophy by exercising the natural moral reflex. It might not require a whole major in Ethnocentric Studies dedicated to teaching the upside of judging cultures like Nazi Germany. But we should at least consider a course called Introduction to Ethnocentrism. It should be a required course within the Department of Sociology so that no one actually graduates before fully appreciating the necessity of judging other cultures.
On March 7 of 1996, the day I became a former atheist, I had the unique experience of interviewing prisoners inside a filthy prison in Quito, Ecuador. I was appalled by the fact that the prison served rotten meat to prisoners after boiling it in large vats in order to make it edible. In fact, I was so appalled by what I saw that I wrote an expose for an academic human rights journal. In that article, I summarized numerous human rights abuses. Unfortunately, the editor of the journal was a sociologist who was more interested in defending the Ecuadorian culture than in defending the individuals being fed objectively rotten, sub-standard food.
Her name was Michelle Stone, then an Associate Professor of Sociology at Youngstown State University. She told me she liked the article and would publish it. Then she changed her mind and made its publication contingent: I had to remove the portion of the article criticizing the food given to the prisoners. Her exact words were “It isn’t nice to judge the foods of cultures other than your own.”
Eventually, Stone stepped down as editor of that journal. The next editor was forwarded an email from me showing that Stone had gone back on her word. Because he was a psychology professor, not a sociology professor, the new editor was able to recognize the absurdity of Stone’s anti-judgmental judgmentalism. So he over-ruled her and ran the article, which was later read by a congresswoman from Florida. After reading my article, the congresswoman flew down to Ecuador to negotiate the release of a woman who was stuck in an Ecuadorian prison and subjected to inhumane treatment.
It is sad when I reflect on that incident. An article that helped secure the release of an American woman held prisoner without due process almost did not see the light of day. And the sole reason for the delay in publication was that a sociologist had given the war on ethnocentrism greater priority than the war on human suffering. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in the intellectually and morally confused discipline of sociology.
Someone needs to teach future sociologists that the failure to impose judgment results in the failure to remedy injustice. Ironically, the ones most qualified to enlighten them come from a culture other than their own.