Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In defense of ethnocentrism

(Originally posted by Pat on 3/16/10)

Is our culture better than others? Yes. Should we be glad and proud to be American rather than Farsi or Saudi or Congolese? Yes. The United States of America really is one of the best countries on Earth, politically, ethically, economically, culturally.
First of all, let me admit that I am using the common rhetorical technique of starting with a claim that sounds preposterous, and then backing down to something much more mundane. It would be fair to say that the ideology I am defending is not really “ethnocentrism”, but instead something like “moral objectivism”, since I certainly am not saying that my culture is better because it is my culture, but rather than my culture is better because it has certain objectively beneficial features most other cultures lack.

Yet, what I am defending would be called “ethnocentrism” by many cultural anthropologists, because I am in fact saying that my culture is better than most other cultures. Yes, I am saying that atheism is better than Christianity which is in turn better than Islam; that liberal democracy is better than aristocracy which is better than fascism; that mixed socialism is better than laissez-faire capitalism which is better than Communism. I am asserting an objective superiority to these cultural features.

On the other hand, I am not saying that my culture is the best culture; in fact I must give that title to someone else, probably Norway or perhaps Australia. In these places democracy is taken more seriously, secularism is much more rigidly enforced, and military aggression is unheardof; also, truly absurd ideas like Creationism and global-warming denial are far less prevalent there than here. Even these are not perfect, and in some cases have flaws that the US has to a lesser degree. (The US is after all the first White-majority state to elect a non-White head of state; it is also the site of the majority of the world's best universities.) When I say that a society is better, I do not mean to say that it itself cannot be bettered, for any real society has flaws worth amending.
What I am reacting against is the notion that there are no objective valuations to be made between cultures. Few actual policymakers would ever take such an idea seriously, but the majority of cultural anthropologists seem committed to this line of thinking. The Inuit commonly kill their female children? We mustn't judge them. Ancient Mayan society captured foreigners and used them in human sacrifice? It's just part of their culture. Muslim nations have nonexistent freedom of speech and treat women like we treat cattle? It's an important feature of their identity.

In fact, as a moral principle this ideology is self-defeating. It is an empirical fact that the West is characterized (perhaps even defined; I'm not sure “the West” is a meaningful entity, but insofar as it is, this is part of that meaning) by colonialism and imperialism; part of what it means to be Western is to be part of a system of governance which uses advanced military technology to forcefully subjugate those who oppose it. If “cultures will be cultures”, and we have no right to judge any culture's norms higher than any other's, then imperialism must be perfectly acceptable, for it is an integral part of our cultural identity. What kind of Americans would we be if we didn't devastate cities in foreign lands? Our grandfathers did it, and so did their grandfathers before them! This is a cultural tradition we must preserve!

In fact, I agree that colonialism and imperialism are harmful. I agree that they are a flaw in Western cultures that ought to be eradicated, preferably posthaste. In fact, part of what I value about Norway and Australia is that they are not nearly as aggressive as the United States in which I live. (On the other hand, this can be attributed as much to their lack of military capability as to any moral superiority. It's conceivable that Australia would bomb foreign countries if they had half as many bombs as the US does.)
But in order to say this, in order to claim that imperialism is bad in any deep objective sense, I must first commit myself to the principle that cultural norms can be good or bad (or more or less good and bad) in objective terms. In order to say that bombing Baghdad was a crime and bombing Dresden was an atrocity, I must commit myself to a worldview in which culture is not the final arbiter of moral truth.

And once I have done so, why should I stop at criticizing my own culture, when many other cultures have just as much to criticize? If we agree that it is good that women can vote in the US and Europe, then doesn't it make sense to say that women ought to be able to vote in Iran and Pakistan? If we agree that it was wrong for the US Air Force to bomb Dresden, does it not follow that it was similarly wrong for Al Qaeda to destroy the World Trade Center? If we value the freedom to be Muslim in America, shouldn't we also value the freedom to be atheist in Saudi Arabia?

Indeed, once we admit that an objective assessment is possible, we must in turn admit that it is probable, if not inevitable, that some cultures will fare better than others. Just as Russia is better at chess and South Korea is better at Starcraft, should we not expect that Norway is better at democracy and Switzerland is better at peace? Is it really surprising that we should find some cultures to be politically corrupt and morally unjust to greater degrees than others? Is it really problematic to suggest that cultures of hatred, misogyny, and tyranny are worse than cultures of peace, justice, and democracy?
Admittedly, problems arise in defining a suitable metric for evaluation. Much ink has been spilled over the difference between deontological and consequentialist ethics, and similarly different schools of economics and political science disagree as to which structures of governance are ethically and pragmatically optimal. This is something we must surely acknowledge; it really isn't clear what the best financial regulation scheme, the best legislative system, or the best education program would look like. It isn't clear when abortion should be allowed, or what should be done with genetic engineering, or how to best manage intellectual property law. Reasonable people disagree on these questions, and it could be decades before we find compelling solutions.

But the fact that we do not yet have a perfect answer does not prevent us from rejecting answers that are obviously wrong. Indeed, it does not even prevent us from obtaining answers that are mostly correct or almost certainly correct. Mathematicians are not yet sure what to make of P=NP or the Riemann Hypothesis, but we know that 2+2=5 is wrong and that there is no such thing as a square triangle. Scientists are still trying to resolve the inconsistencies in quantum gravity and devise a unified theory of human consciousness, but we know that the Earth is not flat and that consciousness is not created by invisible men living inside our heads.
It seems quite analogous to me that while we cannot be sure whether proportional representation is better than federalism, or how to manage interest rates in a financial crisis, we do know that a hereditary monarchy imposed through the control of oil profits (like that of Saudi Arabia) is a bad system and ought to be eliminated. We may not know how best to regulate abortion or manage intellectual property, but we do know that homosexuals and atheists deserve equal rights (which they do not have in Pakistan). Indeed, we know enough to say that laissez-faire capitalism is unstable and Communism is too easily hijacked by tyranny. We know enough to say that bombing innocent people based upon opaque intelligence is wrong. We know enough to say that abject poverty is a crime against humanity and ought to be eradicated by any means necessary. We know enough to make this world a much better place, if only we can get people to accept and apply this knowledge.

One step in this process will be getting people to admit that some cultures are better than others.

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