Monday, February 26, 2007
LET’S AVOID ETHNOCENTRISM
By: STEPHEN SAH
THE other day in a ‘trotro’, an elderly passenger was not amused at all about the driver’s mate speaking in the Twi (is it Akan?) language to the passengers.
The poor mate had demanded his fare in the Twi language and the old man, whether genuinely or feigning not to understand that language, asked the mate to redirect his plea in the Ga language because we are in Accra, which is the land of the Gas’.
So to speak, he needlessly said that the Ga language was expedient as the medium of expression in Accra. This degenerated into an unending argument, carrying tempers very high.
An obviously younger passenger with a premonition that the argument was likely to degenerate into unimportant ethnic issues cleverly intervened that after all the old man was joking and that the issue should not be dragged.
Insults were actually traded with the old man, who from his rattle of the Queen’s English, might have achieved some considerable level of education, being at the receiving end from a gentleman who sat beside me.
As the incident unfolded, I sat quietly and put on my sociological lenses to observe so that the deduction that I shall make from what transpires could assist me to do this write-up on an issue, which, to me, hinges on ethnocentrism. This is an issue which if not tackled or checked could lead to bloodshed and this is what Ghanaians must do everything to avoid and live in harmony as before.
For Ghana is noted to be a peaceful country of one people with a common destiny.
And it does not matter whether one is an Ewe, an Akan, a Ga, a Dagaare or from any other part of the country. Indeed, it is a fact that ethnocentrism, like nationalism, cannot be washed away. After all, everybody is proud of themselves first and anything else comes second.
Even between children and their parent, in matters of individuality, the children feel superior in their thoughts and vice versa. So, you see that ethnocentrism cannot be easily wished away.
Some of us subtly or rather knowingly taunt others. It is common to hear people condemn others for practicing certain customs, traditions and all that. For example, if I come from Sefwi where the monkey is a delicacy it is not uncommon to hear somebody from Accra or elsewhere feeling nausea about that.
Similarly, in communities where the dog is a delicacy, such repugnant comments are easily passed and those who feel disgusted often feel that they are better off. Many of such examples abound in Ghana to the effect that some tribes have been associated with industrious skill while others are seen as lazy and even as thieves. I may not want to mention names here but your guess might be as good as mine.
Obviously there are some people who might have a bone to pick with people from specific tribes or ethnic backgrounds. This must be due to what people hear or read from elsewhere or just out of sheer dislike.
A Ghanaian adage says “whatever the chicken does is not appreciated by the hawk”. Such people will not be pleased by anything, not even the slightest infractions or even jokes put up by any member of the other group they consider as inferior, superior or whatever.
In the light of the above, I am looking at what ethnocentrism is, whether or not it can be avoided, what the problem is and what can be done about it.
Ethnocentrism, from the point of view of the argument above, is a commonly used word in circles where ethnicity, inter-ethnic relations, and similar social issues are of concern or come into play.
The usual definition of the term is “thinking one’s own group’s ways are superior to others” or “judging other groups as inferior to one’s own”. “Ethnic” refers to cultural heritage, and “centrism” refers to the central starting point, therefore, “ethnocentrism” basically refers to judging other groups from our own cultural point of view.
But even this does not address the underlying issue of why people do this. Most people, thinking of the shallow definition, believe that they are not ethnocentric, but are rather “open-minded” and “tolerant”.
However, as explained above, everyone is ethnocentric and there is no way one cannot be ethnocentric. It cannot be avoided, nor can it be wished away by a positive attitude. It can be managed by the way we go about it.
Similarly, ethnocentrism has been defined as making false assumptions about others’ ways based on our own limited experience. The key word is assumptions, because we are not even aware that we are being ethnocentric. This is where I said people who read or just heard about others base their assessment on that.
The assumptions we make about others’ experience can involve false negative judgments, reflected in the common definition of ethnocentrism.
More examples abound in our local communities, as well as around the world.
Everybody is ethnocentric, as all of us around the world assume things about other people’s ways.
Why are people ethnocentric? The definition given above emphasizes that we make false assumptions based on our own limited experience. Our perceptions of tribes, our time frames, our values on industriousness, our social roles, our beliefs about life and the universe, and all our other ways help us organize life experience and provide important meanings and functions as we move through daily and life span activities.
Therefore, our limited experiences we have already had are the bases for interpreting new experiences. Since we have not experienced everything they have experienced, how can we not be ethnocentric?
Ethnocentrism leads to misunderstanding others. The preface to my article amply demonstrates this fact. We falsely distort what is meaningful and functional to other peoples through our own tinted glasses. We see their ways in terms of our life experience, not in their context. We do not understand that their ways have their own meanings and functions in life, just as our ways have for us.
At best, we simply continue in our unawareness. Yet this can have consequences within our society and even in international relations. I remember telling a German friend sometime ago about what I had heard, that Germans did not drink piped water because of the ripples from the world wars.
We may be well-meaning in inter-ethnic relations, for example, but can unintentionally offend others, generate ill-feelings, and even set up situations that harm others.
A lack of understanding can also inhibit constructive resolutions when we face conflicts between social groups. It is easy to assume that others “should” have certain perspectives or values. How often are we prone to address conflicts when others tell us how we should think and feel?
Ethnocentrism is also evident in international relations, creating conflicts and inhibiting resolution of conflicts.
An ultimate case of such misunderstandings is warfare, where many people are killed; maimed for life, have their families, subsistence, health, and way of life disrupted, sometimes forever.
There are extreme forms of ethnocentrism that pose serious social problems, of course, such as racism, colonialism, and ethnic cleansing, which have not been experienced in our country.
Can ethnocentrism be avoided or eliminated? Addressing ethnocentrism is not a matter of trying not to be ethnocentric. This is an impossible task, since we will never experience every life situation of everyone around our community or the wider society – the world. We will always have our assumptions about life based on our existing limited experience.
So a much more productive approach is to catch ourselves when we are being ethnocentric and to control this bias as we seek to develop better understanding.
In science, grounded understanding is not developed from the absence of biases, but rather the recognition and control of biases, is it the placebo effect or what? The scientific process helps us to have a clearer view of what we do understand the context of what we do not understand.
Ethnocentrism is a bias that keeps us from such understanding of other people’s life experience, but it is possible to recognize this bias and control it so that we can go on to develop more valid and balanced understanding.
This calls for us to develop our learning skills, by trying to learn from those we consider to be different.
Many of us know people who have moved to other societies and have learned to become functional in their new social settings, evidence that it is possible to develop more grounded understanding.
Anthropologists and sociologists, of course, have worked on systematically developing these skills for well over a century.
The first step in developing a more balanced understanding is to recognize that we do not understand that we are falsely assuming something that is not the case and is out of context. How can we consciously become aware of something that is happening subconsciously? In this case how can we know when we are biased?
One of the most effective means of recognizing that ethnocentrism is inhibiting our understanding is to watch for reactions. At best, the old man, having recognized the reactions of the majority of passengers on board the ‘trotro’ should have been discerning enough to see that he was going to tread on dangerous grounds.
One of the most effective means of recognizing that ethnocentrism
is inhibiting our understanding is to watch for reactions. At best,
the old man, having recognized the reactions of the majority of
passengers on board the ‘trotro’ should have been discerning enough
to see that he was going to tread on dangerous grounds.
Reactions tell us that we are assuming something and that our assumptions are not working.
We can always observe our own reactions from our utterances and behaviour. Our negative reactions towards others are sufficient clues that our assumptions are not working in certain situations.
Generally, reactions tell us first about ourselves. Why do we think people should be friendly, appreciate us, feel warmth all over when we refer to them as primitive or superstitious, uncivilized and issue those uncouth statements?
An attitude for learning is required of us. In this process, it is important for us to remember that we do not know, and that is why we are seeking to develop better understanding. The best method is to ask for their explanations about what they do or say.
As our media pluralism has opened the vistas for free comments, we must as well try to play diplomacy and accept each other’s views because all of us cannot have the same beliefs, customs, arts and any other capabilities, which, according to renowned Sociologist E.B. Tylor, are accepted by man as a member of society.
We should always try to put ourselves in the shoes of others because no condition is permanent. After all, during the fight for independence, people from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds put aside their differences and together fought the common enemy – poverty and disease to make our country a better place for generations yet unborn.
The Daily Graphic - Monday, February 26, 2007 Page: 30