While empathy breaks down the barriers of borders, ethnocentrism – the supposed superiority of one’s own cultural world – is addressed at strengthening them, and if possible, at raising new ones. Ethnocentrism is universally widespread and often relatively innocuous: almost all human societies consider themselves as the most successful of the species; in some cases the fully human characteristics of other groups are even questioned.
The ethnocentrism that is worrying today is not the widespread prejudice of the superiority of one’s own group, but the “western” prejudice of the superiority of the “western” cultural world. This because “western” culture (we are using this expression although we know that in fact a “western” culture does not exist, distinct and separate “cultures” as such do not exist either) has not only assumed a dominant position in many areas of the planet, but is also considered as “obviously” superior.
One example of how “obvious” this ethnocentric prejudice is in “the west” is provided by Richard Shweder, from Chicago University: “I once attended a dinner with Margaret Mead during a round table organised by the American Anthropological Association. It was in 1971. Someone asked her: “Which is the best society in which one should bring up children?” “Calm down”, answered Mead. “It depends on whether the child is a boy or a girl. If it is a boy I would bring him up in England, I would send him to one of their public schools and keep him away from his mother. If a girl I would bring her up in America, here and now, right in the midst of the movement for the liberation of women.
This is the best time there has ever been for a girl”. Shweder comments: “I do not know how Margaret Mead would answer this same question today, thirty years later. As we enter the twenty-first century, the images of the realities and ideals proposed by the women’s movement are neither homogeneous nor united, and the very idea of what it means to grow up as an American is very controversial from various viewpoints: religious, racial and ethnic. But I do know what my answer would be: there is no special place in which it is best to grow up. A really good place is any place where one learns that there is no one place better than another to grow up in, whether you are a boy or a girl.
To speak as Mead did means believing that the best education is the one provided in the United States or in England, that real knowledge is that of the western sciences, that the best cures are only those provided by “our” medicine, that the right way of being a woman is only the way proposed by American feminists and so on; and naturally also that the best form of government for the whole of humankind is the American media democracy. Even “humanitarian” projects for the “third world” often incorporate political philosophy and morals that have a liberal tendency considering obvious and universal the American version of “human rights” within the framework of an overall “project for imperial liberal civilisation”.
The idea however of the superiority of “western” values is based on a mistaken theory and a great deal of ignorance. The theory, usually not as openly pronounced as during the colonial period, is that of a scale of “cultures” led by the “western” world in top position (once called “European” but now the reference is clearly increasingly American). Human history is considered a univocal movement towards a “progress” defined in the same terms for all human societies. The path followed is only one, as is the destination. “At the time, just like nowadays, the pedestal on which the various cultures were placed depended on a small number of elements indicating progress, or development, or evolution, considered objective and closely linked to each other.
It was thought that the direction moved from poor to rich, from magical to scientific, from illiterate to capable of reading and writing, from simple to complex, from sick to healthy, from authoritarian to democratic, from polygamist to monogamist, from pagan to Christian, from oppressed to free. What was fundamental was that our way of living was the most true, the best, the most beautiful and efficient, and that to the extent that they differ from ours, the beliefs, the values and the practices of others were false, shameful, unpleasant and irrational”. Those at the top of the classification not only know what others should do, but they are also certain that the point they have reached is the objective; other points of view are less true, less moral and less democratic than their own. If necessary they may also try and impose their ideas using force, naturally for the good of the ‘others’ who are incapable of clearly acknowledging what is good for them.
The many ignorant elements supporting this claim to “Western” “cultural” superiority are the result - and also the cause – of this presumed superiority. If the “Western” point of view is the most advanced, civilised, and “scientific”, what need is there to pay attention to the lifestyles in inferior and old-fashioned human societies? The images – of women dressed in shapeless cloaks, of repentant sinners walking in procession and covered in the blood from flagellations, of children playing in mounds of garbage – that the media pour everyday upon a disoriented public seem to be chosen to confirm the prejudice of the superiority of “our” world. Our ignorance about the values of “others” leads us to see this diversity as backwardness, to consider virtue as servitude.
This for example is one of the subjects currently debated by American cultural anthropologists addressing the conditions of Hindu women. A number of scholars, such as Richard Shweder, professor of anthropology at Chicago University, reproach their American feminist colleagues of superimposing their own voices over those of Hindu women, assuming a superiority of values such as autonomy, individualism, competition and personal success that are really American values. “To ignore the alternative moral values present in practising family life in India, thinking that inner control, service, deferred gratification are only ways of accepting oppression, means not only denigrating these women but also commitment to a new end of 20th Century version of cognitive and moral imperialism”.