Ethnocentricity is primarily a western affliction, and it stinks to the high heavens

When you travel as much as I do, you get to visit a great many different cultures. If you keep your eyes open and don’t just eat at restaurants serving food from your own cuisine. If you avoid walking through streets blind-folded, you’ll note that there are often subtle, sometimes big, at times in your face, humongous, cultural differences. To be oblivious to that is called ethnocentricity, to put your own culture at the center of all things, and to value your own culture above all else.

Let me state this as clearly as I can: there is no culture that is “better” than any other. We are all just different. Sure, we may dislike aspects of one culture, but when we criticise another culture, or what a culture endorses, we need to be careful to understand what we do. Even more importantly, we need to understand what we do not! Last week, I’ve seen many of my friends on Facebook share an article about Olympian Gus Kenworthy sharing pictures with cute puppies, decrying the Korean tradition of eating dog. Having just written a book about Korea, and after having spent some time in the country, I’m well aware of the practice.

Here’s the thing:

  • eating dog (or any animal for that matter) is completely fine and none of your fucking business! So is being a vegetarian or vegan.
  • Focus instead on the  treatment of the animals while they are being raised

In the reporting of Kenworthy’s visit, a small sentence of his often fell by the wayside:

“Yes, there is an argument to be made that eating dogs is a part of Korean culture. And, while don’t personally agree with it, I do agree that it’s not my place to impose western ideals on the people here.”

I could sign this sentence, too. I would not eat dog. But I could’ve also asked him: then why do you impose your western ideals?

On the other hand, ask a billion something Indian Hindus how they feel about the West eating veal and beef, or ask Jews and Muslims about our practice of eating pork… No, we would never listen, wouldn’t care. Even in the West, some of us eat some pretty ‘weird’ shit: In central Europe, eating horse is still a big thing, some eat cute baby goats, we eat cute little lambs, not to mention bunnies. We eat whale meat, seals, and don’t get me started on eating tongue, brain, penises or testicles. It’s a thing. I’m sure the majority of people on the planet strongly disagree with the practice of any of these. However, I’d never criticise anyone for eating that, as long as the animal is treated well while raised/hunted unless of course it is threatened by extinction (which sadly is the case in some whale cases.)

Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr. Kenworthy used his high profile to shine a light on how we treat our own animals, rather than shaming another culture? This is not to say that I do not agree that dogs aren’t to be treated well, but maybe we should let the Koreans deal with that themselves? Making them lose face in the eyes of the world is hardly going to go down well…

He who cast the first stone…

ethnocentricity: maybe we should look to ourselves first?

How do you feel about eating this? Image: PETA

What really had me riled though was this: did Gus ever criticise American poultry? Does he ever eat chicken nuggets or the colonel’s original recipe? Why does he have to travel to Sochi or PyongChang to find a worthy cause when there are thousands of poultry farms right in his own backyard? Farms where male chicklets (worthless to egg farmers) are ground to death alive (!!!) and where chickens are processed for meat in ways that even the Nazis couldn’t have come up with.

I love chicken, eat loads of it, but I make sure to eat organic products from farms where the animals lived a good life before helping me see the next day. If you decide that you want to eat meat, at least make sure the animals are treated well while alive. That’s hardly too much to ask for.

Ethnocentricity in writing

Sadly, ethnocentricity is a thing in writing, as well. We are quick to dismiss other people’s experiences, lives, cultures simply because they don’t conform to what we are comfortable with, what we know. I’ve just used one example, I could have made many others. Even people from others cultures living among “us” in the West are often judged and portrayed using broad brushes and from our own point of view. Not a good way to learn about the diversity in the world. And not a good way to create tolerance and cultural understanding.

Just as the Kenworthy article is propagated through social media, so is our writing, black and white for generations. Books have a long shelf-life, keep that in mind. Reducing people to cultural stereotypes, attributing them a “certain way” of being, doing things etc., without really knowing them is a big danger and pitfall. Worse, to criticise them for their ways is damaging at best. Maybe we better look at our own ways before we judge others?

One of the best ways of dealing with potentially sensitive topics is to avoid them. I would not write about eating dog in my book about Korea. Not because I’m not aware of the practice, but because – to be perfectly honest – it doesn’t add value to my story. It would disgust the majority of my western readers, and it would be an insult to potential Korean readers. It just makes no sense to raise a topic for the sake of a sensation or a thrill. That’s my point of view.

How do you feel? How do you avoid ethnocentricity?

These are my personal views, of course. I’m sure others have different views, diverging ways of looking at things. Feel free to contribute!

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Hans

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