My colleagues and I have a tendency to think of ourselves as ‘liberal’, ‘open-minded’, ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘multi-cultural.’ Because of our work, we are able to enjoy the feeling that we perceive the reality. We analyze and deconstruct and apply various psychological, political, and social science theories to what we hear in the news or encounter. We package the world and it’s problems into neat little categories and assign solutions that seem exceedingly obvious (e.g. don’t bomb innocent civilians). We are in touch with the real issues. Some of us revel in being misunderstood by our neighbors or railed against by indignant right-wing radio evangelists. We buy free-trade coffee; we make our offices “paperless”; we boycott athletic wear companies who – we have heard – use sweatshop labor in Bangladesh or Ghana; we adorn our Jettas or Civic hybrids with bike racks and stickers that read “Give Peace a Chance.”But there comes a point when it becomes (temporarily) impossible to maintain an air of open-minded relativism. At some point you will encounter another culture that drives you crazy, and it will not be pretty. An accomplished professor of chemistry whom I had the opportunity to interview several years ago, sharing his perspective on a general lack of belief in God among his colleagues (he was a devout Christian) had this to say: “For staunch atheists I can think of only one cure: strip them naked and drop them off, without food or water, in the middle of a remote jungle. Within one week they will believe in God.” There are many things that I can’t claim to understand about God. I do, however, know what it is like to be stuck in the jungle. And whether that jungle is a literal one, a concrete one, or simply a metaphor for an impenetrable tangle of cultural signals, the effect is the same: within a very short time even the most staunchly relativistic among us will doubt our beliefs. We will face the demons of ethnocentrism. Oh yes. It is one thing to sit in the relative comfort, cleanliness, peace and quiet of a classroom on the campus of a public liberal arts university and arrive at the conclusion that economic and social inequity in the world is, at the end of the day, the result of ethnocentrism. It is one thing, in such a setting, to feel exhilarated by one’s own ability to deconstruct this ethnocentrism for what it is. It is easy to feel a sense of smug enlightenment – we understand what far too many of our elected leaders and non-elected peers have either never understood or are simply ignoring: that third-world poverty is the result of ongoing oppression and exploitation of less developed countries by more developed countries.
It is one thing to bemoan the loss of indigenous knowledge (sometimes called “wisdom”), the disappearing of tribal languages in some parts of the world, and globalization in general. And it is quite another thing to confront local wisdom in the form of Friday afternoon rush hour traffic in a given third-world capitol. There are days when few things can drive me over the edge more quickly than school girls on bicycles, five abreast, holding hands and chatting while wobbling through the swirling mass otherwise known as Hanoi traffic. Not far behind the schoolgirls would have to be the odd guy with a refrigerator bungee-corded to the back of his Honda “Cup 50.” Somewhere there is a particularly perverse mutation of Murphy’s Law that holds that, despite our positions relative to each other, before I am through the intersection he will careen into my path and I will have to execute a quick stop in heavy traffic and on well-oiled pavement in order to avoid hitting him.
It is swell to feel all warm and fuzzy and openly accepting of other peoples and cultures as valid and meaningful in their own right. But it is considerably less swell to assimilate to the culture of watching one’s step in order to avoid treading in human poop on the sidewalks of downtown Luanda. I have a friend who once shared with me a theory of ranking the relative development of various culture based on the balance of consonants and vowels in the written language. Places with too many consonants end up with names like “Repbulika Srpska” and accompanying separatist rebels, snipers, hordes of starving refugees in the dead of winter. Countries with too many vowels end up with words like “Narawaatwanchai” and accompanying astronomical rates of malaria, TB and infant mortality. I think he may have been kidding, but I have come up with an alternate theory: that the level of effort required to avoid treading in human feces between, say, the carpark and the USAID office could very well be a reliable indicator the overall state of things in that country.
It is one thing to pontificate on in the abstract about structures that reinforce inequity and (abstractly) the challenges of coping with corrupt governments. But then it is quite another thing to be detained for hours by inebriated policeman for no apparent reason in Conakry. Similarly, it is all good and well to talk about stability and ‘maintaining the rule of law.’ But then it is quite another to have to submit, repeatedly, to the search of one’s person by iodine-deficient, Kalashnikov-wielding teenaged soldiers in Dushanbe.
It is one thing to want to bond with local people, to walk a mile or kilometre in their shoes, to consciously not choose options – open to you but not to them – which would further reinforce numerous disparities on multiple conceptual levels. And it is quite something else to find yourself stuck for five hours the domestic departure waiting room of the Medan airport, in all of it’s noisy, stinky, disheveled, grimy, dingy, uncomfortable, and crowded state – filled to capacity with chain-smoking Indonesian men. And there will be days when, as accustomed as you might be to all of those things, they will (especially the very last – chain smoking…) drive you just about over the edge. Perhaps it will be because you have been en route for the last 20+ hours without sleep on a bed or a shower, and you’re likely to work for another 10, at least, also without sleep or a shower. Perhaps it’s simply because – as Danny Glover would have said (in Lethal Weapon), you’re “too old for this sh!t.” But whatever the case, in that dark moment, you may very well lose your culturally-sensitive self-control and indulge in mentally berating them, while simultaneously enjoying smug satisfaction in their increased statistical likelihood of erectile dysfunction down the road (I read somewhere that cigarette smoking does that). * * * But then, at some point, you’ll find yourself on an inter-disciplinary team whose job is to evaluate a program that went very well and was very effective. The villagers will tell you how much they liked this program and they’ll thank you for doing it – and they’ll be at least mostly sincere. There will be a celebratory feast of chicken testicles, dog meat, and “green freshwater turtle hot-pot”, washed down with rice vodka. Someone will sing a special song, and someone will give a speech. Certificates or pins will be handed out. In that moment you’ll feel as if those miles over terrible roads in a Niva, those sleepless nights under a mosquito net with Karaoke caterwauling coming from the floor below, those endless cups of tea drunk with combed-over former revolutionaries-turned-provincial-official, and those bouts of giardia… have all been worth it. And in your heart you’ll ask the forgiveness of those people whom you mentally berated for doing nothing more than being themselves (as if you’d had the right to judge them in the first place).
And at least until the next guy with a refrigerator bungee-corded to the back of his motorcycle careens into your path…
The demons of ethnocentrism will have been banished.