Ethnocentricity: just because you saw it doesn’t make it true

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The word ethnocentric is vastly under utilized. I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard it used in a conversation, yet it is an adjective that colours our world-view every day. If more people understood the concept, maybe we wouldn’t have to suffer through so many dreary “news” stories.

 

I’ll save you a trip to Google if it’s not one of your favourite words – ethnocentricity is evaluating other people or cultures according to the value of one’s own culture. Glancing at that definition, we might dismiss it because the very term culture makes most people slightly nauseous (or, in the extreme, to paraphrase a Nazi-era playwright, “When I hear the word culture I reach for my gun.”) because cultural issues tend to be too nebulous to ponder except for sociologists
But the culture as denoted by the phrase ethnocentric also refers to the smaller cultures where we observe events and evaluate them according to a small worldview. The worldview in question is as small as it gets – the one from our own eyes.

 

We get ensconced in the small world that most of us live in, no matter if it’s exciting like New York City or a bit more mundane like a village on the prairies. We tend to evaluate things by our surroundings, and more importantly by the opinions of people around us, who in a bigger sense see the world very similarly (this does not hold on an interpersonal level, obviously).

 

I work in the oil patch in Calgary. The circle of people I know by and large make their living from energy production in one way or another, and we view the world of energy as that of producers. Our neighbours and colleagues are geologists, geophysicists, engineers, oilfield service workers, etc. Many people in the world will never know a geologist, yet they are like stray dogs around here. Our neighbours and colleagues that aren’t in the energy business often depend on it for their livelihood, because the industry dominates the city (no matter what the city itself says). People that install air conditioners for a living are acutely aware that bonuses of oil patch workers are not what they were 5 years ago, and that has impacted their lives. Restaurant owners are very aware of how many wells are being drilled, because when there are none the level of activity dries up as an indirect result of a lack of activity (and activity equals spending).

 

Every location has its own unique viewpoint, and it’s easy to extrapolate that view to the rest of the world. It’s almost impossible not to, because we really have no clue what it’s like to live in a totally different economic and geographical region. I have my own views on the necessity of fossil fuels to daily life, but I can’t even begin to imagine how someone from Africa views the same topic, and even there I’m being obtuse because someone from the heart of Nairobi will view it entirely differently than a rural Namibian will.

 

Some people have the benefit of experiencing totally different life experiences, but even then over time the tendency is to adapt to the most recent. Refugees from distant lands are completely culture shocked upon arrival, but 10 years later are yelling in traffic like everyone else.

 

It is a human condition and not one that needs to be fixed, but it is also a condition that it is wise to examine carefully. What we believe to be true because we see it every day does not make it a universal truth; it may be something unique to our own little world.

 

In the world of energy, it would be extremely valuable if we could all loosen our localized focus and try to see the world holistically. The world needs such vast quantities of cheap energy to keep 7 billion people alive that we can’t really comprehend it. It is also true that the energy produced for all those people leaves a footprint that we can’t imagine either. Before becoming too dogmatic about certain positions, it is a good mental exercise to try to rise above our viewpoint, and consider the context of the arguments of people from different backgrounds. Not all will make sense, and not all will be sincere – money does talk, and a lot of opinions are tools to propagate a profession. That is a challenge as well, to sort out the wheat from the chaff. It’s not insurmountable though, and we should at least try.

 

2 Comments

  1. Well said! 🙂 (and I learned a new word again)

    Like

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