Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why ethnocentrism is not an option for Americans?

Recently, I heard an articulation where a colleague made an evaluative statement about how international scholars present their research in such and such way, and how as an American, this scholar thought that this was an inferior way to present research compared to the American way, with the implied assumption that the American way is the "correct" way. This statement was followed by a qualifier about ethnocentrism.

As somebody who often has had to deal with the international label (although I do have a US citizenship) in the past, I remember often having to just put up with arrogant and demeaning comments such as this from colleagues. However, the timing of this statement is appalling, given the growing presence of international scholars in the communication discipline, the increasing calls for internationalization, the fall of the US empire precisely because of this arrogance, and as exemplified in most recent years, the global criticism of this sort of US ethnocentrism. As depicted in the Pew Survey, large proportions of the world are sick and tired of the "We are better than the rest of the world" American attitude, which comes from ignorance rather than from any meaningful knowledge about the rest of the world. In my experiences travelling and living in many parts of the world, I have learned that people often think that Americans are both ignorant and full of themselves.

As our national and international associations discuss more about internationalization, it is important to voice this reminder that much more than looking for economic opportunities in an international scale (such as finding students from China and India because they can pay the tuitions at our Universities because domestic students can't seem to afford these tuitions in the present economy), internationalization is about countering the prevailing attitudes in the US that have earned Americans the label of "Ugly Americans" and about being open to respecting the "other." Countering this label is not about using some public relations strategy directed outward or about some big marketing campaign, but about fundamentally asking what earns Americans this label? Working on the "Ugly American" image calls for self reflection, self critique, and a look inward to interrogate the attitude of arrogance that fundamentally underlies the tendency to somehow judge other cultures as regressive. It is only when such reflections can happen that spaces can be opened up for appreciating the beauty in the many ways of doing things (including presentations) across the globe.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis and insight. Completely agree. Please see http://www.ted.com/talks/devdutt_pattanaik.html

Anonymous said...

Indeed. It will be a harsh awakening.

Shaunak Sastry said...

I agree, Mohan.. I find the reference to Devdutt Patnaik's talk a bit disconcerting though. Are you familiar with his work? I was a huge fan during my Semiotics days, but this particular TED talk is nothing more than replacing a Eurocentric ethnocentrism with a Hinduized ethnocentrism.

Anonymous said...

The thing about US style ethnocentrism is that it is so rooted in a deeply held belief, often by well meaning Americans (albeit out of ignorance), that the US way is the best way...

CJK said...

Funny I should just now read this post, as I'm revising a paper. I'm wondering if your response is about the fact that the colleague holds these values in general or about the articulation of those values in a particular interactional moment when you happened to be around to hear it. This leads me to think about the role of language in the culture-centered approach--in the moment in which the colleague articulated these values did you challenge him or speak your mind? Or was it only upon reflection, a re-articulation afterwords that your experience lead you to notice the significance of the moment. Anyway--great blog! I really like the poem! -CJK

is it only a critical idiom or

Mohan J. Dutta said...

This is such a wonderful point you raise...the point came to me upon reflection, as do many similar points...I have also heard other people say this; I wish I had the glibness, the language, and the wit to notice this and point it out precisely at that moment...the opportunities to dialogue through such Eurocentric discourses exist precisely at those moments when utterances are made...but the histories of silencing have to be worked through in our personal identity politics as we negotiate the languages and stories through which we engage such moments as postcolonial subjects...now thinking back to the moments when I have been able to access some kind of discursive space to articulate an alternative narrative, I believe it has been often contextually situated amidst the anger and the rawness of the emotions I experienced!

CJK said...

Of course, this is not unique to you, nor to the post-colonial subject, but rather a more general feature of "little d" discourse: how many times have I replayed a moment again and again of what I actually said vs. what I REALLY wanted to say, but couldn't in the moment. I wonder if there's something about the temporal disjunctiveness between "little d" and "big D" discourses that requires re-articulation for contextual notions of meaning to sink in. Only those few people who happen to be gifted with sliver tongues have the opportunity to say the right thing at the right time. The rest of us have to cope with the after effects of wanting (the desire, fantasy) of saying it so. Perhaps one aspect of agency does have a singular smallness in which those small, meaningful moments can be magnified where context and structure come together haphazardly when we can actually speak as fully liberated from the constrains of power.

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