Tuesday, 6 June, 2023

Ethnocentrism & Colonialism

Aashish Mishra

Ethnocentrism is the process of judging a culture based on how it compares to one's own cultural norms. Rather narcissistically, ethnocentrism is the view that one's own group is the centre of everything.
Ethnocentrism is especially prominent in matters of language, culture and religion. These ethnic distinctions and sub-divisions serve to define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity and thus, ethnocentrism. An example can be found in food habits. While visiting different places, some travellers pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods while others return home expressing gratitude for their native culture's fair. Often, people in the West express disgust at others' cuisine and think it's gross to eat meat from a dog or guinea pig, for instance, while they don't question their own habit of eating cows, snakes or snails. This attitude is a clear-cut example of ethnocentrism.
Other examples of a subtler form of ethnocentrism include England defining the world's meridians with itself on the centre line, thus establishing the Anglo-centric worldview and the United States traditionally conceiving of itself as having a unique role in world history, famously characterised by President Abraham Lincoln as “the last best hope of Earth.” Keeping all this, one can reasonably say that almost everyone, no matter from which part of the world they come from or whatever culture they follow, is, to some extent, ethnocentric.
Now, at face value, ethnocentrism cannot be called bad. After all, a sense of community pride brings people together, develops a sense of common identity and fosters unity and harmony. It is obviously natural that people feel pride in the culture they have grown up with and from which they have adopted their values and standards. But ethnocentrism becomes negative when one views other cultures as not only different but as inferior with a great danger of behaving in ways that are damaging to those from other cultures. This brings about cultural imperialism which is the deliberate imposition of one's own cultural values onto another culture.
Ethnocentrism can be and has been harmful in the past when it bred racism. In fact, ethnocentrism can also be touted as a reason for the West’s colonialism. When Western travellers set out exploring lands in Asia, Africa and the Americas, they confronted people different from them in every respect. They ate differently, worked differently, wore different clothes and followed a different religion. But rather than accept these differences, the Europeans tried to erase them. So, while on the surface colonialism may seem to have been for the acquisition of lands and resources, it was actually more for the assertion of cultural dominance.
The Europeans thought they had reached the pinnacle of development and civilisation so they thought it upon themselves to bring the rest of the world on their path. That is why Europe's colonial expansion which began in the 16th century was accompanied by severe cultural imperialism. Missionary activities began and the colonised people were converted, en masse, to Christianity, many times by force and violence. A Western form of education was established to "educate" the natives and when this was not enough, they were enslaved because “the heathen couldn't feed and clothe themselves and needed a stern master to discipline them.” This was the primary reason for colonisation. Only to enshrine this cultural genocide, to ensure the natives never went back to their old ways or revolted against their so-called saviours, European governance, laws, courts and institutions were established. And with a government came the need for an economy and then only did the exploitation of resources and manpower began. So, in most cases, ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism were the precursors to the things we normally associate with colonisation – like governments and the use of resources.