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.
And yet, without recanting any of the above (because I really do believe those things), we would all be less than intellectually honest if we did not confess to battling the demons of ethnocentrism, and perhaps even to losing more often than winning that battle. I confess that I battle the demons of ethnocentrism, and confess, further, that I do not always win. I confess that I often fail to find the internal logic that my anthropological predecessors described. With apologies to Clifford Geertz, I submit that there is often no “thick” description to be found, and with a nod of acknowledgement to Freud, sometimes stupidity is just stupidity. Those of you stuck up on the moral high ground of cultural relativism beware: The swirling muddy waters of ethnocentrism are not all that distant – perhaps only as far as the nearest Taco Bell or WalMart.
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.
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…