Friday, October 2, 2009

Demolishing the Tower of Babel: Dealing with our Ethnocentricity, Part 1 (of 3)

By Rev. Fr. Michael Chua

The Tower of Babel

We are all too familiar with the story of the tower of babel in Gen 11:1-9 set on the mythical stage of a world that was united by a single language and speech. As a result of their pride (though depravity is not mentioned at this stage as in earlier stories), men began this project of building this tower that would reach to the heavens. The story ultimately ends with God’s contempt for human pride and punishes them by causing disunity among them through the confusion of their languages and scattering them abroad, so that they will no longer be one people united by a single tongue.

Perhaps, the often unspoken question of any reader of the story would be this: Why did God confuse their language so that they couldn’t understand each other? What did He intend to accomplish? Is diversity, God’s curse for His people?

I personally received new insight to this story last year when I heard a Native American retell the story in the light of his own traditional spiritual understanding. He claims that he can never understand how White People interpret this story as a curse. He was utterly convinced that it was a “blessing” from God, or the Great Spirit. In other words, the Great Spirit felt it was such a shame for people to live under the illusion of same-ness, ignoring or even vilifying that which was different, that He had to intervene to teach man the need to respect and even celebrate diversity.

Thus, the tower of Babel becomes the symbol of our small-mindedness, our store-house of prejudices and inability to see value and goodness in those who are different from us. In our separateness, we build our towers of unspoken assumptions, beliefs and values. As the tower gets taller and taller, we create more distance and separation from others who are different. Up in the imaginary security of our tower, we may presumptuously conclude that our culture is God’s culture – which, in turn, may lead us to believe that we are gods. We then sit in judgment of others according to our standards and values.

How then do we come down from our towers of Babel? The first step may be the hardest. It is confronting the truth about ourselves – the truth that these towers of superiority and separateness do not guard us from harm’s way but in fact are the cause of our destruction.

I’m not a Bigot!

One of the hardest and most stinging indictments that anyone can receive in his or her life is being called a “bigot,” whether in reference to race, religion, sexual orientation or politics. “Am I a bigot?” Thus, the accusation will start a snowballing of angry denials which will ultimately lead to both mental and verbal justifications. “I’m no bigot! Just because I believe that some people don’t deserve to be compensated for their laziness doesn’t mean that I’m bigoted!” “I’m a very open minded person! For your information, I grew up with many friends who are non-Catholics.” “I’m for equal rights, mind you! I believe that everyone is the same and should be treated the same! There are basically no differences between us. Me? A bigot? Certainly not!” “I really have nothing against Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism. I just have problems with some of their believers and how their religion is practised. They should really learn from us Catholics.” The often angry reaction to even a hint of bigotry on our part may actually be indicative of the truth which we refuse to see in ourselves, the shadow of ‘the bigot’, ‘the racist,’ ‘the chauvinist’ hiding in the closets of our hearts.

So, perhaps before we can even begin to discuss bridge-building with peoples of other beliefs, it may be important to move beyond our self-deceptions to take an honest look at some of our fundamental beliefs of “others” in order to determine our level of inter-cultural sensitivity.

It may be useful to understand the dynamics of prejudice and bigotry by examining the anthropological concept of ‘ethnocentricism.’ Ethnocentricism refers to the tendency to evaluate other groups according to the values and standards of one's own specific group, especially with the conviction that one's own group is superior to the other groups. This often leads to an assumption of superiority over others. Anthropologists argue that everyone is not spared from this condition of being ethnocentric from an early age. We all grow up in a specific environment that shapes our values and worldview. When confronted with that which is ‘different,’ or the ‘other’ person or group, we would then begin to make judgments based on our own historical cultural assumptions and biases. We often do not know very much about other worldviews and would often either consider these as invalid or of lesser value and importance than ours. Therefore, we come to the painful conclusion that we are all basically “ethnocentric!”

It is only in understanding and accepting the cause of our ethnocentrism that we can move beyond it. Admission and recognition is the first step. Then we can begin the long journey of acquiring greater sensitivity to differences that we see in others.

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