Sunday, October 4, 2009

Demolishing the Tower of Babel: Dealing with our Ethnocentricity, Part 2 (of 3)

By Rev. Fr. Michael Chua

Levels of Cultural Sensitivity/ Insensitivity

The process of identifying our innate ethnocentricity and ability to move beyond it is much aided by the significant work of Milton Bennett, who authored the “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”. Bennett describes six stages of development in intercultural sensitivity: denial, defense, minimisation, acceptance, adaptation and integration. The stages provide a good framework for determining how to work with and improve the capacity for intercultural sensitivity, collaboration and dialogue. Based on the stages enumerated by Bennet, Eric Law, in his book “The Bush was Blazing but not consumed: developing a multicultural community,” presented some of the same ideas in the form of 7 myths, false beliefs that underlie our ethnocentricity.

“Difference does not exist.” This is what Bennet refers to as the first stage of denial. It means that people in this stage are very unaware of differences or choose to ignore differences. What would be some of the reasons leading to this myopic world view? One can imagine someone growing up in an environment that is isolated from others. This denial is caused by isolation (either social, economical, physical) in homogenous communities. One may not need to examine the case of a person growing up in a religiously or ethnically homogenous village. Some self-contained exclusive urban neighbourhoods may also create the same effect. A few years ago, the Japanese Prime Minister commented that the Japanese are able to function more effectively than their American neighbours due to the homogeneity of Japanese society to the ire of the native aboriginal people, who often seem invisible to the larger majority. The task of creating cultural sensitivity at this stage is merely to recognise differences – “Differences do exist!”.

“Difference is confined to broad categories.” Most Malaysians, although there are certainly exceptions, may not fall into the first category but may find themselves in this second category of ethnocentricity. This second stage cannot distinguish finer differences among large categories. “All Chinese have straight hair.” “All Indians like to be involved in politics.” These are forms of stereotyping, meaning that they are oversimplifications in which all the members of a group are considered to be definable by an easily distinguishable set of characteristics. Stereotypes often form the basis of prejudice and are usually employed to explain real or imaginary differences due to race, gender, religion, age, ethnicity, socio-economic class, disability, and occupation, among the limitless groups one may be identified with. The task at this stage is to begin to understand each individual on his own merits. To know that a person comes from a certain religious or ethnic background does not tell us where they fit in terms of values or behaviors; rather, it alerts us to possible arenas of miscommunication.

“You are different; therefore you are bad.” Bennet refers to this form of ethnocentricity as “defense.” In a certain way, this is an improvement from saying that difference is bad or minimal. But this negative evaluation of differences leads to defensiveness and judgmental perception of the other. The task at this level of cultural sensitivity is to recognise and to become more tolerant of differences and to see basic similarities among people of different religions or cultures.

“Its okay for you to be different, but I am better.” Racial supremacy emphasises the positive and superior qualities of one’s own cultural and ethnic status while implying that others are inferior. It is often used to justify many political ideologies and systems based on race, e.g. Apartheid in South Africa, Arianism as justification for Facism and Nazism in Germany etc. The task here is to recognise that everyone deserves equal respect. In the context of religion, equality here means reciprocity rather than equality of beliefs.

“I am different; therefore I am bad and you are good.” Sometimes, the opposite of the previous position happens when one begins to denigrate one’s own culture in order to “fit into” the mainstream. This usually happens among small minorities who begin to assume the dominant cultural group’s attitude and sense of superiority by putting down their own cultural values. It is a form of self-assimilation into the main-stream. Many Orang Asli begin to dress and present themselves as Malay as a result of this dynamic, thus rejecting their own cultural roots in order to acquire a culture of the mainstream which is perceived to be superior to theirs. This form of ethnocentricity can also be the product of globalisation. We can see examples of this in the way of contemporary youth culture, hair-dye colour, dressing, speech and lifestyle aping Western culture.

“If you don’t include like I do, you are bad.” On the surface, such a statement appears to be inclusive. However, this belief often causes the person or group to negatively judge others who do not share their same values or think like them. Thus, the surface inclusion becomes a subtle and often unnoticed front for deep-seated exclusivism. While I was in the United States for a short stint last year, I had the opportunity of sharing a Sabbath meal with a group of secular Jews who made no secret of their avowed liberalism. When discussion led to the account of how the son of one of them had recently shown a greater inclination to Republican (obviously perceived as more conservative) views, another guest at the table exclaimed, “Oh poor thing! That must be so difficult for you to accept!” I thought I had missed something in the conversation. It appears that becoming ‘conservative’ was synonymous to contracting some form of terminal disease.

“I know there are differences, but they are not important.” This corresponds with Bennet’s third stage which he calls “minimisation.” At this stage, persons often try to avoid stereotyping and even begin to see value in all systems. Persons at this level view many things as universal, rather than viewing them simply as part of their own ethnocentricity. I would actually rate this as the most subtle and ‘dangerous’ form of ethnocentricity. Although it obviously emphasises the commonalities and downplays the differences among groups, this kind of ethnocentricity is another way of preserving the centrality of their own worldview. ‘If I want to accept only the part of you that is like me, I am ignoring the rest of you that is different and I am not treating you as a whole person.’ In other words, only those values which correspond to mine, and thus regarded as universal, are of value. In my perception, any differences are of little value. “All religions are the same.” “We all basically believe in the same thing. Differences are man made.” “We are all believers in God and for Him there is no difference.” I often shudder at the casual mention of the last statement at interreligious functions, knowing that my Buddhist friends would again be excluded by such a sweeping generalisation.

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