Dictionary.com defines ethnocentrism as the belief in the intrinsic superiority of the nation, culture, or group to which one belongs, often accompanied by feelings of dislike for other groups, and cultural relativism as the view that ethical and moral standards are relative to what a particular society or culture believes to be good/bad, right/wrong. Personally, I find both of these philosophies to be flawed. Ethnocentrism is just not a good way to live. I find that cultures different from my own always have wonderful things to share, especially in terms of food and lifestyle. My life would be very sad without Mexican and Thai food, and Chinese medical philosophy helped me discover and accept my lactose intolerance. Constantly being surrounded by the same people and the same ideas can be stifling. Part of the reason that I came to Ecuador is because I felt mired in old habits and unenlightened thought patterns since I hadn’t been anywhere new in a long time. Being afraid and hateful of different cultures is a great way to live a dull and short life.
Cultural relativism is a little harder to critique because on the surface it sounds very nice but really it’s just a way to shelter fragile minds from the cruelty of the world. At first glance it seems like a very peaceful view of the world: “Oh, everything is ok, that’s just how they do it here. You don’t have to worry, just accept it.” However, there are some glaring flaws with this theory. First of all, how is a culture defined? It can’t be defined by country because if every group contained in a country was bonded by a single moral code then there wouldn’t be civil wars, governments wouldn’t be overthrown, there wouldn’t be oppressed minorities. Ecuador is a perfect example. I have been here less than two months and even I can see the massive cultural divides that have divided this country for centuries and continue to do so today. First there were the Inca and the Cañar, and then there were the Spaniards, and then the mestizos and the Afro-Ecuadorians, each group distinct and fighting for preferential treatment within the country. Is culture and morality defined by heritage? The United States leaves that dead in the water. Italian-Americans and Italians don’t share identical cultural practices and moral codes. In any collection of people there will be disagreements and slightly different ideas about how to do things. So that leaves the individual, but people around the globe agree that morality does not exist on an individual basis. This is shown in that every society has laws and rules to keep people safe and in line. The second flaw is the fact that cultural relativism actually contradicts itself. Cultural relativism sells itself as an idea that if taken up globally will smooth out a lot of international and intergroup conflicts, but a true cultural relativist can’t preach these values to an insular Middle Eastern society, for example, that is hard-core ethnocentric. Basically, if everyone is right and half the world thinks cultural relativism is wrong then where does that leave us? The third flaw is a little more personal but I feel that I should mention it anyway. I just cannot get behind the idea that murder is ok just because the Mayans believed that it was necessary to bring rain, or that beating woman is ok because Brazilians believe that it is the man’s right, or that rape is ok because Saudi Arabians believe that women bring it on themselves, or that under-aged drinking and drug use is ok because United States citizens believe that if everyone is doing it, it’s fine. There are just certain things in the world that are morally wrong. That doesn’t make the people who do them inherently evil and it doesn’t give other cultures the right to come in and impose their morals and lifestyles on other people but there is no escaping the fact that right and wrong exist on a global scale and not just a cultural level.
Morality is not an exact science and to some extent it is fluid based on time, place, and circumstances. When in doubt, I tend to believe that, instead of one culture being right and everyone else wrong, or that everyone is right, everyone is wrong to some extent and the best way to create a moral code is to experience as many different view points as possible. Everyone has a piece to the puzzle and every culture has something to share.