Ignorant bliss

By Nick Dilonardo

As part of the New York Times’ philosophy blog “The Stone,” Adam Etinson recently offered a piece titled “Of Cannibals, Kings and Culture: The Problem of Ethnocentricity.” In it, Etinson discusses the problem of Ethnocentrism.

“Ethnocentrism – our culture’s tendency to twist our judgement in favor of homegrown beliefs and practices and against foreign alternatives – is not, I take it, a phenomenon in need of further empirical confirmation,” Etinson writes.

Ethnocentrism strikes at the heart of our will to community, or our tendency to do or say that which we know will be accepted or understood by those of our neighborhood or community. I know when you say “tree,” you and I mean the same thing. I tend to hope that when her and I say “cheating” we mean the same thing.

How do we escape this tendency? Should we? What it says to me is that our sense of right and wrong, as I’ve long since believed having come from a family of lawyers, is fairly arbitrary, subject to the moment, and flexible. I don’t hold much stock in the command “thou shalt not kill” because I can think of thousands of times when I think violence is appropriate. As President Obama noted in his speech upon accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, living up to the words of this command or Gandhi’s non-violence dictate can be difficult, even impossible.

“I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King,” Obama said. “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people… A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.“

Between the dictate of a moral absolute, Obama stakes his middle ground. But how then, if he does not subscribe to an absolute moral standard, does he make decisions? He does it through an appreciation of the moment, and context.

There is an ancient, anonymous Pre-Socratic Greek text titled “The Disso Logio” that deals with this consideration of context and morality.

“And illness is bad for the sick but good for the doctors,” s/he writes. “And death is bad for those who die, but good for the undertakers and the gravediggers… furthermore, it is bad for everyone else, but good for the blacksmiths if a tool corrodes or loses its sharp edge or gets broken to pieces.”

Good or bad aren’t essential or inherent but depend on perspective. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, “one wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see.”

If we live our lives without an appreciation of multiple perspectives, we are limited and ignorant. It’d be like surrounding ourselves in a sorority or fraternity of people who are all just like us. What would be the point? We come to know who we are through difference, just as we come to know what is good and bad depending on where we stand. If our values and ourselves don’t come up against resistance, then what good are they? Without embracing other perspectives and trying new things, our lives are cloaked in ignorance and ethnocentric bias. Without difference or challenging our values, we lose perspective.

Sure, you would then be very sure of yourself, always trusting yourself and your views to be right. Although not always sexy, self-doubt is crucial. Without entertaining the distinct possibility that someone else could be right, how is your position strengthened? Without trying something new, how can you learn anything? You know the type: they eat nothing but McDonalds abroad, and cling to Budweiser even in a London pub. Sure, they’re sure of themselves, but they’ll never know anything else.