Ethnocentrism of the Relativists

April 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Other sociologist bloggers have offered their take on Stuff White People Like and why it’s so popular. kristina b picks up on its message not to take ourselves too seriously. Whole Foods, for example, risks becoming not just a place to shop but an “attitude and style . . .that’s just… um… annoying. dogmatic. preachy.”

A word of clarification. By “white people,” clander (the Stuff White blogger) doesn’t mean all white people. He doesn’t even mean most white people. He does not, for example, mean the people who subscribe to Field and Stream (and certainly not to Guns & Ammo). His list will never include line dancing or NASCAR, probably not even bowling. No he’s referring to us – educated, mostly urban, cosmopolitan rather than local, politically liberal. In many ways, he’s just expanding on the “chablis-sipping, brie-eating, Volvo-driving” stereotype that Republicans have been using for years to denigrate liberals and even Democrats in general.

Stuff White, when it’s on target (or on Target), exposes our ethnocentrism. That’s an odd tag to hang on liberals; usually, liberals get taken to task for their cultural and moral relativism. But I think that ethnocentrism is similar to what kristina means by “dogmatic”: we think our own preferences are objectively right even when they are merely preferences. We like to think that the stuff we choose to spend our money on is good – better than other stuff – and that this inherent quality is why we choose it. But Stuff White reminds us that there’s nothing inherently better about sushi or snowboarding. We’d like to think that Michel Gondry films are better than Sylvester Stallone movies, but there’s no objective way of converting that preference into a fact.

The trouble with ethnocentrism is not just that you can’t prove that one taste is superior to another, and it’s not just that making such a claim pisses people off. But if you’re a social scientist, ethnocentrism gets in the way of understanding. Sure, it’s tempting to dismiss line dancing as an inferior and ridiculous form of movement for the rhythmically challenged. But that’s not going to help you understand what’s in it for the line dancers or anyone else.

But there are times when you stop being a social scientist, when you have to make judgments or choose policies. And when you do that, you do have to impose your values and say that one thing is right and the other wrong or that some goals are better or more worthwhile than others. Goals like keeping the planet livable and the air breathable.

The preference for recycling (#64 on Stuff White’s list) is different from the preference for Sarah Silverman (#52) or giving dinner parties (#90).


kristina b said...

That's a good point about ethnocentrism. It's part of what I meant when I said dogmatic. The other part is epitomized by a conversation that I had with a WF check out person the other day.

I had brought my reusable bags in, and she thanked me. They always thank me. I leaned forward conspiratorially and asked her if WF trains them to thank people as they transition away from plastic bags. She seemed startled and said no.

So, for weeks and weeks, every time I bring in those bags, every check out person has thanked me of their own volition. I had assumed it was a corporate script, but really it was a cultural script. I am guessing that if I didn't dutifully bring my bags, I would have caught a little attitude instead of the thanks.

See what I mean?

Jay Livingston said...

I think I see what you mean. It sounds almost like some Protestant sect convinced of its own rightness and righteousness. The "thank you" is not just for the bags, not just for helping save the environment, but for belonging to the group.

kristina b said...

Yeah. And I mean it's hard to fault them for being dogmatic about a worthy cause. We really do need to stop using so many plastic bags.

I'm just saying that part of the motivation for the thanks has nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with involvement in a righteous, moralizing subculture. Sure, using plastic bags is a bad decision given the available facts, but that doesn't make people who do it bad people. Not only that, but slinging a smug, judgmental attitude at people who use plastic bags is not a good PR technique for reusable culture. All it does is "other" them, and belittle them, and perhaps provide the slinger with a fleeting feeling of superiority. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it would probably motivate some of the more rebellious plastic bag users to continue to use plastic bags out of spite!

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