I get a lot of hate mail, most of which is amusing. Seldom is it enlightening. An email I received from a fellow named Stewart provides a rare example of hate mail that is both amusing and enlightening.
Stewart wrote because he was upset with me for my opposition to a new “GBLT Center” at NC State. Actually, it is a new GLBT Center, which causes me to refer to its beneficiaries as “Gilberts.” But if Stewart wants to call it a “GBLT Center” that’s fine. I’ll just refer to them as “Giblets” so I won’t be accused of discriminating against dyslexic homosexuals.
In his email, Stewart the fearless giblet defender said that I was a “bad person” and a “bigot” for not supporting the new Giblet Center at NC State. So I sent him a query (but not a queery) asking him why he thought he was morally superior. His response was classic: “Because I don’t look down on other people.”
In other words, Stewart is morally superior to me because he does not think he is better than me. Somewhere, Rene Descartes is rolling over in his grave. The old maxim, “I think, therefore I am” had a good run for awhile. But a new maxim “I don’t think I am, therefore I am” seems to be taking over in America.
If you think Stewart’s reasoning is a rarity among college students, and even college graduates, you are wrong. It is commonplace. An incident involving one of my recent guest speakers provides a typical example.
The speaker, who we will call Larry, was talking about bias in academic textbooks. Somehow, we got on the topic of Custer’s last stand. During this portion of the lecture, Larry apparently referred to the Indians as “Indians” rather than “Native Americans.” I didn’t notice this at the time.
After listening to the student’s objection, I asked whether she is at least part “Native American.” She admitted she is not. I then informed her that I am (a very small part) “Native American.” Yet I am not offended by the term “Indian.” The next question was obvious: “How could you possibly be more offended than I am, given that you are zero percent ‘Native American.’”
She just shrugged her shoulders but I decided to pursue the point. Specifically, I gave my thoughts about the origins of this notion of cultural sensitivity that is central to the political correctness movement. Those roots are to be found in the sociological concept of “ethnocentrism.”
For years, sociologists have been using this term “ethnocentrism” to refer to the judgment of other cultures by the standards of one’s own culture. And they judge this tendency towards ethnocentrism to be somehow undesirable. So they teach their students not to be ethnocentric because, of course, one should try not to be judgmental.
If you are beginning to think that I’m suggesting sociology is an essentially worthless discipline, you are judging me quite fairly and I approve of your judgment entirely.
Of course, the sociology major was confused when I told her she was being ethnocentric by judging Larry the Speaker Guy for using the term “Indian.” He was raised in another region in another time (read: another culture) that accepted the use of the term “Indian.” She should not impose her (post)modern cultural values on him. That would be judgmental, which would be really very bad.
When we hear a person say he is better than us because he is not judgmental we should thank the sociologists. These intellectual giants have taught us their culture is better because it’s not ethnocentric. The only question is whether the average sociologist’s modesty is as hard to detect as his/her/its intellectual fortitude.
This one may be too close to call. I’ll let you make the judgment.