Writing Catalog

Luke Kuang

Grade: 11

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Scott Boehnen

How to See the World

Critical Essay

How to See the World

Relativism vs Ethnocentrism: Different ways to see the world.

One's own cultural practice will often seem natural, followed without much thought. When different cultures are introduced, the differences between the cultures may appear jarring. Relativism is a way to reconcile these differences. By focusing on the merits of a cultural practice within its own culture, it becomes possible to better understand different cultural practices. The opposite of relativism is ethnocentrism, which considers other cultures compared to one's own. In Things Fall Apart, Uchendu exhibits a relativistic viewpoint due to his willingness to understand other cultures and his own love of stories. In George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant", while Orwell shows opposition to the colonial system, he does so for selfish reasons, and even exhibits ethnocentrist tendencies. Finally, though the two show differing tendencies, modern readers take the same theme from both stories: that relativists see greater success in their endeavors that ethnocentrists.

Ibo society was very patriarchal. Wives were expected to do the will of their husbands without any second thoughts. To many in the Ibo culture, the idea of a society doing anything different would be unthinkable — a matriarchal society is unimaginable. However, Uchendu considers the merits of a matriarchal system, a clear sign of relativism, rooted in his core belief that "what is good among one people is an abomination among another" (Achebe 141). Uchendu even goes a step further: he considers whether some aspects of a matriarchal society are useful for him. For Uchendu, though, "a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding" (Achebe 133) the power of the women are still important as, "when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut… that is why we say that mother is supreme" (Achebe 134). This is the opposite to what Ibo culture states: the idea that women are valued in society, perhaps as much as men, is anathema. However, other cultures have gender equality, and some cultures are even matriarchal societies. Uchendu has heard about these other cultures through stories, and then decided to even adopt some different ideas for his own benefit. Through this interaction, Uchendu can be seen partially integrating the ideas of another, conflicting culture with his own culture. Though the man is still the main power, women still have a very real and important role in society — something that is at odds with his culture but explainable through his adoption of some foreign practices he has deemed to have merit.

George Orwell served as an imperial policeman in the British Raj. During his tenure, he became disgusted with the colonial system. However, the shooting of the elephant solidifies his opposition of colonization from being, "theoretically — and secretly… all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British" (Orwell 273) to his eventual conclusion that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys" (Orwell 276). While this viewpoint aligns himself with the Burmese against the colonial rule of the British, Orwell's viewpoint is quite selfish: he cares for the freedom of himself more than he cares about the freedom of the Burmese. Orwell values his own freedom the most: first, he is relieved when a native Burmese man has died because it gave him the reason to kill the elephant. If the man had not been attacked by the elephant he may have run into legal trouble. Secondly, his grievance with the colonial system is primarily that it is harming him personally. Implicitly, he is not considering the issues of the Burmese, such as horrible conditions present in colonized Burma, and is therefore not considering the issues of the native Burmese. In addition, Orwell also dehumanizes the native Burmese by repeatedly referring them as 'yellow faces', a form of synecdoche that breaks down the Burmese to a level that is implicitly not human, in addition to playing off a racial stereotype. Things that are less than human are assumed to have a no culture, so Orwell's dehumanizing act negates the merits of Burmese culture: a clear sign of ethnocentrism. However, Orwell's own tone in his description of himself is telling. In one instance, he describes the joy that he or any other British official in the British Raj would have felt killing a Buddhist priest. The killing of the Buddhist priest is a violent action, and Orwell's reflection on his past is not favorable. In addition, the way that Orwell shows his own thoughts without any justification for why he thought that way allows the reader to interpret his reasoning. The difficult decisions allow the reader to arrive at a different conclusion than young Orwell did. In this way, later Orwell opposes ethnocentrism, even as he may not have achieved full relativism.

Uchendu's belief that he can take merit from other cultures is at odds with Orwell's refusal to consider other cultures. In Things Fall Apart, the consequences of being unable to consider the merits of other cultures and the benefits of doing so are evident. Refusing to consider other cultures eventually leads to a split in the village and the death of the main protagonist, Okonkwo. However, characters who consider other cultures see success in their endeavors. For example, Mr. Brown, a white missionary in an unfamiliar land, is allowed to spread Christianity unmolested by the village, thus making it easier to further his goal of spreading Christianity to Africa. This was only made possible through his willingness to learn about Ibo culture, a sign of relativism, which allowed him to make friendships with clan leaders. For Orwell, some historical context is needed. While Orwell's goal of decolonization is eventually achieved, it would not be justified the way Orwell opposed colonization. In the British Raj, where Orwell served, a relativistic justification and relativists were key to the decolonization of India. Gandhi, the leader of the decolonization movement in India used his knowledge of other cultures to unite the disparate groups all vying for an end to the British colonial rule. In addition, audiences in the west were convinced more by emotional scenes of violence against Indians rather than a perceived loss in their own freedom. The plight of Indians was front page news, not the plight of the European colonizers. With this piece of historical context, the two theme begin to align. Uchendu's story shows the successes of a relativist viewpoint, while both stories show the failures of an ethnocentrist viewpoint.

The experiences of Orwell can Uchendu are limited to individual examples of relativism being successful. However, their individual examples can be used in modern life. Ethnocentrism, as a total ignorance to the merits of another culture deprives an adherent of additional knowledge. On the other hand, a relativist who considers other cultures has access to greater knowledge. While an ethnocentrist will only have the tools specific to their own culture to resolve an issue, a relativist will have many tools from other cultures. With more tools, a relativist can choose which tool best suits a certain situation. Ethnocentrists may see opportunities disappear or fail to consider different possibilities due to having a very narrow view of the world. On the other hand, as relativists collect more tools, they can respond with both more flexibly and with greater quality, leading to more success overall.