Ethnocentric Reflections: Can Humans Change?

On a previous post about immigration philosophy, I referred to ethnocentrism as a belief and cultural lifestyle that supposes that one’s nation of origin is superior to the rest. And that the root of ethnocentrism is not based in objective reality, but rather in the societal narratives humans have weaved.

Main point was, we, as human beings, are capable of re-writing the narrative to transform ethnocentrism into a prevailing sense of global community.

My post (in its Facebook iteration) was graced by a thoughtful retort by friend Eric Carlson, who challenged my views in ways so vital, that it felt natural to respond to them comprehensively and with equal thoughtfulness in the post you’re reading right now.

Without further ado, the following content within quotation marks is from Eric’s comment, with the non-quoted material being my responses.

Eric: “I suspect that ethnocentrism will continue and cannot be completely driven from the human condition.

It, in and of itself is a social construct but is (also) the underlying drive to tribalize and ‘pick a team’, belong to a group, and look at outside groups as opposition (which) isn’t even a human universal, (as) it ranges across species and life itself.

If genetics and heritage and cultural groups didn’t exist at all or in the form they do now, humans would still find a way to divide into groups over some thing or another and (the) result would be the same.

The drive to find a group, exist as part of it, and then compete with other groups is hard-wired into our genes and isn’t going anywhere so long as we live in a reality where there are limited resources and competition for them.

The impact of this drive to tribalism and nationalism has been somewhat mitigated in the last few centuries as a result of various developments in the world, but I don’t expect we, as a species, could ever make a complete break from those things.”

Me: First off, the reason it took me a few days to respond was, that I wanted to avoid the easy argumentative format of shooting down your thoughts and dominating them with my own.

You bring up some superb points, and I prefer to look at them at puzzle pieces that fit with my own assertions and potentially make both of our perspectives more vivid and expansive as a result.

I had not previously considered ethnocentrism as partially being the result of drives potentially inherent in all living beings.

I had seen it entirely as a social construct, but that approach is incomplete on its own.

This invokes the classic argument in the scientific community of Nature vs. Nurture.

What has the greater impact on the way a life-form develops? Its genetic composition or its environment and socialization?

Some have stood ardently on one side or the other, while both sides have validity.

Nature vs. Nurture is an outmoded question.

Nature   Nurture, however, is a premise that guides to new plateaus of understanding.

And the same holds true for this present discourse.

So, let’s look at how both sides are true. How ethnocentrism is a product of the human narrative, and how it is simultaneously or perhaps symbiotically inherent in our biology.

And we’ll test my original assertion that humans can eventually transcend ethnocentrism by re-framing the narrative, to see if it stands up to scrutiny.

So then, the next question would be, why is there an inherent tendency for living beings (not only humans) to group themselves into distinct sectors?

Every since the first occurrence of one cell dividing into two, life’s primary objective has been to pass itself on.

Survival is at the crux of life’s major tendencies and rhythms.

Which, of course, seems ironic, considering all the dying that happens in life.

But as long as a living being exists to pass on its genetic materials to the future, life’s primary purpose is fulfilled.

Throughout the course of evolution, many variables have changed.

Some people don’t buy into biological evolution as a fact of life, but can we all agree that we’ve all experienced intellectual, emotional, technological, and social evolution in our personal life spans and across the generations?

Evolution is simply growth. Expansion of ideas, information, and capability.

When we reach certain points of growth, old ways of being become unnecessary.

After I used a DVD player for the first time, I didn’t ever feel a need to go back to VHS.

In 2007, I was surprised to meet a co-worker that had a massive VHS collection and almost zero DVDs. He had some kind of emotional investment in the previous paradigm, so he stayed there. My nostalgia was his contemporary world.

Technological evolution is easy to reference because we can see it happening before our eyes, but it’s far from the only growth that’s occurring rapidly on the human stage.

While fields of knowledge in psychology, quantum mechanics, sociology, communications, anthropology, and philosophy (to name a few) expand, so do our capacities to understand ourselves, relate to others, and cultivate more efficient, reliable methods of interacting with our world and its living participants.

At a previous evolutionary point in humanity, it made sense to divide into groups. It was the most natural way to go about it, which is why it went down that way.

People appeared physically differently from one another, and they didn’t know why, or what to make of it. They were scared of each other, and humans hadn’t yet figured out how to mass-produce food and industrialize their resources, so they were in a constant state of competition.


When I realized I didn’t have to rewind a DVD, I stopped using VHS.

When I realized I didn’t have to weigh my life down with thousands of physical books and compact discs, I became receptive to Kindle and digital music collections.

And when I realized that every life in the world is as essential as my own, I lost my ability to see anyone as inferior or superior.

When I realized that the modern world is equipped to reconfigure its perception of, and actions and traditions pertaining to, diversity, unity, and human harmony, there was simply no going back to the fuzzy black-and-white prototypes of old.

Even with a deeper genetic drive for division inherent in humans and non-humans alike.

Humans have developed a gift for observing our experiences, crafting a narrative, and extracting meaning from our stories.

Our storytelling abilities should not be underestimated for their power in directing the course of culture, ideals, and inter-generational evolution.


Eric: “It’s not that we can’t come up with the ideas, or that too many of us are incapable of adopting said ideas and new modes of thinking and existing….it’s that we are hardwired against total cooperation/altruism as a species (as are all species) and for the developed world, people would gain almost nothing save for piece of mind while losing a lot and those who would gain, would include many who would refuse the attempt at ‘help’ and resource redistribution.

Afghanistan for example, has rejected all attempts at development from outside powers from everyone from Alexander the Great up through now to the US/NATO…and that is because at the end of the day, giving up freedom, cultural heritage, and a way of life that has continued there for a couple thousand years isn’t worth what they’d get back in consumer items, better resource safety – food and water…etc..and a higher standard of living IF it means they have to change who they are as a people, or give up any level of autonomy in getting to that point.

The Germanic confederations of ancient Europe were no different…had the barbarians not been so stubborn at Rome’s attempts to civilize them, European history might have been very different and the dark ages muted with Northern/Central Europe a whole different place in the first few centuries AD and possibly with lasting impact down through the ages, but they too, did not want to experience change directed/led by an outside power.

And therein lies the rub. Even if we came up with the best possible idea and program for underdeveloped areas of the world to help bring them level with the first world, many places would not want it. Groups and cultures often want to find their own solutions to issues or not change at all, just like individuals and that is sometimes even stronger with groups, due to groupthink and strong controls based on cultural heritage and group identity issues and traditions.”

Me: Historical context is crucial in this conversation, and I appreciate you bringing it into focus.

Again, my purpose here is not to shoot you down, but to merge our perspectives together like a giant tree-hugging Megazord.

We could explore deeply, what it means to be hard-wired against total cooperation and altruism, and what it may take to re-wire ourselves, but that may be a better topic for a real-time conversation so that we can clarify our distinctions. If you’d like to discuss this further for a later post, you know where to find me.

For now, I’d like to focus on what you said about one culture’s resistance to another culture’s plan for development and change.

You are absolutely right.

It’s been a fatal flaw of the human race for one group to demand another to alter its identity and mores. It’s a flaw that I will not willingly participate in.

I personally see humanity (and even all life-forms) as one tribe.

But what if life-forms within my one tribe see themselves as members of separate tribes?

Am I right, or are they?

I choose to see everyone as right. Whatever is true to them is as real and valid in their world as what’s true to me from my subjective perception.

My objective is not to force my views on others, but rather merely to practice my views regardless of what others do.

Alexander the Great and ancient Rome didn’t have access to contemporary sociological theories that provide profound insight into human behavior, such as the theory of social reactance (when an individual or group’s autonomy is threatened, reactance is the tendency to  engage in over-compensatory behaviors to reinforce that autonomy).

Alexander the Great and ancient Rome are VHS.

The future is DVD…

(I should probably upgrade to Blu-ray at some point, eh?)

Now, here’s the thing.

Even if I see all life-forms on the planet as one interconnected tribe, it stands to reason that some of them may want to kill me anyway.

And honestly. That is OK with me.

I would want to kill me too, if I were them. They have their reasons.

But I am me. And I don’t want to kill anyone. I have my reasons.

Just think of what we could do with technology to radically redefine our military and homeland security paradigms.

Why do we have to kill people who want to kill us?

What does that accomplish in the grand scheme of things?

Why not just render them unconscious and send them home with a care package of food and well-wishes, with a postage-paid envelop for them to fill out and return a questionnaire about their qualms and woes?

I am serious.

Do they hate us enough to try again?

Let them try.

If we put as much money into non-lethal neutralization and extraction as we do into blowing things up, their continued efforts won’t be a problem.

But if we show consistent, unerring compassion and sensitivity and willingness to listen and strive to understand, will they truly keep trying?

I was approached by a pit bull once in some woods, who had clearly been abused and neglected, most likely trained for dog fighting.

Without fear, I knelt to the ground, smiled, and spoke to the dog.

His demeanor shifted from tense to relaxed.

I know it was a he, because the pit bull proceeded to hump my leg like his life depended on it.

Another time, a person despised me so much they threatened to kill me.

Maybe it was all talk. Maybe they were serious.

I don’t know. Either way, I just did my best to show love anyway. I’m still here, so far.

Am I just lucky? Maybe.

Am I going to keep living this way? Definitely.

Is it worth dying for, if it comes to that? Absolutely.

Alexander the Great didn’t think this way.

A lot of people who do think this way, don’t live this way yet.

Because this is largely unknown territory to the masses. This stuff is traditionally left to the monks and saints. That’s part of our problem.

The unknown can be disconcerting.

Getting to know the unknown is usually worth it, though.

Eric: “So…my cynicism is alive and well, obviously! What are the counter-arguments for what I have laid out and is there reason for any positivity that I am perhaps missing? History, tradition, culture, genetics, stubbornness and human pride, and outside of that…the way all animal life works, regardless of species: These things are all in the way and I don’t see a way past them all that would result in anything beyond the slow, incremental changes, that we’ve already had happening for the last few centuries. There is no big, high-impact, quick solution out there for any of this, right? Or is there?”

Me: So, on a final note: slow, incremental changes over time, or a high-impact, quick solution?

The founders of a famous fast food enterprise once allegedly said that they achieved overnight success, thirty years in the making.

Perhaps the world is on the verge of overnight triumph, billions of years in the making.

One thing that becomes evident about those incremental changes happening for the last few centuries is, the rate of those changes is exponentially accelerating over time.

This can be measured in terms of civil rights, technology, educational paradigms, general knowledge, and nearly any other metric imaginable.

The advances experienced by humans in the last twenty-five years surpass the advances of the fifty years prior. And the fifty years prior surpassed the advances of the one hundred years before that.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see how far we’ve come so quickly.

And like my friend with the massive VHS collection, sometimes people hang on to the old ways once new ways are available.

(No judgment for VHS lovers; ya’ll are charming.)

Alas, if humanity as a whole continues to evolve at an exponential pace (and I see no reason it won’t), then what could happen in the next twenty years? Or even ten? Or perhaps just three?

My hope is that I answered your main queries in a non-confrontational and non-pretentious manner.

I am genuinely thankful for your engagement on this topic, and this opportunity for me to explore, test, and balance my perceptions on these issues.

This will remain an ongoing dialogue, and anyone who is reading this is invited to attend.

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