I've been thinking quite a bit about the concept of the "Incredulity of Privilege," a phrase I first encountered on White Coat Underground. It's the idea that we all have a hard time stepping outside of our own experiences and imagining how life is different for Others. I mentioned this concept once in a previous post regarding misogyny. The healthcare debate in the US is another (one of many) good example: everyone I know who is opposed to expanding access to healthcare already has great access and/or subsidized insurance themselves and has never had to struggle to find and pay for coverage on the private market. Because they have never experienced this horrific form of social darwinism, they don't recognize access to healthcare as a problem.
I want to explore incredulity of privilege in a series of posts examining a variety of cultural constructs. I think ethnocentrism is a good place to begin because the two concepts are closely related. Where incredulity of privilege is the difficulty recognizing that one's own position of privilege perpetuates disadvantage and discrimination, ethnocentrism is the intrinsic, almost unconscious, belief that one's own culture and demographic represent the pinnacle of human achievement. Enjoy...
Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own cultural paradigms are superior to those of other cultures. I don't like to think of myself as ethnocentric, but this Wikipedia description is an uncomfortable, if only occasional, fit. It's a fallacy of thinking that I actively struggle against.
“The psychological underpinning of having ethnocentrism appears to be assigning to various cultures higher or lower status or value by an ethnocentric person who then assumes that the culture of higher status or value is intrinsically better than other cultures. The ethnocentric person, when assigning the status or value to various cultures, will automatically assign to their own culture the highest status or value. Ethnocentrism is a natural result of the observation that most people are more comfortable with and prefer the company of people who are like themselves, sharing similar values and behaving in similar ways.”
We all have a natural tendency to insulate ourselves in an echo chamber and ignore different or dissenting paradigms. That’s not to say that ethnocentrism is always a bad thing. There may be evolutionary precedents for tribalism:
“Tribalism has a very adaptive effect in human evolution. Humans are social animals, and ill-equipped to live on their own. Tribalism and ethnocentrism help to keep individuals committed to the group, even when personal relations may fray. This keeps individuals from wandering off or joining other groups.”
All humans assign cultural boundaries to sort out our complex world. Of course we all believe that our own tribe is superior. When we encounter a cultural trait that is “better” than an existing homolog in our own culture, we incorporate the new trait and it becomes the new cultural norm for our group. This is one way in which cultures adapt and evolve.
I enjoy exploring the underpinnings of mainstream Western norms, and I really enjoy trying to view my own cultural eccentricities through the lens of anthropology (with a tone of self-deprecating humor, I hope...). It is very tempting to self-sort into peer groups that are comprised of very similar individual members--thus creating an echo chamber that reinforces our biases. Surrounding ourselves with with people like us who share our values and support our views feels really good because this reinforces our beliefs. Unfortunately, our perspective is very limited if we don't occasionally try to step outside our own tiny microcosms and open our minds. It's difficult and frightening to seriously consider opposing viewpoints that call our own certitude into question.
Ethnocentrism is an appropriate artifact of social strata; however it can be inappropriate and even slightly maladaptive when broadly applied against diverse cultural paradigms. Dr. Amy Tuteur has recently posted a fascinating series about the natural childbirth (NCB) movement and its impact on mothers who don't follow the current NCB protocols. The comment sections are always really interesting.
I got into a minor dust-up recently with another commenter, Rambling Family Manager, here. We both brought our own incredulity of privilege and ethnocentrism to the exchange. In my opinion, she was translating her own positive experience with natural childbirth into a goal all women should aspire to and supporting this position with claims that are not supported by science. She had a terrible epidural experience with her first child and was fortunate to have relatively easy natural births with her second and third children. She believes that nearly all women can achieve her personal childbirth ideal using the Bradley method as she did. I interpreted this stance as both ethnocentric and informed by the incredulity of privilege--she had a terrible epidural experience and relatively easy natural births, therefore most epidurals are awful and most natural births using the Bradley method are awesome.
I'm not opposed to natural childbirth, and in fact I think women should be supported in their individual birth decisions with the caveat that they don't knowingly endanger their unborn child in order to prove some sort of political point. However, I am opposed to making new mothers feel awful about healthy outcomes or circumstances completely beyond their control. I don't think women should judge each other about childbirth (or about many other parenting-related issues). Here's what I believe:
The biology surrounding childbirth is complicated. Even under the best of circumstances the process can be intimidating. Doctors and hospitals can be unsettling. Just as women come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so do their pelvises. Each pregnancy is different. A mother may have a safe and relatively pain-free birth the first time and later struggle with a painful high-risk birth in a subsequent pregnancy. Like skin color or eye color, childbirth is just another manifestation of human variation and should be free from external bias.
I jumped into the fray with exasperation about what I perceived as Rambling Family Manager's judgement of women who birthed differently than she did. I had an awesome epidural experience with my first child and an incredibly painful labor with my second when the epidural didn't arrive on time (pitocin--dilation from 3cm to pushing in under 20 minutes). My own incredulity of privilege stems from my positive personal experience as well as much anecdotal evidence that many women who have epidurals have a positive experience. (If I do this again and my OB suggests pitocin, I will not consent until the anesthesiologist standing in my room prepped to tap my spine.) None of this means that I freaked out, or that I couldn't manage the pain in other ways, just that I strongly prefer the epidural. I also pointed out that my own experience contradicts the NCB meme that all OBs coerce women into accepting epidurals out of some sort of profit motive or egotistical abuse of power leading inevitably to surgical birth. If this were true the epidural I asked for in advance would have been ready to go when I was ready for it, and if all epidurals lead inevitably to C-section, my first child would not have torn up my labia upon his exit.
Rambling Family Manager responded to me in a way that I interpreted as condescension, which is evidence of my own ethnocentrism. She claims not to practice and to rarely experience the type of judgmental interaction that I ascribed to her, and was therefore unaware that her comments might come across as condescending. To her credit, she invited me to comment on her own blog about the dust-up. Here's an excerpt from my comment:
I think it's possible to say in a respectful way: "Oh, I did it differently, and isn't that interesting...." rather than: "Oh, I did it differently, therefore you did it wrong...."
The problem is that ethnocentrism can prevent us from accepting difference as equally valid (or even possibly better). I tried to articulate something similar on a different Tuteur comment thread. I'll paraphrase: It's possible to embrace the dominant cultural paradigm while still cutting yourself and others some slack. We're all imperfect and just doing the best we can.