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As a cultural anthropology instructor, I am constantly looking for ways to show the relevance of anthropological concepts and perspectives by applying them to real world events. This week, I lectured on ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. The Revolution in Egypt, and the related upheavals throughout the Arab world, provide an excellent opportunity to show the transformative potential of these concepts.

As a cultural anthropology instructor, I am constantly looking for ways to show the relevance of anthropological concepts and perspectives by applying them to real world events. This week, I lectured on ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. The Revolution in Egypt, and the related upheavals throughout the Arab world, provide an excellent opportunity to show the transformative potential of these concepts.

Ethnocentrism is a barrier to the cultural understanding that anthropologists seek because it judges difference according to our own, supposedly universal, standards. It imposes on cultural difference preconceived notions of right and wrong. Relativism, on the other hand, involves combating our fear of difference and the ethnocentric urge to judge in order to understand cultural difference on its own terms. This is not to say that we should never attempt to discern right from wrong; but it does mean that understanding and judgment are fundamentally different, and that anthropologists value understanding over judgment. With enough understanding, judgment may no longer seem necessary, and cannot proceed without the recognition of the fundamental humanness of the acts and actors being judged.

Many Egyptians reached a breaking point in what they considered to be tolerable, and experienced a transformation in what they believed to be possible. They gained the strength to confront their government, which they see as repressive and immoral, and to demand its dissolution. This revolution was inspired by a revolution in Tunisia, and is now inspiring others throughout the region. It is too soon to say what will happen. We are at an important crossroads.

We have already seen two major types of responses in the US media, which cut across the republican and democratic divide, and which map fairly closely into relativist and ethnocentric stances. The relativist response includes those who want to understand events in Egypt on the terms of the protesters and Egyptians who support them. Many in this group have expressed excitement about the emergence of a pro-democracy movement in a country long ruled by brutal dictators. They focus on this movement as a unique experiment in democracy that has united many different segments of society—Muslim and Christian; young and old; working class, middle class and poor; women and men. The relativists focus on how this movement is peaceful, and that it is not led by Radical Islamists. They see these revolutions as holding the potential to fundamentally change the political dynamic within these countries, and to transform the antagonistic dynamic between the US and the Middle East. These features are surprising, and difficult to recognize, given that they do not fit our preconceived notions about Arab societies. The relativists urge us to support these revolutions, and embrace the possibility of democracy throughout the Middle East.

The second type of reaction has been ethnocentric and reactive. It wants, and wants us, to judge and interpret the events in Egypt according to our own standards and measurements, and own preconceived notions about the region. These groups see democracy and revolution in Egypt as threats. They see it as risking empowering radical Islamic organizations with the potential to threaten US and Israeli security and interests. They see Islamic law as a threat to women and religious minorities. They warn that the Islamic democracy is not real democracy. In true ethnocentric fashion, we think our own version of democracy is the best, and the only real, safe and acceptable form. Certain extremists claim these events form part of a leftist-Islamist conspiracy to destroy America.

The Egyptian protestors insist that they are peaceful, that they are not led by the Islamists, that women are fighting for the movement, that they respect all religions, and that all they want is democracy. They want us to let go of our old frames and fears. At this point, by the best estimates, nearly 300 protestors have died in their struggle to broadcast this call for freedom to all corners of the earth. But relativism is hard, and takes work. We must counteract fear and prejudice in order for understanding to prevail. It also has to fight against powerful voices that are working tirelessly to shape the way that we respond to these events, to maintain the relationships to the region that we have in place. These voices speak loudly, and have already begun to drown out the relativist voice.

We may want to believe that we can balance understanding with judgment, that we can keep a focus on what these revolutions mean to the people of the Middle East and also interpret them according to our preconceived notions about a region that we have for decades learned to fear and mistrust. But in the end, the way that the US government responds will be based in either fear or understanding. Without question, it is fear that informs the US early attempts to replace Mubarak with his hand picked successor, Suleiman, his former intelligence chief and notorious torturer. We want to control and manage those events in order to protect our "own interests", however those are conceived.

Both types of responses have a great potential to be self-fulfilling prophesies. If we understand the protesters on their own terms, and support them, we have the potential to build peace in the region that could last generations. If we continue to treat democracy in the Middle East as a threat, we will sow distrust and run a great risk of reaping a future of continued antagonism with the region. We cannot predict with certainty what the future will bring, but the choice that we make at this conjuncture cannot easily be undone. I urge everyone with the spirit to listen, and with faith in humanity, to emphasize understanding first. Judgment, as we all know, is never in short supply, a surplus is what has made peace so scarce in our world today.

Nick Copeland
Visiting Professor of Cultural Anthropology
University of Arkansas

Originally posted to nick copeland on Mon Feb 07, 2011 at 08:27 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  if you consider the reaction of most nations (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nick copeland

    and every important nation to be realpolitik (and specifically realpolitik because idealpolitik was "tried and failed" vis-a-vis Palestinians electing Hamas- not that Egypt=Palestine but merely it being the last great idealpolitik experiment in the M-E,) then its unsurprising that the Western powers have no interest or desire to see anything but a continuation of what was.

    Its not because the Arabs are extremists or that Egypt will spawn Al Qaeda.  Nothing to do with a potential war with Isreal, or even that Israel will lose ground in the peace process (they are making a de-facto two state solution on their own, and there is no stomach for an anti-apartheid movement vs Isreal in the west.  Certainly not in the U.S.)

    Its not a misunderstanding at all, as you seem to say here... the state department isn't listening to Glenn Beck.  Its precisely the  understanding that the benefit with change will be a decrease in benefit to the U.S.  Consequentalism says this is worse, so if you believe your support is adequate, you support the status quo.

    The U.S. will only actively support a diplomatic change if it believes it will gain in the process.  That's simply the reality of diplomacy.

    •  but the assumptions behind realpolitik (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      betson08, Priest Valon

      that undergird the supposedly neutral depiction of the world you present are themselves based in misunderstanding and fear.

      i agree, in part, with your insightful comment. of course the white house doesn't believe beck, but they at least fear the political fallout of conservative media accusing them of "making America weak". the white house's version of realpolitik is mediachecking foreign policy decisions. but you're probably right that many of them truly share the goal of maintaining US Empire. This conception of "national interests" is fundamental the conception of realpolitik that you describe. Realpolitik assumes that our "interests" are known already, and that they can be predictably defended by subjugating various parts of the globe, and that relations between nation states are inevitably conflicted and violent. but this "realpolitick" is not a generic, unmediated view of the world, it is a perspective driven, i believe, in many respects by fear and ethnocentric assumptions. i think our current conception of what is realpolitik has a massive blind spot, or two, one that endangers all of humanity.

      •  Here's the huge paradox though: (0+ / 0-)

        in moving to a truly post Egypt-MIC-regime, the U.S. Knows they lose one thing for sure: preferential Suez canal traffic priority for U.S. Warships.  With a fleet moving through, this could add a couple to a few days to a transit: the convoy goes as fast as the slowest vessel.

        This is entirely a function of the long term relationship with a partner that potentially stands to no longer be in power.  It's a very concrete- known benefit.  The U.S.-Egypt relationships has tangible costs and very few tangible benefits.

        It's tough to think of any new tangible benefits to the U.S. with a non military led regime TO THE U.S.  There is a theoretical advantage of a more demographically compatible people; that a more democratic regime will result in less indigenous fundamentalism region wide (and the actual goal: less cost in security to the U.S,) yet realpolitik no longer trusts this idealpolitik idea.  The Hamas election and post-baathist chaos in Iraq cemented this distrust of idealpolitik, and realpolitik has simply no position on ethical benefits to the other party.

        It should be noted that currently Egypt has no Al Qaeda problem- due in large part to Suleiman, and every reason to believe Suleiman would continue that ideologically based approach.   Since now is as good as it can tangibly get without Egypt turning into a European style democracy, any possible outcome will be worse in realpolitik.

        The U.S. Admin is going to pay lip service to idealpolitiks here, but will act in accordance with realpolitiks.  For it to choose otherwise it would need to see not only idealpolitiks in practice elsewhere:  Tunisia, but a successful outcome from idealpolitik;  realpolitiks is consequentalist at it's root and seeks proof or at least the best indication therein.

        •  not a paradox (4+ / 0-)

          if you're really going to blame Hamas getting elected for proof that "idealpolitik" fails, we disagree on a lot. I think Israel's intransigence is to blame for the lack of a resolution to that conflict, for decades. They don't want peace: it doesn't serve their interests, which they see as to expand and absorb Palestine. the "peace process" is a long running sham, always predicated on ridiculously one-sided concessions to Israeli security, whilst settlers and settlement expansion purposely provokes violence to "prove" Palestinians don't want peace. They're the ones who, with US support, refuse to see Hamas as a "worthy" partner for dialog. Hamas was legally elected. That's democracy. Hamas is not what the western media makes it out to be. Look into the recent Aljazeera document leak about the Israel Palestine negotiations for the most recent evidence of this. Then dig deeper and read Edward Said Covering Palestine. There's your realpolitik, failing again and again. Realpolitik is not a neutral description of a pre-existing world. It constructs this world by assuming that the world is a bunch of nation-states who inherently pursue their own interests, that we know what those interests are, that they can be rationally fulfilled by violent means, etc. This logic is going to doom us all, and has already doomed millions.

          I don't think you ever answered the main point of my article or response: that our conception of the limits of the possible (realpolitik) is the problem here. we need to think outside of it and be open to a fundamentally different relation to the Middle East "other".  

          •  the fundemental thing about realpolitik is (0+ / 0-)

            its one-sided and reductionist:  the U.S. was looking for a tangible benefit for itself, and this is key, from the PA elections, and from the removal of the Ba'athists.

            The U.S. wanted (in order of value to themselves) a more ideologically compatible situation, which could result in lower need for security and thus lower costs, either a direct PR victory at home which would be of potential electoral value in the U.S., and lastly failing all that, an incremental increase in the ease of diplomatic dialogue.

            You are presenting both sides of the argument, including Palestine and from U.S. realpolitiks POV, the only POV is the U.S., and how it stands to gain.

            You can argue that there is altruism in seeing the other side, but its simply a philosophical, rather than practical argument: Dawkins raised altruism as self-interest in his "The Selfish Gene".

            Of uncertainty:  Obviously there is no way of understanding the resultant benefit of a diplomatic decision before it happens, but you go with best guesses based on existing results.  The issue is there are few to none democratization efforts in Arabic culture showing tangible benefit to the U.S., and numerous realpolitik efforts showing very real and tangible benefit, economically and militarily.

            I have a chunk more to address, including my understanding of your point.. and partial agreement! but I need to go for now, so I'll let you disagree with everything I said :)

  •  Great article (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    betson08, isabelle hayes

    The Egyptians want what we all want, freedeom, happiness and peace.  

  •  Mubarak has cancer (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    He may be departing too Germany for treatment

  •  Worrying about Egypt spying on citizen (0+ / 0-)
     When  part of the US Patriot Act go up for renewal tomorrow,government should be open with thier citizen,  
  •  Quintessential social drama (0+ / 0-)

    per Victor Turner

    In his later years, Turner's interest shifted toward performative drama and experimental theater as modern forms of liminality. In his theory of social dramas, Turner argued that there were four main phases of public action that lead to change:
    Breach: in the first phase the crisis emerges, as one individual or group publicly breaches the common norm that regulates relationship between parties.
    Crisis: the crisis widens and extends the gap between parties.
    Redressive action: in this phase the crisis is being negotiated by the use of redressive mechanism that exists in the society, and which have the goal to establish pre-crisis-like social peace. Public ritual usually serves this kind of purpose.
    Reintegration: resolution of the problem is being negotiated; the change is being legitimized.

    During the redressive phase everyone is in a state of communitas - social structures are flattened and everyone's the same socially, and people come together. Pretty applicable, don't you think?

    Also there is a separation, liminal (betwixt and between unreality) and reintegration element to social dramas, which we see in rituals as well (for example a wedding takes place in a church, the couple goes to the liminal honeymoon, and then marks reintegration into society by the groom picking up the bride and crossing the threshold into their new abode)

    I think the most ethnocentric reporting has occurred in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in Egyptian society and this revolution. Too much, woo wooo and not enough relativism.

    Relativism - every culture developed its characteristics due to its own unique history, etc.

    Love the anthropological viewpoint....

  •  question: in US, understanding or judgement ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nick copeland

    ... as per the Middle East?

    This article shows how we can expose our opinions and inform our judgments.

    Regrettably, when it comes to Egypt our decisions have been made for us. Thirty years supporting a dictator as our bulwark. We really have very little credibility in cheering for Egypt's freedom.

    Right now, Tahrir Sq. is the brightest spot of humanity. And we're not in that game.

    There is a way out, however. Observe the human rights of the Guantanamo prisoners and close it down in the name of freedom that our brothers are so courageously pursuing.

    what we can do, we will do

    by lemarais17 on Tue Feb 08, 2011 at 10:07:23 PM PST

  •  Many thanks, (0+ / 0-)

    I'm sorry I got here too late to tip and rec but it was a very enlightening diary.

    "I have a vision of our rights as indigenous people. We didn't migrate to Israel; it is Israel that migrated to us." Haneen Zoabi, interview in the New Stateman

    by Fire bad tree pretty on Tue Feb 08, 2011 at 11:43:51 PM PST

  •  A mild warning against our own cliches (0+ / 0-)

    While agreeing with much of the relativist vs.ethnocentric analysis, I was a bit troubled by the sprinkling of cliches,both re relativist "us" and ethnocentric "them" or "forces".
    Their efforts are "unceasing" and in danger of "drowning out" our rational voices. We analyze and try to understand; they are fearful.

    Is it a stretch to think that ethnocentric viewers of other societies are not trying to understand them? As a retired teacher of Russian literature, language,and society, I spent much of my professional life trying to understand the  Soviet system and also how people trapped in it could continue to live, marry,bring up children, write poetry and novels and satire etc. But it was a horrible system and those who concentrate on its horrible aspects helped in understanding it also.

    While getting my daily Egyptian news from Al Jazeera,I do not think it is completely wrong to keep an eye on any kind of estremists commenting on those events. One might remember the "relativists" quick desire to label any revolution as a "bold, new experiment" cf. from Fidel the Revolutionary to Fidel the head of a Communist Party that devoured its own and whose death may,repeat may allow Cubans a bit more freedom.
    My own hopes from postCommunist Russia have been sobered by the transition from Gorbachev to Putin.
    So , just a word of caution.
    Altho I am still hoping that the protesters hang in there,despite the evidence that with Obama's usual pragmatism, the fix is in and we will support the new Egyptian "Putin" i.e. ex torturing internal security type. I am hoping that those young colonels in the Army might just stay passively protective of the demonstrators.

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