- The Ethics of Ethnocentrism
Intellectual historian-cum-literary critic Tzvetan Todorov has given us a series of thoughtful essays on a cluster of issues of wide current concern: ethnocentrism, humanism, scientism, racism, nationalism, universalism, cultural relativism, exoticism, and the like. Todorov seeks further to identify the leading French thinkers on these subjects, and in doing so to identify the main proponents of what he believes are the key “ideologies” or “justifications” of French “colonial conquests” (xiii). Partly because of the luster of French thought, Todorov believes that this study will constitute nothing short of “research into the origins of our own times” (xii).
These ambitous intentions may well go unrecognized in America, however, where the book’s publishers have created a false impression of the author’s aims and of the scope of his work. In translating the original French title, Nous et les autres: La Reflexion francaise sur la diversite humaine, as On Human Diversity, the editors at Harvard have pushed aside Todorov’s broadly dialectical and dialogical purposes in favor of their much narrower concerns. A nuanced and thoughtful book that seeks to guide our thinking about how we should behave toward one another has been served up as yet another contribution to the banal and stifling American conversation about “diversity.” Readers of the book will perhaps be amused by the irony here: a foreign book dealing with ethnocentrism is given a very specifically American (i.e., ethnocentric) packaging before being offered to a domestic readership. But in any case, the book itself should come as a pleasant surprise, addressing as it does a refreshingly broad range of us/them questions and offering a number of provocative theses.
To begin with one of the book’s more important themes, Todorov asserts that perhaps the first error we should eliminate from our thinking about the us/them issue is the dichotomy of “us” and “them” itself. He points out that these categories are highly provisional and unstable in any event, and that one of “them” may be felt to be a lot more like me than one of “us.” (We see this instability at work in the tendency of white suburban men to identify more closely with murder suspect O.J. Simpson than with murder victim Ron Goldman.) Todorov’s aim is to have us judge in terms of “ethical” principles, not in terms of some presumed membership in one or another group of “us.”
Todorov also threads his way through such issues as the relation of colonial domination to humanitarian universalism. In chapter one, “The Universal and the Relative,” he slides from one end of the dialectic to another, covering a range of opinion on the question of the purported unity or diversity of the human species and its values. Are we one or infinitely many? And, if many, of what significance are the differences? Is there a “universal scale of values,” and “how far does that scale extend”? Here, Todorov performs a useful service for this and future discussions by stipulating the usage of key terms. Thus, for him, “ethnocentrism” is taken to name the “most common” version, indeed a “caricature,” of universalism. This holds that we all are one, because the “other” is basically just like “us.” It affirms both the form of universality and a “particular content.” Thus, it has been a commonplace of French ethnocentric universalists to claim both that the human species and its values are essentially one (and thus, universal), and that these values happen to be best embodied in France. All men seek liberty, equality and fraternity, n’est ce pas?
Todorov brings out the clever strategems by which universalism often masks ethnocentrism. This is notoriously so in the way French imperialism often justified its expansionist ventures in terms of bringing (French, of course) “civilization” to the “savages.”
But Todorov is too wise in these matters to let the facile critique pass that universalism always hides a more sinister ethnocentrism. Sometimes nations can act in behalf of humanity. Sometimes they can rise above national interest. Had he written this book more recently, Todorov might have had...