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Many faces of cultural chauvinism

Sometime in the late 1980s, a young North African woman was getting ready to journey to the United States to study. As parents are wont to do, the mother had some final advice for her. “Beware of the horde of American men who will be flocking to propose to you,” the mother cautioned her in Arabic.

“But why?” she responded. “There are lots of beautiful women in America.”

“That’s true,” the mother countered, “but they have HIV.”

On the streets of Nairobi in 2014, there was a series harassment of young women by men who saw themselves as guardians of African values. The women’s offense was that they wore revealing attires. As punishment, the thugs stripped them almost naked. Their attires reflected Western values and flouted African decorum, they were admonished.

During the U.S. presidential election campaign in 2016, then candidate Donald Trump vowed to build border walls between the United States and Mexico. The walls are necessary to keep away illegal immigrants, he said repeatedly, because they are responsible for rapes and murders in the United States. That claim resonated among quite a few American voters.

In another era, the U.S. press extensively covered political reforms in post-communist Eastern Europe. Among the challenges the press noted was that of rooting out corruption and cronyism. The Eastern Europeans were beginning to learn that these things have no place in Western values, the Associated Press correspondent declared in a news story.

These cases all have one thing in common: cultural chauvinism. It is the special sense that people have of themselves relative to others, the sense of superiority in the whole or in the particular. As should be evident from the examples above, cultural chauvinism is invariably based on readily discreditable assumptions, myths, and reductive logic. Only a tiny percentage of American women have HIV, immodest dressing by women may well be more African than Western, illegal immigration is not responsible for rapes and murders in the United States, and corruption and cronyism are not at all alien to Western societies. Yet these enduring myths that groups have of their own superiority underpin—or at least compound—global and international conflicts.

The most recognizable and pernicious form of cultural chauvinism is, of course, racism, which is its expression by privileged cultural groups. Yet cultural chauvinism inheres in all cultures, even among the least privileged of nations. The Burmese believe they are superior to the Rohingyas, and vice versa. Rwanda’s Tutsi believe they are superior to the Hutu, and vice versa. Kenya’s Kikuyu believe they are superior to the Kalenjin, and vice versa. Christians believe their faith is superior to Muslims’, and vice versa. Iranians believe their culture is superior to America’s, and vice versa. The Chinese believe their political culture is superior to the West’s, and vice versa. And so on and so forth.

Cultural chauvinism is obviously attitudinal. Yet, it has concrete— sometimes tragic—consequences. As an enabler of behaviors and policies, it underlies most communal, national, and international conflicts that masquerade as political differences or the quest to control resources. At the minimum, it fertilizes the mind for unprincipled political exploitation. That Muslims regard people of other faith as infidels, for example, is a mindset that Islamists exploit to fan hatred and perpetuate violence against people of other faith—or the lack thereof. And that includes Muslims of a different sect.

Long before it manifests in violence and bloodshed, cultural chauvinism thrives in everyday life. It is regularly on display in the mass media contents that mirror the realities of society.

Early in 2019, a Chinese detergent maker sought to impress potential users by running a commercial in which the detergent bleached an African into a Chinese. The commercial featured an African man and a Chinese woman who seem smitten by each other on first sight. Following exchanges of flirtatious stares, he dashed toward her. But as he closed in for a kiss, she popped a detergent tablet into his mouth and shoved him into a washing machine. When the man re-emerged seconds later, he had been washed into a Chinese man—to her delight; not just his dark brown skin, but his entire physical features.

The commercial set off a row in social media, and the detergent company, as well as the Chinese government, issued apologies. The reality still was that the commercial could only have tapped into ingrained societal attitude. There was no public outrage while the commercial

Many faces of cultural chauvinism 3 ran for China’s homogeneous native audience. It wasn’t until it was posted on YouTube that it triggered wide condemnation. Ironically, studies of the dating preferences of people of various races have consistently shown that Asian men rank last in appeal.1

And then there is this case from a U.S. reality show that specializes in compassionate adjudication of cases. An episode of the court TV program “Caught in Providence” featured a recent African immigrant who received a traffic citation. He was evidently apprehensive, as the presiding Judge Frank Caprio asked him the opening question: “Did you make a righthand turn [on a red light]?” As the man began to answer the question, he interrupted himself and asked the judge: “I have a question, sir, am I going to go home from here or am I going to jail? I want to know my fate, sir.” Judge Caprio assured him that he wasn’t going to go to jail and subsequently dismissed the case.

Then in his usual commentary after a case, Judge Caprio said:

Every once in a while I am reminded just how fortunate I am to be an American. That was the case today when I was asked this question.... Now, I have no idea what country Mr. Ohkinalola is from, but apparently, it’s somewhere where there is a real risk of going to jail because of a minor traffic infraction. Well, rest assured Deno, that is not the case here in America. You said you wanted to know your fate. Well, long-term, sir, that’s up to you. Thankfully, you live in a country where your opportunities are only as limited as your imagination and ambition. So, good luck.

The judge’s comments are, of course, common fare. However, the defendant’s apprehension most likely resulted from a diametrically opposite reason. The man’s name, Deno Ohkinalola, sounds Nigerian. And Nigeria happens to be a country where traffic rules are violated with impunity. So, it is improbable that his fear of going to prison had anything to do with his experience back home. More likely it was from his sense that American laws are overly strict and their enforcement unforgiving. Much like the other cases, the judge’s incorrect inference illustrates the impact of cultural chauvinism on interpreting other people.

Ronald Reagan, the U.S. president credited with winning the Cold War for the West, was also known as the great communicator. With his background in acting, he was especially adept at extolling the virtues of American democracy, often with deprecating narratives about communist Soviet Union. One of his jokes to this end wasn’t just funny, it also illustrates the exaggerated perception of political differences.

As Reagan narrated it during one of his speeches: An American and a Russian were arguing about their two countries. The American said to the Russian, “In my country I can walk into the Oval Office. I can pound the president’s desk and say Mr. President, I don’t like the way you are running our country.”

The Russian said, “I can do that.”

The American asked, “You can?”

The Russian said: “Of course. I can go to the Kremlin and to the General Secretary’s office and pound his desk and say, Mr. General Secretary, I don’t like the way President Reagan is running his country.”

Reagan’s audience roared in laughter. The joke was on the Soviet Union. Yet, it was premised on a false claim about American democracy. Very few people have the privilege to enter the Oval Office. And anyone who enters and dares to pound the president’s desk would be quickly wrestled to the floor and whisked away by secret agents.

But then the joke wouldn’t be so stinging if this reality is factored in. It illustrates the essence of cultural chauvinism: the amplification—or even manufacture—of differences.

This book then is another take on identity discourse. Among the notable recent releases in this regard are Francis Fukuyama’s Identity1 and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind.3 Fukuyama’s thesis is summarized in the book’s subtitle, The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. He draws from this theme to analyze various political challenges around the world. Among them are the ferment in U.S. politics, the Ukrainian civil war, the challenges of creating the European Union, and even Nelson Mandela’s use of an all-white rugby team to seek to unify South Africans.

Appiah goes further to question the validity of identity claims, persuasively discrediting “religion, nation, race, class, and culture as sources of identify.”4 He draws inspiration from his own hybrid identity. Not only is he bi-racial (British Ghanaian), but he was imbued with the disparate values of London middle class and Asante aristocracy. To complicate matters, both cultures practice opposite family lineage. The Asante are matrilineal and the English patrilineal. That means, Appiah jokes, that he could tell those who ask that he has “no family at all.”5

In Lies That Bind, Appiah makes the case that such hybridity is commonplace in all pivots of identity claims. “I aim to persuade you that much of our contemporary thinking about identity is shaped by pictures that are in various ways unhelpful or just plain wrong,”6 he writes.

The goal of this book is to demonstrate how the “pictures” are perpetuated regardless of their validity and consequences. What it offers uniquely is an exposition on the culturally chauvinistic dimensions of identity claims. It covers such claims—in their explicit and implicit dimensions—by everyday people, academics, diplomats, statesmen, and especially journalists in their coverage of world affairs.

Overtly offensive expressions of cultural chauvinism, such as the Chinese detergent commercial, stir outrage from time to time. This book goes beyond that to show the various and routine ways that cultural chauvinism is expressed without so much as eliciting raised eyebrows. The book shows too that even when such expressions don’t offend, they underlie consequential behaviors and policies.

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