Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How ethnocentrism hinders peace (part 3) - minimizing difference

Ethnocentrism, stage three: Minimization

The third stage in Bennett’s model of intercultural sensitivity (the DMIS)* is minimization, about which he comments, “The last attempt to preserve the centrality of one’s own worldview involves an effort to bury difference under the weight of cultural similarities.”

Minimization is the most “tricky” of the stages of ethnocentrism, and perhaps the most difficult, even dangerous, in that it is hard to recognize, it seems on the surface to be positive and nice, and it is possible to function at what seems a good level of interaction with people of other cultures, at this phase.

Will Arabs and Jews really only stop fighting when they face a common enemy? ...Like Iran?!In minimization, people move beyond the polarization of the defense stage (see http://salemshalom.blogspot.com/2011/02/how-ethnocentrism-hinders-peace.html), to a more positive experience of cultural difference. At this stage, cultural difference is overtly acknowledged while not being negatively evaluated. Rather, difference is trivialized by being subsumed under perceived similarity.

“In minimization, human similarity seems more profound than cultural difference, and so we can stand on the common ground of our shared humanity and put aside our differences.”

Minimization is alluring, because of its perceived sensitivity. Bennett is fond of pointing out that people in minimization tend to think of themselves as living by the “Golden Rule,” to “do unto others as you want them to do unto you” – but then he points out the limitations of that approach in relating to different others.

One characteristic of people who are in the minimization stage of dealing with difference is that they have a tendency to think they can just "be themselves" when they travel or enter a different cultural setting, and things will be fine.

Minimization is certainly more pleasant to experience than defense. It is the difference between having a taxi driver ask me to get out of his taxi, in the Middle East, upon hearing that I am an American, versus a taxi driver saying, “that’s okay, it doesn’t matter what your nationality is – we’re all ‘children of Adam’.”

The problem with minimization, though, and why it belongs as a stage of ethnocentrism, is that when I treat people who are culturally different than I am, as if they were not, I am treating them as if they were me, part of my culture. When I “do unto others as I would have them to do unto me,” I fall short of treating them as the unique (and different than me) people that they are.

This is especially problematic with people who are part of a majority or dominant group (in a society or in an organization). Those in the dominant group tend to project their own culture on others, and not see (or experience) significant difference that exists. It has become axiomatic for me that if you want to know how race relations are in a group, you have to ask someone in the minority, not in the dominant group (who will tend to think that “we have no problem with that here”). If you want to know how things are in the area of gender issues, you have to ask women, not men. If you want to know how cultural sensitivity is going in a multicultural group, again, you have to ask those from one of the minority cultures represented.

In the individual realm, we might see minimization in an example of the so-called “love languages.” If I try to love my wife the way that I like her to show love to me, it generally doesn’t work out that well, because she isn’t me. In another realm, if I try to show someone respect by acting in the way that I like others to show me respect, again, it doesn’t tend to hit home for them. Or in yet another area, for me as a strong T (thinker) on the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) to relate well to a friend who is a strong F (feeler), I cannot assume that we are the same (which ends up with me thinking of him as a T, the way that is natural to me).

Bennett talks about two different kinds of minimization, one centered on what he calls physical universalism, and another on what he calls transcendent universalism. The former emphasizes physical needs, e.g., that “all people must eat, procreate, and die.” The latter “suggests that all human beings, whether they know it or not, are products of some single transcendent principle, law, or imperative,” which may be described in religious, economic, political, psychological or other terms. In all cases, cultural differences are ignored, subsumed under dynamics or realities which supposedly trump or neutralize the cultural dimension.

It is easy to find examples of minimization at work, when you know what to look for. They include the confidence with which a group of people leave their own cultural or national context, certain that they have “universal principles” that will work for anyone, anywhere – whether those principles and practices be in leadership, church organization and life, economic development, education, government, politics, or any other area. Americans are obviously adept at this. But the reaction of the rest of the world to those who go abroad with this confidence, is one indication that the values, principles, practices, etc., are not as universal as their proponents assume.

One of the problems with minimization is that people seem sensitive and nice, and can go a long way acting on the assumption of similarity. But the limits of minimization are significant. Think, for example, of the long history of failed aid and development projects. Or consider the reaction of the Arab and Muslim world to the U.S. attempt to export democracy, American style (most Americans still don’t “get” that anyone would have a problem with that). I discovered the limits of minimization when I tried to evaluate Egyptian friends by Covey’s 7 Habits (see http://contextualliving.blogspot.com/2011/02/are-coveys-7-habits-universal.html), or when I attended a Maxwell conference on leadership at an Egyptian church, and tried to imagine what a group of Egyptian leaders were learning from presenters who were parochially American in their language and their examples (had they ever travelled abroad?).

So how does minimization hinder peace?

Minimization is a better place to be than denial or defense, in moving toward peace. In minimization, there can be a kind of peace, a kind of calm coexistence, at least on the surface of things.  But this can be deceptive (which is one of the worse things about minimization). If true peace requires relationship, then minimization represents an obstacle, because when we act as if others are no different than ourselves, when we minimize difference, we cannot really know people as they are, and we cannot therefore attain the depth of genuine relationship that is necessary to build peace. Beyond that, if we interact with different others according to some kind of transcendent universalism, we are probably guilty of trying to fit them into our mold (with the extreme, as Bennett points out, being “aggressive conversion activities”). For people to live together (not apart) in peace, there has to be a level of understanding of and respect for difference, that is not found at the stage of minimization.

And whenever there is “baggage” in the history between groups, or tension, or open conflict, minimization definitely does not work well. Imagine trying to build peace – i.e., positive, constructive relationships built on mutual understanding, etc. – between women and men, whites and blacks, Muslims and Christians, or Palestinians and Israelis – on the assumption that the similarities are greater than the differences, that we’re “all basically the same.”

We cannot minimize cultural differences, and build peace. We cannot project ourselves on others, treat others as if they were us, and build peace. We cannot arrogantly assume that what “works” for us, is right for others around us, and that they should do things “our way,” and live at peace with them (not in the positive sense of a strong positive peace, anyway).

We cannot stay in minimization, and build the depth of peace that we need in our world.

(To be continued...)

*For full treatment of Bennett’s model, see
Bennett, Milton J., “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” In Paige, R.M. (Ed). (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience (2nd ed., p. 21-71). YarmouthME: Intercultural Press.

Bennett, Milton J., “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”  In Wurzel, Jaime S., ed., Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). NewtonMA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

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