A couple of years ago I was studying philosophy in my first year of university, and let me tell you, that was a tumultuous time, my friends. I think philosophy is necessary. I do not discredit its value – but I do question the logic of forcing our poor adolescents through it. Could there be a more confusing class? Basically the goal of the professor is to convince you everything you’ve ever believed was false, and then at the end of the class they tell you, “well no one really knows, carry on.” So after months of frustration, you are left where you started, with twice the confusion and apprehension about it all. It just seems especially cruel to make 18 year olds suffer that right as they enter the adult world. Like, hey, not only is your whole life changing, SO IS THE ENTIRE WORLD. I digress.
Anyway, back to studying philosophy. We had to read Plato’s “Apology” which is an account of Socrates’ trial (that led to his execution). Basically, all the old white men were upset because of Socrates’ progressive thinking (some things never change it seems) and they put Socrates on trial for not accepting the deities of the Greeks, and for corrupting the youth. If you want to be able to sound smarter than everyone else at the dinner party you’re attending next week, you could read the Apology in one sitting and get to brag that you’ve read Plato. Or you could just Sparks Note it, your call.
OKAY SORRY. My point is forthcoming, I promise. The reality of Socrates’ trial was that the old-white-man-pride had been sorely wounded, because Socrates called them all idiots in a really sophisticated way. He famously said: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Which doesn’t sound like much of an insult upfront, until you put it into context. The context being Socrates as the revered teacher and wise man of his time – so basically if he knows nothing, everyone else seriously knows nothing. Nada. Zilch.
This has been on my mind a lot. When you think about it, Socrates was pretty smart in saying that. Because really, even if you know a lot, compared to the whole realm of knowledge, you still don’t know much. The smartest women of the world still don’t know everything. No man will ever have all the answers. It’s just a fact.
So I’ve been living in the States now since August, I guess? And I’ve been thinking of Socrates more and more. And right now I am observing the Body of Christ, alive and well here in Napoli, Italia, and I just have to share what is in my heart.
Quick recap on my life: I was born in Canada, grew up in Texas, and then moved back to Canada almost 7 years ago. We crossed the border on my fourteenth birthday, forming a definitive split between my childhood and my formative adolescent years.
I did not transition well.
I was, at that point in my life, every American stereotype you can dream of. I was indignant, ignorant, and I imposed what I believed to be the truth on those around me without a second thought.
After a year I had exactly zero friends (shocker) – partially due to the reality of Canadian culture, which is very polite but very reserved, but mostly because I had a big mouth. I did not do what Canadians value most: I did not tolerate. I did not want to learn to value other ways of life, I was unwilling to compromise, and I considered American life superior to other cultures.
There’s a word for it: ethnocentrism. Ugh, even the name makes me cringe lol. I remember when we studied this in my grade nine social class, and my teacher eyed me over his notes. To make matters worse, he had one glass eye, so when his good eye focused on you, you really felt it.
Okay so egocentrism is believing yourself to be more awesome than everyone else, but ethnocentrism is the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture.
These are some things I would like to try and teach you about ethnocentrism, if you are willing to listen. I say them as a 20 year old, with full acknowledgement of my own severe limitations in the world of wisdom. I am young, idealistic, ignorant, and probably too opinionated for my own good. Take or leave what I have to say, but at least consider it.
One) You’re probably ethnocentric. And really, I would like to say “you’re definitely ethnocentric,” but I try not to judge. The sooner you admit this; the sooner you can learn to move beyond it. If you think you are not ethnocentric, I would guess that you probably have not left your country. It took me a long time to catch onto this when I moved to Canada, probably about a year. (My apologies, truly.) When I lived in Kenya I noticed it almost immediately. And I kept noticing it. And I grew increasingly disgusted with myself. When I moved back to the States in August, it was the same story. Though this time, it was more frustrating than disgusting. Will I ever learn? I don’t know. I’m still trying.
We are indoctrinated from birth by our countries, we are filled with nationalism and taught to take pride in our culture. It’s not all bad, but I get ticked off when people try to impose their culture on others or eradicate cultures they believe to be inferior – historically, that has not ended well for anyone. *cough, genocide, cough*
Two) Leave. Go. Just get on a plane and go anywhere. I like to think I’m a decent communicator, but you will never learn what I am trying to teach from this blog. You will not recognize your own racism, ethnocentrism, or whatever superiority complexes you have until you leave your own country and see it for yourself. You know all those diet fads that are like, “lose weight FAST!!!”? Well if you ever want to “lose your pride FAST!!!” just move to a foreign country. I seriously don’t know if there is anything more humbling haha.
Three) Shut up and listen. Do you remember Lily Moscovitz from Princess Diaries? She was so awesome. She’s probably not who I would choose as a poster child for this particular point, because she thought she knew everything, but when I wrote that I thought of her talk show:
Moving on. My point here really is to shut your mouth. Especially when in foreign countries or speaking with foreigners. Don’t pretend to understand their culture when there is just.. there is no way you do. Even if you think you do, YOU DON’T. Stop! SHHHH! Listen to what the locals have to say. Assume you know absolutely nothing, and live by the rule that criticism is unacceptable until you are trusted and invited to speak your mind – and even then, do so lovingly and humbly. (And probably even then.. Just don’t haha.) Right now I (the Canadian) am visiting Italy with three Americans, all with different heritages, from different states, a young woman from Nepal, and another from Honduras. It’s like a fast track. Foreign country with a bunch of other foreigners. Challenge accepted.
Four) Please allow me to speak about a topic that is close to my heart for a moment. If you’re ethnocentric.. So is everyone else. Adopt an attitude of learning. I would like to speak specifically to the relationship between Canada and America for a second here.. This is a tough one for me. I love Canada, and I’m very proud to be Canadian, and though I try to be sensitive, I know that I often get defensive – even though I usually manage to keep my mouth shut. (Unless I’m with trusted friends and I desire for them to understand me better… then I do try to explain Canadian culture or why I am the way I am.) Last semester I grew increasingly frustrated while living in America. By the time I was going home for Christmas, I would even go so far as to say I was angry. I had one too many people pick on my country, one too many cultural beliefs forced down my throat. One person told me over lunch that America needed to liberate Canada.
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. You just… You cannot say things like that.
I called my mum in tears about a week before I flew home, saying “I just can’t do this! I need to get out of here!” and she very firmly told me that clearly I was not trying hard enough to love them. She was right, as mums always are. I now try my best to pray my way through tough conversations, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less hurt by them. It would seem I am paying for all the times the American in me did this to my Canadian peers back in the day, eh?
I recently said to an American friend: “I wish our countries could learn to get along. Well, actually, I wish our citizens could learn to get along.” Our governments have all the pieces in place for us to be friends, but for some reason that doesn’t translate to the individual. I don’t understand the American-Canadian dilemma completely, but I feel very trapped as my two worlds clash. It is similar to two people who have similar personalities and yet just cannot get along for the life of them. I think because our countries can be so alike in so many ways, we forget that we are really different. We assume that Americans will be just like us, or whatever, but they aren’t. (And they shouldn’t have to be, to have our respect. And that goes for you too, America.)
It makes me sad, because if we could learn to shut up and listen, we could learn so much from one another. For instance, I admire that Americans stand their ground when they believe in something. I dislike that Canadians are overly accommodating and accepting, and in direct contrast to Americans, will not stand up for their beliefs because they fear offending others. I wish we could meet somewhere in the middle. I wish Americans would learn when to be quiet, I wish they would learn a little humility, I wish they would not assume they are right about everything. I wish Canadians would learn when to speak up, I wish they would learn a little tenacity, I wish they would not assume they are wrong about everything.
So back to my original point: if you are ethnocentric, so is everyone else. You believe the best about your country, and they believe the best about theirs. This is a recipe for disaster. Pride against pride only results in wounded pride or unbending egos: there is never room for compromise, and there certainly are no opportunities to learn. Be the first to bend your will, and you will learn a lot more. You will also avoid a lot of conflict.
Five) We are citizens of heaven first. Hear me on this point if nothing else, because I bleed for this. If you are a Christian, you are a citizen of heaven. You are a child of God. If you have chosen Christ’s salvation, then you are a member of his Body, and we are unified. We are one. We are brothers and sisters. You can be American and I can be Canadian, and that should come second to the reality of our spiritual, familial bond. The global Church is all peoples, all nationalities, all ethnicities, and none of that matters because we worship the one and only true God. We are united by a truth far greater than the country that claims our citizenship. Sadly, this has been a struggle in the Church since the beginning – just look at how many times Paul addresses the Jews and the Gentiles. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single epistle where the topic doesn’t come up. My brothers and sisters, let nothing stand between us, least of all the man made concepts of our nations. Canada was founded by people. America too. Europe. Africa. Asia. South America. Australia. People, people, people. How could we stay more loyal to that than the beautiful Church we belong to? The beautiful Body that surpasses every other humanly founded institution… We have been given a divine identity, a divine responsibility, to be joined together as one and to be known for our love and unity. Before Jesus went to the cross he prayed for believers, he prayed that we would “all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they may also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me” (John 17:21). Our unity as the Church, and the Church’s unity with God was meant to be a marker of identification to the world. Jesus prayed that the Church would “become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent me and loved them even as You loved Me” (John 17:23). Our belonging to the Body of Christ is so much more important than our belonging to anyone country. We are citizens of heaven first, unified by the precious blood of Christ, and we should remember that before our spiritual siblings’ citizenship.
So how does all of this relate to Socrates, you ask? Well, if I could tell you anything, I would tell you that you know nothing. And if you know anything, you would know I was right.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Especially true when dealing with other countries, other brothers and sisters. Let love be your language.
Keep learning, keep living, keep loving.