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A Tale of Two Countries

February 10, 2017
Prof. Zhenyi Li
A Tale of Two Countries - Blog Post by Professor Zhenyi Li, School of Communication & Culture

In the past couple months, I related two separate pieces of news when I viewed them as intercultural cases: "Trump" and "medical-aided-in-dying".  The former is about how we will coexist, communicate, and collaborate with respect in this world. The latter is about how we will depart with dignity. Waves after the inauguration indicate a conflict among people in the U.S. Legal and financial restrictions show us a promising but long way to go.

I interpreted the first couple weeks of Trump's governance polarized cultures and enlarged gaps. This typical ethnocentrism is a textbook classic. Advocates and supporters firmly believe their culture is better than the others and there is no need to welcome the other cultures to their territory. Build a wall, establish a travel ban, label people according to their physical appearance, simplify religious diversity, acquiesce hate discourse, and burn down multi-lateral bridges and treaties are all typical syndromes of ethnocentrism cancer.

I call it cancer because on one hand ethnocentrism is organic but on the other hand, it is harmful.  Cancer is not foreign. It is part of the body. However, it grows faster and harms our body. So as ethnocentrism. We all start with one culture, and it becomes so natural to us. We prefer the values of that particular culture and use them to direct our behaviours. But in between values and behaviours, psychologists tell us there are attitudes. They call it VAB hierarchy: value - attitude - behaviour. Attitude is where ethnocentric cancer may originate. Prejudice, discrimination and negative stereotyping are all outcomes of negative attitudes. Attitude is also where ethnocentrism can be altered. Openness and curiosity are typical positive attitudes that help us to accept diversity. Therefore, starting from ethnocentrism is not wrong at all. However, staying at ethnocentrism, or moving back to ethnocentrism, is wrong and harmful.

I closely followed up the development of "medical-aided-in-dying" not only because it is a new law in Canada but also because it represents a fulfillment of Canadian multiculturalism. To pass that law was difficult because it is not ethnocentric. It allows more than one set of VAB hierarchy. It embraces more than one way of interpretation on death and practice on dying. It respects more than one choice: dying with or without medical aids. It is not my way is better than yours. It is not doing it in my way. It is listening and respecting. It is hard for all people to accept but Canada bravely launched it with baby steps.

I call it baby steps because I saw medical, financial, and legal obstacles from the news. The criteria that our medical professionals set for application approval are more complicated than policy makers can imagine. Some applicants asked for consideration on "quality of life" - which is not a strictly medical criterion. Each province compensates differently to physicians practicing "medical-aided-in-dying" that may discourage some general practitioners to offer their services in certain provinces. An old couple wanted to die on the same date after 55-year togetherness. But they had to be separated because we still have legal concerns to allow such a romantic dream.

The difference between ethnocentrism and ethnorelativism can be clearly seen from these two pieces of news. The former seems easier to embrace and practical to unite a nation. The latter already revealed its difficulty to launch and the danger to split opinions. However, is it coincidental that a cancer cell always grows faster and pretends to be normal? And does it make sense that departing from a comfort zone always causes uncertainty and anxiety? The key is all about courage. The courage to try new approaches, to contact new ideas, to explore new territories, and to collaborate with new people. The opposite of courage is fear. Fear to new approaches, ideas, territories, and people.

Both the U.S. and Canada have been embracing diversity and accepting immigrants. Both countries have shared many similar values. It is always interesting to read the "tale of two countries" from the intercultural perspective. Particularly now, from the news.