The book Sex Lives of Cannibals gives clear examples and instances of ethnocentrism to varying degrees and in different forms. Indeed, in various areas around the world, ethnocentrism manifests in different ways that can be both positive and negative for the people engaging in the behavior as well as what is experienced and felt by outsiders as a result. Remote and shrouded enclaves of humanity, whether it is their choice or just how life and civilization have panned out for them, are the most pertinent and applicable examples of this in motion and the peoples of Tarawa as depicted in the Sex Lives book are a sterling example of ethnocentrism in all of its forms and functions. While the general act of ethnocentrism is not inherently evil, it can lead to hurt feelings and bad blood on a number of different levels.
The book Sex Lives of Cannibals captures the story of M. Maarten Troost and his partner as they live amongst and experience the lives of the people on the Tarawa atoll in the Pacific island of Kiribati. The area is barely known about and spoken of by the outside world and they indeed had their own way of doing things including government, which Troost described as "coconut Stalinism." Troost's time in the area is typified by a diet of mostly fish and not much else. There are also issues with electricity and water supplies coming and going at inopportune times. Troost and his partner fully immersed themselves in the lives of the locals in that they actually built an abode in the area and thus were able to see the "bizarre" and "colorful" array of people in the area up close and personal. Despite the infrastructure and cultural challenges in the area, Troost still finds a way to look at Americans and their own problems and complacency about their history (Troost, 2004).
In keeping with the thesis statement, the main concept that shall be covered when analyzing and synthesizing the Troost text is ethnocentrism. Examples of ethnocentrism and its many manifestations are pervasive and obvious in the Troost book. However, there is a bit of reverse-ethnocentrism as Troost makes direct mention of perceived maladies that he sees in the actions and feelings of Americans. For example, he notes that American infrastructure, society and government actions and efforts are full of delays and having to labor to get something done. In comparison, he notes that the people of Tarawa are much more advanced in this regard as the one person who knows everything about things like electricity, for example, is easy to find and he will gladly pick up the phone or show up as needed and this is true even when he is off work. Troost remarked that Buebue, the electrician in question, was quite honest and open about what was going on and why and he was a man that could be taken at his word (Troost, 2004).
Troost sharpens the point he was making even more by talking about what he would honestly be able to say if someone asked where electricity and water came from. For example, his answer to water would be to just turn on the tap. However, access to water and what it takes to keep it flowing is obviously an entirely different proposition in Tarawa. The clear dichotomy that exists between what Americans consider normal was shown in clear view when Troost's partner wretched at the sight of a simple cockroach. Given the amenities and conditions of the area combined with the fact that Troost and his partner were presumably there of their own free will, that might come off as a snobbish form of ethnocentrism. Coexistence between the American and other visitors and the natives was usually at least somewhat peaceful and there was usually not acrimony. However, there were some notable exceptions to this throughout the Troost text. For example, the Chinese surgeon offers Troost access to water and eventually the entire neighborhood decides to pounce on that generosity. Not long thereafter, that water supply was restricted through the use of a chicken-wire shield. Lastly, Troost obviously had a "pie in the sky" perception of what it would be like to live an area like Tarawa and he obviously got a rude awakening. The ethnocentrism and perceptions of Americans obviously shaped what he perceived and thought about areas like Tarawa and those ideas were obviously incomplete or flat wrong (Troost, 2014).
In keeping with the themes and lessons of the Troost text, one can point to the class text as well and its words about ethnocentrism. Indeed, the class text shows and displays that ethnocentrism is all about matters of degree and scope and that it is not inherently good or bad. However, the book also says that high levels of ethnocentrism are dysfunctional and damaging and thus proof positive that anything taken to an extreme, even something that is generally innocuous and harmless in small doses, can be a net drag on society and culture. The aforementioned sliding scale of ethnocentrism, known as the ethnocentrism continuum, starts at the lower end with simple patriotism and loyalty to one's own country or culture. At the more extreme end, ethnocentrism is manifested and laid bare by extreme nationalism or even ethnic cleansing (Neuiliep, 2012).
The class text also asserts that ethnocentrism is actually a very natural and normal way in which people operate and this is proven by the fact that the people of Tarawa live in such basic and non-developed conditions yet they still manifest the same ethnocentric precursors and facets as people in completely developed areas of the world. That being said, the Tarawa peoples obviously have some exposure to the outside world given the presence of Troost, his partner and the Chinese surgeon and certainly others both past and present. However, as the book also asserts, the coupling of ethnocentrism and racism is quite common and can come to light in literally any circumstance where people of mixed races are present. Any modicum of sparse resources and violence only makes things worse (Neuiliep, 2012).
While a lot of scholarly research concedes that there are "good" and "bad" forms of ethnocentrism, the definition of ethnocentrism itself is actually quite fluid and different depending on who is defining it and the political/cultural prisms that they are looking through. For example, definitions stretched all the way back to Darwin (1879) when it was asserted that competition between ethnic and cultural groups actually led to cooperation and synergy within one or more of those groups. In other words, individual members of a group will jell together and unite to compete and show themselves to be better than other cultures or nations (Bizumic & Duckitt, 2012). The effects and manner in which ethnocentrism propagates is also something that has to be looked at and defined. Quite often, ethnocentrism is transmitted or resisted through the media such as television and radio. However, areas like Tarawa have little to none of this and yet they still have ethnocentric dynamics that they foster and form (Jae-Woong, Jo & Jung, 2014).
United States Influence
When it comes to ethnocentrism, the United States is one of the major epicenters of the subject and there are two major reasons why. The first is this fairly common maltreatment of foreigners or those that are different and that are in the United States. The other is the cultural transmission that is resisted and/or loathed by many countries that see the changes as an affront to their way of life and their culture. Some corners of the United States are very hostile towards outsiders. Often times the hatred is directed towards illegal immigrants or at least people that are thought to be here illegally. Other times, it is a more generalized feeling that is propagated and caused by whites towards non-whites (Valentino, Brader & Jardina, 2013).
In terms of the book, it is clear from the earlier snippets as well as others that both sides had a lot to learn about each other and the perspectives of both were both incomplete. In the case of Troost and his partner, it was a case of them having an idyllic and presumptive view about other parts of the world that turned out to be entirely untrue and this was probably due at least in part to the invalid and uninformed way in which the rest of the world is described and detailed in the American media including books, news shows and so forth. Furthermore, the bureaucracy and laboring of people in the American economy and culture in terms of getting things done and procedures is starkly different in Tarawa (Troost, 2004).
The Tarawa people were not hostile or averse to outsiders but it is obvious that there were some challenges in communication and the limited perspectives and knowledge that people had about each other was obviously limited. The talk about the "getting water from the…