The Dangers of Ethnocentrism: Woman Arrested in Zimbabwe

Orthodox; standards of belief that relate to the status quo  

Radical; upsetting the status quo 

Recently, an American woman by the name of Martha O’Donovan was arrested by Zimbabwean officials. She faces 20 years in jail in Zimbabwe for posting a tweet in which she calls the president “a sick man.” She is being charged with subversion and insulting the Zimbabwean president.

In America, this sort of charge is completely unheard of. Under this ideology, the entirety of America would be in jail from the fewer Obama haters to the many Trump despisers. Most Americans wouldn’t think of Twitter as a platform of free speech, yet it is. Around the world, social media is viewed as an extremely strong and sometimes scary platform for many government officials.

Ethnocentrism is defined sociologically as a metaphorical yardstick used by which we judge others’ standards and customs of other cultures using our standards and traditions. It comes out of a place of cultural superiority. One could understand how problematic this could be if using the simple example of looking someone in the eye. In many Asian countries such as China and Japan, lingering/steady eye contact is considered inappropriate. It can be seen as confrontational. In many African and Latin American countries, this is taken even further to being extremely disrespectful and aggressive. This, of course, is very different in comparison to Western Countries such as the UK, USA, Australia and Western Europe where eye contact is often appropriate. Of course, there are times where eye contact may seem inappropriate socially such as when standing next to another man at a urinal in a bathroom. But for the most part eye contact, for us, shows interest and engagement in whatever conversation you may be having. In fact, most of the time if you shy away from eye contact, we may perceive the other person as dishonest or simply completely uninterested.

That is one example of how a simple action can be perceived as malevolent in a different country. However, we aren’t constantly thinking about our actions as having consequences, especially our almost subconscious actions of looking someone in the eye. Most of us won’t ever have to think about our actions with such consequences, but you must if you are visiting another country. Not only are there social rules you must follow, but there are legalities that you must be aware of in your new environment.

The case of O’Donovan is a somewhat rare case, but very important one. I originally found this article on Yahoo News. Under the article was a comment section. If you aren’t familiar with Yahoo News, then you are especially unfamiliar with the people who comment on there. There is nobody without a very strong opinion in Yahoo’s comments. From what I have seen, most of the comments are either extremely liberal and radical or extremely conservative and orthodox (although most of the time it’s the latter). For this article, it was the latter. However, what I saw the most was some form of the words “There go those liberal babies crying about everything wherever they go. I hope she enjoys her time in jail! That’ll teach them!” Of course, this is a very extreme comment. There is, however some truth in it out of the context of that general extreme conservative hatred.

Loosely speaking, it is less dangerous to be orthodox, and that’s not something that has changed. It has always been dangerous to be a radical, from being a communist in the United States during the Cold War to Emily Davison throwing herself in front of King George V’s horse to attach a scarf calling for women to have the vote. While many western countries counties have free speech but it is hazardous to believe that is the norm elsewhere. Orthodox thought within the U.S. doesn't often look outside of the realm of the U.S. and what may or may not harm us. In a way, to be orthodox is to be secure. Most of what was thought under conservatism 30 years ago are still considered today. They are safe thoughts because they refuse to allow space for change. However, through change comes progress.

The question this brings me to is should we, with our own culture and standards have any say in the culture and standards of another country? My first response is no. But when you’re facing the dehumanization of other human beings, dictatorship and the sentencing of a woman of 20 years in jail for a tweet, can you still stay quiet? Wouldn’t even our current president Donald Trump be facing more than 80 years in jail for his statements against Obama while Obama was still president? I don’t believe there is one correct answer to this. In fact, I even believe that the taking of O’Donovan was simply a statement of power from Zimbabwe’s government showing that our culture doesn’t mean anything to them. But isn’t that an issue in of itself?