Living a human life entails membership in a variety of human groups. This typically includes groups such as nation, culture, profession, religion, family, and peer group. We find ourselves participating in groups before we are aware of ourselves as living beings. We find ourselves in groups in virtually every setting in which we function as persons. What is more, every group to which we belong has some social definition of itself and some usually unspoken "rules" that guide the behavior of all members. Each group to which we belong imposes some level of conformity on us as a condition of acceptance. This includes a set of beliefs, behaviors, and taboos.
All of us, to varying degrees, uncritically accept as right and correct whatever ways of acting and believing are fostered in the social groups to which we belong (Figure 11.1). This becomes clear to us if we reflect on what happens when, say, an adolescent joins an urban street gang. With that act, adolescents are expected to identify themselves with:
A name that defines who and what they are;
A way of talking;
A set of friends and enemies;
Gang rituals in which they must participate;
Expected behaviors involving fellow gang members;
Expected behaviors when around the enemies of the gang;
A hierarchy of power within the gang;
A way of dressing and speaking;
Social requirements to which every gang member must conform;
A set of taboos - forbidden acts that every gang member must studiously avoid under threat of severe punishment.
For most people, blind conformity to group restrictions is automatic and unreflective. Most effortlessly conform without recognizing their conformity. They internalize group norms and beliefs, take on the group identity, and act as they are expected to act - without the least sense that what they are doing might reasonably be questioned. Most people function in social groups as unreflective participants in a range of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors analogous, in the structures to which they conform, to those of urban street gangs.
This conformity of thought, emotion, and action is not restricted to the masses, or the lowly, or the poor. It is characteristic of people in general, independent of their role in society, independent of status and prestige, independent of years of schooling. It is in all likelihood as true of college professors and their presidents as students and custodians, as true of senators and chief executives as it is of construction and assembly-line workers. Conformity of thought and behavior is the rule in humans, independence the rare exception.
According to the The Encyclopedia Americana:
[There is an] infinity of variations in human behavior, termed good or evil, well or sick, according to the time and place and surrounding mores. The mescalin intoxicated priest carrying out an Indian ritual is adapted and healthy according to the rules of the game. Under other circumstances and in other places his behavior would probably bring him confinement in the police station or in a mental hospital.
To fail to conform to social expectation is to become subject to being cut off from the group: Here is how such a person is characterized in Tom Brown's School Days (Hughes, 1882):
The person whose appearance had so horrified Miss Winter was drawing beer for them from a small barrel. This was an elderly raw-boned woman, with a skin burned as brown as that of any of the mowers. She wore a man's hat and spencer, and had a strong harsh voice, and altogether was not a prepossessing person. She went by the name of Daddy Cowell in the parish, and had been for years a proscribed person. She lived up on the heath, often worked in the fields, took in lodgers, and smoked a short clay pipe. These eccentricities, when added to her half-male clothing, were quite enough to account for the sort of outlawry in which she lived. Miss Winter, and other good people of Englebourn, believed her capable of any crime, and the children were taught to stop talking and playing, and run away when she came near them.
Sociocentric thinking, as we intend this expression, is egocentric thinking raised to the level of the group. It is as destructive as egocentric thinking, if not more so, as it carries with it the sanction of a social group. In both cases, we find a native and uncritical dogmatism implicit in its principles. And therein lies its pathology. Like egocentric thinking, it is absurd at the level of conscious expression. If sociocentric thinking is made explicit in the mind of the thinker, its unreasonableness will be obvious.
Note the parallels in Table 11.1 for egocentric and sociocentric patterns of thought.
Related Sociocentric Standard
"It's true because I believe it."
"It's true because we believe it."
"It's true because I want to believe it."
"It's true because we want to believe it."
"It's true because it's in my vested interest to believe it."
"It's true because it's in our vested interest to believe it."
"It's true because I have always believed it."
"It's true because we have always believed it."
Just as individuals deceive themselves through egocentric thinking, groups deceive themselves through sociocentric thinking. Just as egocentric thinking functions to serve one's selfish interest, sociocentric thinking functions to serve the selfish interests of the group. Just as egocentric thinking operates to validate the uncritical thinking of the individual, sociocentric thinking operates to validate the uncritical thinking of the group.
Test the Idea
The idea of sociocentric thinking is not new. Under one label or another, many books have been written on the subject. And it has been the focus of important sociological studies. Almost a hundred years ago, in his seminal book Folkways, originally published in 1902, William Graham Sumner wrote extensively about social expectations and taboos. One of the founders of the discipline of sociology, Sumner documented the manner in which group thought penetrates virtually every dimension of human life. He introduced the concept of ethnocentrism in this way:
Ethnocentrism is the technical name for this view of thinking in which one's own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.... Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exacts its own divines, and looks with contempt on outsiders. Each group thinks its own folkways the only right ones, and if it observes that other groups have other folkways, these excite its scorn.
Sumner describes folkways as the socially perceived "right" ways to satisfy all interests according to group norms and standards. He says that in every society:
There is a right way to catch game, to win a wife, to make one's self appear... to treat comrades or strangers, to behave when a child is born... The "right" way is the way which ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience.... In the folkways, whatever is, is right.
In regard to expectations of group members, Sumner states:
Every group of any kind whatsoever demands that each of its members shall help defend group interests. The group force is also employed to enforce the obligations of devotion to group interests. It follows that judgments are precluded and criticism silenced.... The patriotic bias is a recognized perversion of thought and judgment against which our education should guard us.
Even young children exhibit sociocentric thinking and behavior. Consider this passage from Piaget's study for UNESCO (Campbell, 1976), which is a dialogue between an interviewer and three children regarding the causes of war:
Michael M. (9 years, 6 months old): Have you heard of such people as foreigners? Yes, the French, the Americans, the Russians, the English... Quite right. Are there differences between all these people? Oh, yes, they don't speak the same language. And what else? I don't know. What do you think of the French, for instance? The French are very serious, they don't worry about anything, an' it's dirty there. And what do you think of the Russians? They're bad, they're always wanting to make war. And what's your opinion of the English? I don't know... they're nice... Now look, how did you come to know all you've told me? I don't know... I've heard it... that's what people say.
Maurice D. (8 years, 3 months old): If you didn't have any nationality and you were given a free choice of nationality, which would you choose? Swiss nationality. Why? Because I was born in Switzerland. Now look, do you think the French and Swiss are equally nice, or the one nicer or less nice than the other? The Swiss are nicer. Why? The French are always nasty. Who is more intelligent, the Swiss or the French, or do you think they're just the same? The Swiss are more intelligent. Why? Because they learn French quickly. If I asked a French boy to choose any nationality he liked, what country do you thinking he'd choose? He'd choose France. Why? Because he was born in France. And what would he say about who's the nicer? Would he think the Swiss and French equally nice, or one better than the other? He'd say the French are nicer. Why? Because he was born in France. And who would he think more intelligent? The French. Why? He'd say the French want to learn quicker than the Swiss. Now you and the French boy don't really give the same answer. Who do you think answered best? I did. Why? Because Switzerland is always better.
Marina T. (7 years, 9 months old): If you were born without any nationality and you were given a free choice, what nationality would you choose? Italian. Why? Because it's my country. I like it better than Argentina where my father works, because Argentina isn't my country. Are Italians just the same, or more, or less intelligent than the Argentineans? What do you think? The Italians are more intelligent. Why? I can see people I live with, they're Italians. If I were to give a child from Argentina a free choice of nationality, what do you think he would choose? He'd want to stay an Argentinean. Why? Because that's his country. And if I were to ask him who is more intelligent, the Argentineans or the Italians, what do you think he would answer? He'd say Argentineans. Why? Because there wasn't any war. Now who was really right in the choice he made and what he said, the Argentinean child, you, or both? I was right. Why? Because I chose Italy.
It is clear that these children are thinking sociocentrically. They have been indoctrinated into the belief systems, with accompanying ideologies, of their nation and culture. They cannot articulate why they think their country is better than others, but they have no doubt that it is. Seeing one's group as superior to other groups is both natural to the human mind and propagated by the cultures within which we live.
Sociocentric systems are used in complex societies to justify differential treatment and injustices within a society, nation, or culture. This feature of complex social systems has been documented by sociologists who have specialized in the phenomenon of social stratification. As virtually all modern societies today are complex, the following characteristics of stratification presumably can be found in all of them. According to Plotnicov and Tuden (1970), Each has social groups that
Given this phenomenon, we should be able to identify, for any given group in our society, where approximately it stands in the hierarchy of power, what the sources of power and control are, how the distinctions that indicate status are formulated, how social distances are maintained between the groups, and the overarching ideology that provides the rationale for the way things are.
Test the Idea
Sociocentric thinking, like egocentric thinking, appears in the mind of the person who thinks that way as reasonable and justified. Thus, although groups often distort the meaning of concepts to pursue their vested interests, they almost never see themselves as misusing language. Although groups almost always can find problems in the ideologies of other groups, they rarely are able to find flaws in their belief systems. Although groups usually can identify prejudices that other groups are using against them, they rarely are able to identify prejudices that they are using against other groups. In short, just as egocentric thinking is self-deceptive, so is sociocentric thinking.
Though the patterns of dysfunctional thinking are similar for egocentric and sociocentric thinking, there is at least one important distinction between the two. As noted in Chapter 10, egocentric thinking is potentially dangerous. Through self-deception, individuals can justify the most egregious actions, but individuals operating alone are usually more limited in the amount of harm they can do. Typically, groups engaging in sociocenric thinking can do greater harm to greater numbers of people.
Consider, for example, the Spanish Inquisition, wherein the state, controlled by the Catholic Church, executed thousands of reputed heretics. Or consider the Germans, who tortured and murdered millions of Jews, or the "founders" of the Americas, who enslaved, murdered, or tortured large numbers of Native Americans and Africans.
In short, throughout history and to the present day, sociocentric thinking has led directly to the pain and suffering of millions of innocent persons. This has been possible because groups, in their sociocentric mindset, use their power in a largely unreflective, abusive way. Once they have internalized a self-serving ideology, they are able to act in ways that flagrantly contradict their announced morality without noticing any contradictions or inconsistencies in the process.
Sociocentric thinking is fostered by the way groups use language. Groups justify unjust acts and ways of thinking through their use of concepts or ideas. For example, as Sumner points out, sociocentrism can be exemplified by the very names groups choose for themselves and the way they differentiate themselves from what they consider lesser groups:
When Caribs were asked whence they came, they answered, "We alone are people." The meaning of the name Kiowa is "real or principal people." The Lapps call themselves "men." Or "human beings." The Greenland Eskimo think that Europeans have been sent to Greenland to learn virtue and good manners from the Greenlanders.... The Seri of Lower California... observe an attitude of suspicion and hostility to all outsiders, and strictly forbid marriage with outsiders.
In the everyday life of sociocentric thinkers, we can find many self-serving uses of language that obscure unethical behavior. During the time when Europeans first inhabited the Americas, they forced Indians into slavery and tortured and murdered them in the name of progress and civilization. By thinking of the Indians as savages, they could justify their inhumane treatment. At the same time, by thinking of themselves as civilized, they could see themselves as bringing something precious to the savages, namely civilization.
The words progress, savagery, civilization, and true religion, were used as vehicles to exploit the American Indians to gain material wealth and property. The thinking of the Europeans, focused on these ideas, obscures the basic humanity of the peoples exploited as well as their rightful ownership of the land that they had occupied for thousands of years.
Sumner says that the language social groups use is often designed to ensure that they maintain a special, superior place:
The Jews divided all mankind into themselves and the Gentiles. They were "chosen people." The Greeks called outsiders "barbarians."... The Arabs regarded themselves as the noblest nation and all others as more or less barbarous.... In 1896, the Chinese minister of education and his counselors edited a manual in which this statement occurs: "How grand and glorious is the Empire of China, the middle Kingdom!"... The grandest men in the world have come from the middle empire.... In all the literature of all the states equivalent statements occur.... In Russian books and newspapers the civilizing mission of Russia is talked about, just as, in the books and journals of France, Germany, and the United States, the civilizing mission of those countries is assumed and referred to as well understood. Each state now regards itself as the leader of civilization, the best, the freest and the wisest, and all others as their inferior.
Concepts are one of the eight basic elements of human thinking. We cannot think without them. They form the classifications, and implicitly express the theories, through which we interpret what we see, taste, hear, smell, and touch. Our world is a conceptually constructed world. And sociocentric thinking, as argued above, is driven by the way groups use concepts.
If we had thought using the concepts of medieval European serfs, we would experience the world as they did. If we had thought using the concepts of an Ottoman Turk general, we would think and experience the world that he did.
In a similar way, if we were to bring an electrician, an architect, a carpet salesperson, a lighting specialist, and a plumber into the same building and ask each to describe what he or she sees, we would end up with a range of descriptions that, in all likelihood, reveal the special "bias" of the observer.
Or again, if we were to lead a discussion of world problems between representatives of different nations, cultures, and religions, we would discover a range of perspectives not only on potential solutions to the problems, but sometimes as to what a problem is in the first place.
It is hard to imagine a skilled critical thinker who is not also skilled in the analysis of concepts. Conceptual analysis is important in a variety of contexts:
Many problems in thinking are traceable to a lack of command of words and their implicit concepts. For example, people have problems in their romantic relationships when they are unclear about three distinctions: 1) between egocentric attachment and genuine love; 2) between friendship and love; and 3) between misuse of the word love (as exemplified by many Hollywood movies) and the true meaning of the word love shared by educated speakers of the English language.
People often have trouble differentiating ideological and nonideological uses of words. They are then unable to use the following words in a nonloaded way: capitalism, socialism, communism, democracy, oligarchy, plutocracy, patriotism, terrorism. Let's look at this case in greater detail.
When the above words are used ideologically, they are applied inconsistently and one-sidedly. The root meaning of the word is often lost, or highly distorted, while the word is used to put a positive or negative gloss on events, obscuring what is really going on. Hence, in countries in which the reigning ideology extols capitalism, the ideologies of socialism and communism are demonized, democracy is equated with capitalism, and plutocracy is ignored. In countries in which the reigning ideology is communism, the ideology of capitalism is demonized, democracy is equated with communism, and oligarchy is ignored. The groups called "terrorists" by some are called patriots by the others.
If we examine the core meanings of these words and use them in keeping with the core meanings they have in the English language, we can recognize contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisy when any group misuses them to advance its agenda. Let us review the core meanings of these terms as defined by Webster's New World Dictionary:
Capitalism: an economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution, as land, factories, railroads, etc, are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions; it has generally been characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth.
Socialism: any of the various theories or systems of the ownership and operation of the means of production and distribution by society or the community rather than by private individuals, with all members of society or the community sharing in the work and the products.
Communism: any economic theory or system based on the ownership of all property by the community as a whole.
Democracy: government in which the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives; rule by the ruled.
Oligarchy: a form of government in which the ruling power belongs to a few persons.
Plutocracy: 1) government by the wealthy; 2) a group of wealthy people who control or influence a government.
Patriotism: love and loyal or zealous support of one's own country.
Terrorism: use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate, and subjugate, especially such use as a political weapon or policy.
To this day, countries in which the reigning ideology is capitalism tend to use the words socialism and communism as if they meant "a system that discourages individual incentive and denies freedom to the mass of people." Countries in which the reigning ideology is socialism or communism, in their turn, tend to use the word capitalism to imply the exploitation of the masses by the wealthy few. Both see the use of force of the other as terrorist in intent. Both see the other as denying its own members fundamental human rights. Both tend to ignore their own inconsistencies and hypocrisy.
The mass media and press in a country tend to present events in the world in descriptive terms that presuppose the correctness of the self-serving world view dominant in the country. As critical consumers of the mass media, we must learn to recognize when language is being used ideologically (and so violating the basic meanings of the terms themselves). We must learn how to recognize sociocentric bias wherever we find it.
Many examples of sociocentric thinking can be found in the mass media. This is true, in part, because the media are an inherent part of the culture within which they function. Because much of the thinking within any given culture is sociocentric in nature, we can expect the sociocentric thinking of the culture to be furthered through the mass media as vehicles of large-scale social communication.
For example, the mass media routinely validate the view that one's own country is "right" or ethical in its dealings in the world. This cultivates one-sided nationalistic thinking. The basic idea is that all of us egocentrically think of ourselves in largely favorable terms. As sociocentric thinkers, we think of our nation and the groups to which we belong in largely favorable terms. It follows, therefore, that the media will present in largely unfavorable terms those nations and groups that significantly oppose us.
For example, to most citizens of the United States, it seems naturally to be a leader of all that is right and good in the world. The mass media largely foster this view. When we look critically at the mainstream mass media of a country, it is easy to document the bias of its presentations of the important events in the world.
It follows that the mainstream news media are biased toward their country's allies, and prejudiced against its enemies. The media therefore present events that regard the countries of allies in as favorable a light as possible, highlighting positive events while downplaying negative events. As for its enemies, the opposite treatment can be expected. Thus, positive events in the countries of one's enemies are either ignored or given little attention while negative events are highlighted and distorted. The ability of a person to identify this bias in action and mentally rewrite the article or representation more objectively is an important critical thinking skill.
In the United States, for example, because Israel is our ally, our media usually ignore or give minor attention to mistreatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. On the other hand, because Fidel Castro of Cuba is our enemy, mainstream news writers take advantage of every opportunity to present Castro and Cuba in a negative light, ignoring most achievements of the Cuban government (e.g., in the area of universal education and medical care).
Let's consider some examples from the news to exemplify this pattern of sociocentric bias in the news.
In 1973 a group of military officers overthrew the government of the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Their announced justification was that Allende was trying to replace democracy with communism. At the time of the coup the U.S. government repeatedly denied any involvement in the coup and any knowledge of the torture and murder of people considered enemies of the coup leaders and the imposed political structure. Accordingly, the mainstream news media presented the official U.S. position (along with its official explanations) as the truth of the matter. The coup leaders were presented as a positive force against communism. The democratically elected government was presented as a threat to our way of life. The coup, in other words, was presented favorably. Human rights violations were played down.
In this article, written some 27 years after the coup, the mainstream media finally admitted that the United States played a significant role in the Chilean coup. The article states:
The C.I.A. and other government agencies had detailed reports of widespread human rights abuses by the Chilean military, including the killing and torture of leftist dissidents, almost immediately after a 1973 right-wing coup that the United States supported, according to the once-secret documents released today.... The Clinton Administration announced last December that, as a result of the arrest of General Pinochet (who seized power in the coup), it would declassify some of the documents.
Another article in the New York Times states, "The Nixon Administration openly favored the coup and helped prepare the climate for the military intervention against the Socialist Government of Salvador Allende Gossens, by backing loans, financing strikes, and supporting the opposition press."
This account illustrates how successfully sociocentric renditions of events are rendered by the news media at the time of their occurrence and for many years thereafter. It also points out, in its failure to suggest - even now - that some significant breach of morality originally occurred, or that, even worse, breaches of our announced values are common. There is also no criticism of the media for their failure at the time to discover and publish the truth of the U.S. involvement in the coup.
During the Korean War (1950-1953), the news media represented U.S. involvement in the war as a fight, on our side, for the freedom of the South Korean people against a totalitarian government in North Korea (which we presented as dupes of the Chinese communists). That the government we supported in South Korea did not itself function in a democratic fashion and easily could have been represented as our "dupes" was not mentioned in the news coverage of the time. The coverage implied that we were there for humanitarian reasons: to protect the rights of innocent Koreans to have a democratically elected government and universal human rights. The mainstream media also failed to point out any problems with either our involvement in the war or the methods we used to deal with "the enemy."
This article, written 25 years after the events in question, focuses on the killing of civilian refugees by American soldiers during the Korean War:
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a dozen veterans of the 1st Cavalry Division said their unit killed a large number of South Korean refugees at a hamlet 100 miles southeast of the Korean capital.... The survivors say 400 people were killed in the mass shooting and a preceding U.S. air attack.... In the 1st Cavalry Division, the operations chief issued this order: "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire at everyone trying to cross lines."
Such orders are patently illegal, military law experts say today. "I've never heard of orders like this, not outside the orders given by Germans that we heard about during the Nuremberg Trials," said Scott Silliman of Duke University, a retired colonel and Air Force lawyer for 25 years.
Yet, "during the 1950-53 war, there were no prosecutions of anything more than individual murders of civilians by U.S. servicemen," the experts note.
In pondering the question: Why were the orders to kill refugees kept quiet all these years?... a retired Colonel who eventually became chief drafter of the Korean armistice agreement commented, "If it was in their unit, then for the sake of the unit they didn't want to report it." He goes on to state that for much of U.S. history, "we've done very badly in not trying these cases.... What bothers me most is the fact that the American public seems to take the side of the war criminal if he's an American."
The significance of this article is that, on the one hand, it again is an example of how successfully the news media render sociocentric events at the time of their occurrence and for many years afterward. What is unusual in this article is the suggestion of a pattern of behavior that goes beyond the events at this particular time ("We've done very badly in not trying these cases.... What bothers me most is the fact that the American public seems to take the side of the war criminal if he's an American"). This suggestion of a pattern of American wrong-doing is exceptional, as it diverges from the usual sociocentric tendency of the news. It should be noted, however, that we find this merely in the quote of one individual. The suggestion is not taken up in any follow-up articles. It is not a newsmaker, as was the story of Bill Clinton's sexual escapades. In this sense, the sociocentrism of the news media is not significantly breached.
Sufficient historical background is given in the contents of the article itself.
A dozen years after the national alarm over crack hastened the decline of drug treatment in favor of punitive laws that helped create the world's largest prison system, anti-drug policy is taking another turn. Treatment is making a comeback.... In the crack years of the 1980s, treatment programs were gutted while the drug-fighting budget quadrupled. New reports said crack was the most addictive substance known to humanity, and prisons started to fill with people who once might have received help instead. The number of Americans locked up on drug offenses grew from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 today. Yet even during the height of the prison boom, when some people were sentenced to life behind bars for possessing small amounts of a drug, a number of treatment centers continued to have success. While not all addicts respond to treatment, these programs showed that crack was less addictive than some other street drugs, or even nicotine, and that many of its users responded to conventional therapy.
This article exemplifies the powerful role of the media in feeding social hysteria and thereby affecting social and legal policy. The view advanced by news reports that crack is the most addictive substance known to humanity was the popular view of the day. Also popular in the 1980s was the view that crack users are best dealt with by imprisonment rather than through treatment of the drug abuse problem. The news media reinforced a simplistic Puritanical tradition that is deep in our culture: that the world divides into the good and the evil. According to this social ideology, the good defeat the bad by the use of physical force and superior strength, and the bad are taught a lesson only by severe punishment.
Test the Idea
Sometimes an article in the news does not display our socio-centrism, but implicitly documents the sociocentrism of another group. For example, the New York Times, included an article entitled "Arab Honor's Price: A Woman's Blood", focusing on the sociocentric thinking of Arab religious groups in Jordan. The facts it covers are the following:
An Arab woman in Jordan was shot and killed by her 16-year-old brother for running away from home after her husband suspected her of infidelity;
After her husband divorced her, she had run away and remarried;
Her family had been searching for her for six years in order to kill her. "We were the most prominent family, with the best reputation," said Um Tayseer, the mother. "Then we were disgraced. Even my brother and his family stopped talking to us. No one would even visit us. They would say only, "You have to kill." "Now we can talk with our heads high," said Amal, her 18-year-old sister.
The article goes on to document the way in which traditional Arab culture places greater emphasis on chastity in women than on any other "virtue." The article states:
"What is honor? Abeer Alla, a young Egyptian journalist, remembered how it was explained by a high-school biology teacher. He sketched the female reproductive system and pointed out the entrance to the vagina. 'This is where the family honor lies!' the teacher declared;
More than pride, more than honesty, more than anything a man might do, female chastity is seen in the Arab world as an indelible line, the boundary between respect and shame;
An unchaste woman, it is sometimes said, is worse than a murderer, affecting not just one victim, but her family and her tribe;
It is an unforgiving logic, and its product, for centuries and now, has been murder - the killings of girls and women by their relatives, to cleanse honor that has been soiled."
The media not only represents the news in terms favorable to the nation, it also plays down information that puts the nation in a negative light. The news media of the U.S. is a case in point.
When the UN General Assembly opposes the U.S. virtually unanimously, the U.S. media play that down, either by not reporting the vote at all or burying it in fine print or with an obscure notice. For example, most Americans are unaware of the extent to which the United States has stood alone, or virtually alone, in votes of the general assembly of the United Nations. According to the United Nations the U.S. was the only nation in the world voting against the following resolutions:
Resolutions seeking to ban testing and development of chemical and biological weapons (1981, 1982, 1983, 1984);
Resolutions seeking to prohibit the testing and development of nuclear weapons (1982, 1983, 1984);
Resolutions seeking to prohibit the escalation of the arms race into space (1982, 1983);
Resolutions condemning and calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa (five in 1981, four in 1982, four in 1983);
Resolutions calling for education, health care, and nourishment as basic human rights (1981, 1982, 1983);
Resolutions affirming the right of every nation to self determination of its economic and social systems free of outside intervention (1981, 1983).
In 1981, the U.S. and Israel were the only nations in the world voting against 11 otherwise unanimous resolutions condemning Israel for human rights abuses committed against the Palestinians. And on December 7, 1987, the U.S. was the only nation to abstain from supporting a unanimous resolution calling for a convention on the rights of the child (United Nations, 2001).
The view that the U.S. fosters about itself, both at home and abroad, is, of course, that of being the leader of the free world. This view would be largely shattered if it were widely reported in the U.S. that, in fact, no other nation is following its lead.
On the one hand, the U.S. media foster the view that the U.S. is the best place to live in the world. At the same time, "The U.S. now imprisons more people than any other country in the world - perhaps half a million more than China." ( One state alone, California, "now has the biggest prison system in the Western industrialized world... The state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined" (Atlantic Monthly, December 1998).
The thesis of this chapter is that we are by nature sociocentric as well as egocentric. Without a clear understanding of our sociocentric tendencies, we become victims of the conformist thought dominant in social groups, and we become potential victimizers of others who disagree with our group's ideology. What is important is that we begin to identify sociocentrism in our thinking and our lives. Every group to which we belong is a possible place to begin to identify sociocentrism at work in ourselves and others. Once we see the many patterns of social conformity in our lives, we can begin question those patterns. As we become more rational, we neither conform to conform nor rebel to rebel. We act, rather, from a clear sense of values and beliefs we have rationally thought through, values and beliefs we deem worthy of our free commitment.
Only when we can distinguish sociocentric thinking from ethical thinking can we begin to develop a conscience that is not equivalent to those values into which we have been socially conditioned. Here are some categories of acts that are unethical in-and-of themselves:
SLAVERY: Enslaving people, whether individually or in groups;
GENOCIDE: Systematically killing large masses of people;
TORTURE: Using torture to obtain a "confession";
DENIAL OF DUE PROCESS: Putting persons in jail without telling them the charges against them or providing them with a reasonable opportunity to defend themselves;
POLITICALLY MOTIVATED IMPRISONMENT: Putting persons in jail, or otherwise punishing them, solely for their political or religious views;
SEXISM: Treating people unequally (and harmfully) in virtue of their gender;
RACISM: Treating people unequally (and harmfully) in virtue of their race or ethnicity;
MURDER: The pre-meditated killing of people for revenge, pleasure, or to gain advantage for oneself;
ASSAULT: Attacking an innocent person with intent to cause grievous bodily harm;
RAPE: Forcing an unwilling person to have intercourse;
FRAUD: Intentional deception to cause someone to give up property or some right;
DECEIT: Representing something as true which one knows to be false in order to gain a selfish end harmful to another;
INTIMIDATION: Forcing a person to act against his interest or deter from acting in his interest by threats or acts of violence.
Inescapably, living a human life entails membership in a variety of human groups. And such membership almost always generates sociocentric thought. This holds independently of whether we are speaking of nation, culture, profession, religion, family, or peer group. We find ourselves participating in groups before we are aware of ourselves as living beings. We find ourselves in groups in virtually every setting in which we function as persons. Sociocentric thought is the natural by-product of uncritically internalizing social concepts and values. To the extent that we remain sociocentric, we cannot become independent thinkers, nor can we develop a genuine conscience. The tools of critical thinking enable us to achieve perspective upon the social and cultural bases of our day-to-day thinking. It enables us to judge those bases with standards and criteria that free us from the intellectual confinement of one-dimensional thought. It enables us to locate concepts, standards, and values that transcend our culture and society. It enables us to develop a genuine conscience. It enables us to think within and beyond the social groups to which we belong.