Why Do We Hate Essentializing Nations?

If there is one clear line between history lovers and historians, or journalistic commentators and social scientists, it is probably the fact that scholars are extremely sensitive to any assumption of national characteristics. This also makes us allergic to the phrases like “tradition” and “cultural differences.”

Why do we feel disgusted by these ideas? One clear reason is the accuracy issue. We know a lot of what people consider traditional and culturally unique was created (or “invented” ) together with the modern nation-state. Speaking of which, most of us, including myself, doubt everything the nation-state does for its own sake. I don’t know about other people, but my reaction is quite instant and harsh, and it does feel like I have a real mental allergy to this whole area of thoughts, which I cannot explain just by the historical accuracy. Maybe because we encounter too many histories that are so badly tainted by nationalism, and are tired of it. Or maybe because historians do not want to repeat the same mistake of exoticizing foreign objects that they study as it happened in the past. We feel guilty for what our predecessors kept doing up until a few decades ago. Maybe that is it. I used to force my partner (a male caucasian) to say he likes me “despite how I look (=asian)” just to make sure this is not about exoticization.

I noticed, however, our allergy is making our lives (including my partner’s) harder than necessary. People love anecdotes and conclusions about national essences. They really do. People want to confirm with each other that North Koreans are absolutely bizarre by discussing how people wept on the street when their leader died. I also tell people that the Japanese eat fermented soybeans and seaweed everyday when I sense people want to hear something exotic. Japanese families keep asking foreigners what they think are unique about Japan and how difficult they think the Japanese language is — they love exoticizing themselves! Just recalling all these things makes me feel nauseous now, but they are just enjoying conversations in bars, and this is one of the most polite, and potentially witty, things to talk about with complete strangers. It is only us who feel weirdly distressed in this situation, not knowing whether we should argue back, or just go along with it.

Category(s): My Grad School Life

4 Responses to Why Do We Hate Essentializing Nations?

  1. I struggle with this too. Added to the usual is my realization that, deep down, I too was drawn to study japan etc. out of a deep sense of the exotic.

    One really big moment for me in thinking about this was reading Gluck’s newspaper review of the movie Lost in Translation. Her message, which was essentially, “chill out,” was very persuasive. The trick is to chill out without losing a degree of critical reflectiveness, i guess.

    thanks for posting this!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Michi.
    This is how we become sour and misanthropic as we grow old. Have to watch out.

  3. I’ve thought about this issue a million times, and over the years I have arrived at a few reasons why I feel I can legitimately disdain cultural essentialism.

    First, it doesn’t jibe with experience, at least in the long run. In my own life I have invariably found that the more time you spend with different kinds of people, and really get to know them in a non-superficial way, the more you realize that people are essentially the same, everywhere. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t cultural differences, but the more you realize that underneath it all people are just people, with the same wants, needs, hopes, and fears, the more all that “culture” stuff seems to appear pretty darn superficial.

    Second, I find that cultural explanations for why things happen are just super duper lazy. It’s so easy to say, oh, obviously these people behave in this way because they are just different from us. At some level this is very intuitive, so it’s easy to fall into this intellectual trap. But in almost every case, with even a bare minimum of effort to dig beneath the surface, all sorts of historically contextual, structural explanations appear which are much more compelling and take you further in terms of their explanatory power.

    Third, I dislike cultural essentialism because almost by its very nature, it precludes the possibility of change or reform. It’s too easy for people/governments/corporations to justify exploitative or unjust practices by saying oh that’s just part of our essential nature so there’s no point in even trying to change it. So I try to combat cultural essentialism wherever I find it.

    Finally, it’s just fun to puncture cherished myths that people hold, and undo their long-held understandings with FACTs. I love doing this to my students. Does this make me some sort of intellectual sadist? I think not, actually, because most of my students respond extremely positively to this kind of revelation.

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