Americentrism

23 Feb 2015 |

Americentrism is the tendency of some Americans to assume that the American point of view is the dominant one. Expressions of Americentrism in furry are almost always benign, but they are everywhere.

America is a big place and if you live in the US—more so than just about anywhere else (save perhaps North Korea)—it's sometimes easy to forget that the rest of the world exists. Americentric comments probably go unnoticed by most Americans, but for the rest of us, they are a constant reminder that Americans can appear self-obsessed or (at worst) ignorant.

Americentrism usually manifests as a subtle slip of language. The effect is similar to language that reinforces social norms, for example when someone assumes that a doctor is male, using "he" by default. One mistake doesn't do any real harm, but if you're female and exposed to this assumption over and over again, it can have a cumulative effect.

I have a couple of examples from my American cohorts here at [adjective][species] coming up, but first let's take a look at a recent example by one of the giants of the furry community.

Fred Patten, furry historian and reviewer, recently published a review of a volume of L’Épée d’Ardenois over at his new home at Dogpatch Press. (Fred moved to Dogpatch Press recently after becoming frustrated with editorial delays at Flayrah.) Fred's opening line:

"This is part of Lex Nakashima’s & my project to bring American furry fans the best of new French-language animalière bandes dessinées."

 

Fred doesn't mean "American furry fans", he means "English-speaking furry fans". He has managed to forget that people speak English other than Americans, a slip that would be scarcely believable if only such errors weren't so common. If you're a non-American, this line sticks out like a sore thumb, and will probably be the last line you read—why, after all, spend time reading the thoughts of someone so apparently thoughtless?

My next example, one I've used before, is from the annals of [adjective][species]. Zik has published a few articles over the years, most notable his series profiling furry communities around the world. His title for this series is Foreign Furry Fandoms.

Alliterative allusions aside, the idea that anything non-American might be reasonably considered "foreign" is plainly ludicrous. It only works if you assume that America is the centre of the world, and that everything else is somehow on the fringes. Zik didn't intend to marginalize some 6.7 billion people (or at least the 900 million or so non-American English speakers), yet he has managed it through the subtle exclusionary language of Americentrism.

I mentioned this to Makyo, [adjective][species] founder and owner, who opined that it wasn't a problem. After all, I was told, site tracking software shows that 98% of [adjective][species] readers are American.

Is this true? Of course not. The site tracking software just isn't very good at identifying country of origin from IP address, and it defaults to American if the location is uncertain. Yet worldly Makyo—this conversation took place over a beer in London—was happy enough to assume just 1 out of 50 [a][s] readers came from outside the land of broad stripes and bright stars.

It's very difficult to guess the real furry nationality breakdown. Looking at convention attendance (ref), it's clear that the non-American population is large, and growing.

Attendance at non-American conventions, for example, is about 20% of total attendance, an increase from basically nothing in the last 15 years.

proportion

This proportion is increasing: total attendance at non-American conventions is growing at a faster rate. Non-American convention attendance is growing at 25-50% per year whereas American convention growth has been around 15% per year for some time.

growth

Of course Americentrism is not a furry phenomenon. It's everywhere. The winner of many domestic American sporting competitions are named "world champions". And Americans insist on locating American towns with nomenclature "Town, State" and in the next breath locate a non-American town with "Town, Country"—as in "Paris, Texas" and "Paris, France". This makes it seem—to non-Americans at least—as if Americans think that Texas and France are directly comparable entities.

The general term for this sort of behaviour is ethnocentrism, and it's a worldwide phenomenon. At best it's mildly annoying, and at worst is can be xenophobic. Americentrism can certainly be anywhere on that spectrum, although within furry it mercifully seems to be limited to the benign-if-boneheaded end.

More generally, it comes about through a known psychological idea described by Daniel Kahneman as WYSIATI - What You See Is All There Is. Our human brain is lazy, and so tends only to consider information that is easily accessible. It takes time and mental effort to think beyond our small world (Kahneman calls this our 'slow' brain), and so we simply tend not to bother.

So Fred Patten doesn't think that only Americans speak English; Zik doesn't think that the word foreign means "non-American"; and Makyo doesn't believe that 2% of our readers are non-American. It was just lazy thinking, something that we all do.

And you, dear American reader, probably do it to. I hope that the idea behind this article comes to mind next time you're lazily implying that the American experience is universal. (Hopefully you've read this far, and are not currently furiously crayoning a missive to your local congressman, or perhaps bleating to some Reddit echo-chamber, or whatever it is Americans do when presented with a spot of contrarianism.)

It would, American reader, be a pity if you had stopped reading, because this is the point where I talk about how great your country is and how there is some truth behind the idea of American exceptionalism, Americentrism's older and wiser sibling. I know how you like it when people say nice things about America: I have seen your sporting events and award shows on TV. So, to honour America, let's look at ways that the USA is a special place.

The United States constitution was created as a reaction against the paternalism of the Great British ruling classes. The USA was founded on the principles of seventeenth-century liberalism, a philosophical counterpoint to a state-led community-centred nation.

The US culture is thus one of individualism, one that values liberty, egalitarianism, and populism. Control resides with the people more than the rulers - the spirit of the United State is, essentially, anarchic. From the outside, the United States looks free, anti-elitist, and rather violent.

It is these values, which are as far as I know (and as far as Seymour Martin Lipset, from whom I am basing all these reflections on American culture, knows) are unique in our world. The United States is the closest thing that the world has to a genuinely egalitarian nation. This, of course, has its plusses and minuses, a discussion always best kept within the confines of a free democratic election.

America's culture and her post-WWII wealth led the US to become the dominant cultural force in the second half of the 20th century. It's no coincidence that the furry community first appeared in this environment, and no surprise that the rest of the world is lagging years or decades behind. The origins of our furry culture are American, however today's furry culture is not an exclusively American one.

Every country has its own version of furry culture. Attending an American convention as an outsider, as I have done on several occasions (and written about for [a][s]), is a foreign and often disorienting experience. Yet there are many genuinely international commonalities in our furry world that we all experience whether we are Russian or French or Australian or American.

Our community is a genuinely international and internationalist phenomenon. How to describe those elements of furry culture that are universal? - I'd start with inclusive, peaceful and tolerant. I'd say that we engage in abstraction of physical identity. I say we place high value on friendly physical contact and playfulness. None of these identifiers are uniquely American.

They are ours.