Americentrism

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.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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19 thoughts on “Americentrism

  1. Gonna have to agree with most of that, though as an American I was always under the impression that other countries are as free, if not more so (the states are looking more and more like a plutocracy by the day) in this modern day.

    1. I think you’re right in many ways. You might say, for example, that Scandinavia is freer than the US, despite being very socialist. I guess it depends on how you define freedom.

      In this case, I mean the influence of government on life. The general comment about the US being kinda anarchic feels right to me – the government and the national community is much bigger presence in any other country I’ve experienced.

  2. You know, that’s a really interesting take on things — especially viewed through the lens of non-American furs being a minority that it’s possible to marginalize. I never quite thought of it that way, but I could see the case being made for it.

    As with most things that spring up from a single “source” (thought that’s arguable), I think people just tend to associate a community with its source for a good long while. From the beginning of the online furry presence in the early-to-mid 90s, it was a distinctly, almost exclusively, American community. It’s difficult to break out of that mindset; usually it takes a seismic shift in demographics or cultural recognition.

    If, for example, there was a British Invasion or furries suddenly exploded in popularity in Japan, the community at large would be pulled away from its ethnocentrism because our awareness would be pulled in an international direction. Though the rise of attendance in non-American conventions have been rising and Eurofurence is *definitely* a Thing, I’m not sure there’s been that kind of sea change just yet.

    That being said, awareness of the broader world outside of our own borders is never a bad thing. I’ll have to think about ethnocentric tendencies of my own and do my best to combat them.

    1. Hi Jakebe, thanks for the kind comment. I guess I’m a little surprised at your surprise – in a lot of ways you’re a model for a broad-minded internationalist furry. I guess it’s hard for me to see the perspective of an American furry, and see how large the non-American furry world looms from that perspective.

      Certainly from here, American furries and American furry culture are a small minority. We can look at some American furry phenomenons, like the old-school fandomish conventions like Anthrocon, and see that there is no equivalent over here. But I mentally tend to put cons like Confuzzled and Eurofurence into the same basket as, say, MFF. The national culture of each doesn’t really come into it.

      Maybe that’s the key difference. I don’t know – I can, after all, only experience things from my own perspective. But I’m confident saying that Americentric furry language is jarring, to pretty much all of us on this side.

  3. As an American furry (but one with a lot of travel experience, and I’m on a flight from London to Copenhagen as I write his) I agree with most of what you posted here, even if like others I’m guilty for not noticing it most of the time.

    Still, one point you made is a bit silly: it is entirely rational for Americans to refer to “Paris, Texas” and “Paris, France”. Many different cities often share a name, both with other cities and often with cities abroad that they were originally named after… so they are distinguished by specifying the state name (or the country name if an American is talking about a city abroad.) I’m not quite sure what you expect, should Americans say “Paris, USA” (this would as absurd to an American ear as it would for you to talk about “London, United Kingdom” anywhere other than, say, Ontario) or should we give the name of the French region that surrounds Paris?

    Keep in mind also that many US states are similar in size and population to medium-sized European countries, and in a purely geographical context (which is basically what this is) it’s not as unreasonable as you think to equate the two. Texas has half the population and about the same land area as France (and even was a de facto independent country for a little while, or so they like to claim.)

    1. Sorry, I meant to write “both with other cities in the US, and often also with other cities abroad that they were originally named after” – in case that wasn’t clear!

    2. I was going to make just this point, and add that it’s perfectly rational to work with the knowledge that your audience has. For Americans, [town, state] is about all you need (and, given the repeated use of some town names, sometimes absolutely necessary); however, among people with different geographic familiarities, you need to adapt. You might say that you’re from “California” to a non-American (which sometimes leads to hilarious conversations about whether the speaker knows X Californian… out of a state of nearly 40 million people), from “the Bay Area” to a New Yorker, and from “Alameda” to someone who’s lived in Northern California, and from a specific neighborhood to someone from a nearby municipality.

      I will take issue with one symptom of this name-related Americentrism, however: you’ll often see individual American states on American maps of the world. You don’t see Russian oblasts, Mexican states, or non-Canadian provinces on most American maps, leading to a perception that other countries are uniform wholes.

      1. In fairness, that’s largely how things work in other countries. We talk of Germans – Berliners and Hamburgers are foods, not people. The USA itself is often referred to as one big blob (which certainly isn’t how people in the U.S. see it), although UKians might be vaguely aware of some difference between the “East Coast”, “West Coast”, “the South” (either Texas or Florida) and perhaps something misleadingly called the “Midwest” (which is not, in fact, in the Rockies).

        1. Hi GR, you are quite right. Furry’s biggest population base is American, therefore it makes sense that Americentrism will prevail in furry culture. However I have no doubt that each mini-group is ethnocentric in its own way… and like my American examples, I dare say that we get it wrong from time to time without ever noticing.

    3. Hi Procyon, thanks for the thoughtful comment. To be honest, I suspect that a lot of my points look a bit silly when taken on their own. Having said that, in this case my comment was a bit of a throwaway and would have been better served with a bit more of an explanation, or perhaps edited out altogether.

      You are right that the “Town, State” makes a lot of sense in a country as big and diverse as the US. And I agree that it’s not just the size of the states, or their relative independence – it’s also the fact that the same town names appear over and over again. I’m sure there are dozens of Parises. (I’ll add that “Town, State” is especially snappy and useful in combination with those elegant two-letter state abbreviations.)

      My point is about the use of “City, Country”, which is essentially a solely American phenomenon. Every time we hear “Paris, France”, or “Melbourne, Australia” – phrases which have the same cadence as “City, State” and only ever come from American speakers – it seems to come with surprise that someone might talk about somewhere “foreign”, a place that couldn’t reasonably be placed on a map, perhaps on par with a small US town.

      I know it’s not intended that way, but that’s the way it comes across.

      1. I can support JM on this for one example. From where I am by the side of the border (er, the US side of the border) hearing someone refer to “Vancouver, Canada” is jarring, because it’s called “Vancouver, B.C.” on all the freeway signs around here. This is necessary to avoid confusion with Vancouver, Washington, on the other side of the state.

  4. Technically, Texas (like all forty-nine others of its kind) is a state every bit as sovereign as France. (Indeed, on some official state seals and documents the terminology “The Sovereign State of XXX” is still used.) So… Paris, Texas _is_ the semantic equivalent of Paris, France. Not only would referring to Paris, USA be confusing (because there is at least one other Paris here and I believe several), it would also be the equivalent of referring to “Paris, EU.”

  5. I can’t resist pointing out another “centrism” that is common in furry fandom, and one that constantly abrades my sensibility. It appears even in this article.

    That is the assumption that those who attend furry conventions are a reliable representation of the fandom or community as a whole, and that conventions contain the entire spectrum of furry interests, individuals, attitudes, and responses. This is NOT true.

    1. Hi Tivo – I respect your general point, and I suspect it ties into your scepticism on our reliance on mass data sources in general, be that convention data, the Furry Survey, IARP data, etc. I hope that respect comes through in my articles and responses.

      With respect to this article, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I’ve used convention attendance data to demonstrate that the non-American furry population is large and growing. I think (?) that’s a pretty simple and reasonable use of data to illustrate a point.

      1. I can see where he’s coming from. The figures show a growth in furry convention attendance, not a growth in furry population. Maybe the European furry community was already large, and it was just that the concept of furry conventions was novel and needed to be introduced.

        (Of course, the fact that Eurofurence has existed for longer than any other currently-running furry convention, just at a much smaller size, suggests that the furry population probably is increasing.)

        1. Hah, yes, that is all true. As ever, data doesn’t really tell us anything – we must interpret it, and our interpretation is always subject to error.

          In this case I’m pretty comfortable with my interpretation.

  6. Well-written article about a very good point. Wish you had ways to test for population somehow through the internet. Or mailgroup. I mean, thats how it originally started in the US here, during the mid ’90’s. But with a large multinational community, trust with the postal code is complicated. A trust in science and perhaps other forms of unity would help (thinking like a bard here).

    1. Hi Lychee, thanks for the kind words. On this year’s Furry Survey (www.furrypoll.com), we ask about where everyone lives. It should be very interesting. In the meantime, please fill in the survey and share the link around – we’re hoping for 10-20,000 responses this year.

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