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Outline

Claim: Karl Pilkington and the An Idiot Abroad is Ethnocentric

Premise 1: Pilkington assessed the living condition in India based on his life in London.

a. He refused to use the traditional Indian toilet and commented that he simply

could not use such toilet because it is very much different from the ones that

he usually uses at home

b. He commented on the modes of movement and transportation in India, i.e. the

use of bicycles in transporting heavy loads of goods in the streets of Delhi. He

wondered why they could not use vans itself

Premise 2: Pilkington assessed the Indian and Hindu culture and spirituality as exotic and

peculiar. He made fun of the peculiar practices that he witnessed.

a. He made fun of the Baba who raised his arm for many years, even after the

interpreter provided an explanation on the reason such practice was done (to

reach to the gods).

b. He dismissed the value of the Taj Mahal and assessed it to be an exaggerated

tribute for a dead wife.

Counter claim: Pilkington was not being ethnocentric. His reactions are understandable

for someone who has never been exposed to such conditions before

Response to the counter claim: Such view is problematic because it implies that the

British are clueless about the customs of a country that the colonized and exploited for

years.

Conclusion: Karl Pilkington and the series are ethnocentric. It was a manifestation of the

imperial past of India which looked at foreign culture as exotic and irrational
Ethnocentric British Media: A Remnant of its Imperial Past

Karl Pilkington is not the only ethnocentric in this show. The entire concept of An Idiot

Abroad is ethnocentric and condescending. The purpose of this documentary series as shown in

the opening of the episode is supposedly to make fun of Pilkington, characterized as an idiot as

he makes his way in the most interesting and “exotic” places in the world. Of course, it works

with the premise that it would be funny to show a white man getting perplexed and

inconvenienced as he gets to have various cultural experiences in different destinations. This

implies that the culture and customs of these societies are different to the point of absurdity.

For this essay, I have selected the second episode of the series’ first season where

Pilkington was sent to India to see the Taj Mahal. Here Pilkington spent his first day in Delhi

where he marveled at the ways of the city, giving out comments about elephants roaming the

streets, getting stressed with the traffic, and endlessly complaining about the poverty around him.

He was then ambushed to join a local festival called the Holi Day where he was covered

in colored powder while wearing an all-white Indian apparel. He rode a bus for eight hours to

attend what they described as the largest spiritual festival in the world called the Kumbh Mela at

the Haridwar, then proceeds to bathe at the Ganges. The last item in his itinerary was to visit

Agra to see the Taj Mahal. On his way there, he had a side trip to a cow sanctuary, where sacred

cows were kept and revered. He finally saw the Taj Mahal, had some pictures taken, and

witnessed the beauty of the structure from a boat.

As I have mentioned above, both Karl Pilkington and the documentary series itself was

ethnocentric. In this particular episode, the show exoticized India by emphasizing the aspects of

their culture and day to day lives which are most different from that of London—from toilets, to

modes of transportation, from festivals, to spiritual figures. During his first night in Delhi, a local
host brought Pilkington to an accommodation which has traditional Indian toilet. And he straight

up complained to the face of the host about how it was not possible for him to excrete feces in

that kind of toilet, explaining that, “I’ve come from London, less than twenty four hours ago I

was sat in one (toilet bowl), newspaper, not even twenty four hours ago… it’s not as easy as that

for me. My insides won’t allow it to happen.” Even earlier in the video, upon seeing men in

bicycles, carrying loads of goods around the city, he asked why are these men not using vans

instead.

In these scenarios, it was obvious that Pilkington was contrasting the city and the

domestic life in London and in Delhi. It is fascinating to watch a British man complaining about

the poverty and Delhi while being totally clueless about how his beloved London contributed to

such underdevelopment when they subjected the entirety of India under British colonization, and

exploited its people and its resources for the gains of their empire.

Secondly, Pilkington showed his ethnocentric perspective when he kept on commenting

about the absurdity of the Hindu spirituality and other cultural heritages of India, whilst

employing his Western rational standards and without any attempt to understand the profundity

of some practices that he saw as insane and peculiar. For instance, he had the chance to see the

Baba who has raised one arm for twelve years. He then talked about the meeting, marveling at

the craziness of such act because it rendered him practically unable to perform certain tasks.

His interpreter explained to him that such practice was his way to connect with his gods

at a different level. Still, Pilkington showed no indication that he understood such explanation

and proceeded making fun of the practice. Upon seeing another man who stretches and twists his

genitalia with a walking cane, Pilkington’s comment was that it was “unnecessary.” Once more,

there was no attempt to employ the Hindu perspective in his judgment and instead employed his
judgment based on his notion of functionality. For this British man, unless something has a

functional utility, then it is not worth doing.

He employed the same standards when he assessed the grandiosity of the Taj Mahal. For

him, the structure was too much a tribute for a dead wife. It was, according to him, something

that a guilty man would do. It was astounding to listen to him talk negatively about the structure

while he was in the presence of Indians who are obviously proud of this piece of their heritage.

Some people may say that Pilkington was not necessarily ethnocentric. His reactions

were just normal reactions of anyone exposed to something totally alien and unfamiliar. If that is

the case, then the education system of the United Kingdom should be flawed. It is odd for a

grown British man to be totally unfamiliar and insensitive to the history and culture of a country

that they have colonized for one century. Moreover, even if he was indeed totally clueless to

Indian and Hindu customs and tradition, it was still not an excuse for him to carelessly give

condescending and offensive comments on Indian culture.

As someone who hosts a documentary, cultural sensitivity should be practiced. Of

course, Pilkington was most likely just following a script, and some of his reactions might have

been exaggerated for the entertainment of his British viewers. Then it is all the more that the

British media should start assessing the kind of material that they distribute to the public. An

Idiot Abroad represents what is wrong with the way Western media represents the culture of

non-Western societies—that which employs Western perspective in lieu of having a relativist

view on cultures, which are fundamentally different from their own. Cultural relativism is

important in our pursuit of a society that is understanding and tolerant of diversity.

In conclusion, this paper argues that Karl Pilkington and the documentary series itself,

teems with ethnocentrism. It exoticizes the countries that they visit by juxtaposing it against the
living conditions in Britain and by showing how irrational some aspects of their culture and

spirituality are. In the case of India, a former British colony, one cannot excuse the apparent

ignorance shown in this particular episode.


References

Yee, R., Majumdar, K., Johnson, J., & Campbell, L. (Directors). (2010). An Idiot Abroad- India
[Motion Picture].

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