The Interculturalist & the Culture War

The result of last night’s election has unleashed a river of unpleasant feelings. Revulsion. Indignation. Fear. Sorrow. The dead weight of an anvil falling from the ceiling. A sense that a vortex is opening up in the floor.

I could go on and on with my metaphors. But instead, let me explain.

It’s hard not to feel diminished as a woman when I have heard our president-elect talk about how great it is to be able to sexually assault us as a perk of his financial power. And heard him say that he couldn’t possibly have assaulted some among us because we weren’t worthy of it. And heard him excuse his poor performance and lack of preparation by alleging that the females around him must have been having their periods.

Apparently, I have been sheltered because I’ve known very few men of his ilk. My husband certainly doesn’t talk like this, nor do my dad, my brother, or my friends’ spouses. I had thought the question of women’s rights had already been decided; sure, there were a few cavemen left, but I had assumed that they were the exception and not the rule.

Today, I see more clearly.

It’s hard not to feel uneasy for my multiracial husband when the very kinds of old white men that Donald attracted are the same ones that have screamed at him to go back to his country. (This IS his country. Like Tammy Duckworth, his American ancestors predate the Revolutionary War). We didn’t encounter any hostility when we first got together 16 years ago, and have never had any doubts about our safety or ability to belong as a mixed family.

Today, this is thrown into question

It’s hard not to be upset for my Latino and Hispanic friends and colleagues when I heard Donald call Mexicans criminals and rapists, and suggest that those with these specific heritages were unfit for service on the bench. Growing up in a diverse generation, I always thought that people more or less knew that you could be an American and also celebrate your heritage. Isn’t it obvious?

It’s hard not to be afraid for my black friends and colleagues when Donald received a ringing endorsement from the KKK – which then took credit for his victory. I thought that while some people continued to deny the existence of racism, or had a hard time wrapping their heads around implicit bias and structural racism, that we had collectively recognized that racism itself was wrong. That we saw our black neighbors as fully human, even if we had a long way to go in achieving justice.

It’s hard not to be worried for my Muslim and Jewish friends and colleagues when I have seen both used as scapegoats and dog whistles throughout the campaign. I had thought that although people were anxious about terrorism, they knew that the vast majority of American Muslims were not a threat. I thought that like me, everyone had learned about the Holocaust and recognized how dangerous it is to use anti-Semitic language, or to single out any group in this way. I had thought that one of the inviolable rights in our society was freedom of religion – and that people respected this.

It’s hard not to be anxious for my LGBTQ friends and colleagues. I knew that people didn’t like social change, especially if it conflicted with their religious views. Still, after the Supreme Court ruling and the groundswell of social support for civil rights, I assumed that their futures were secure.

Today, I see an uglier truth.

It’s hard not to feel lost and severed from my childhood religion when Christians voted for a politics of divisiveness and hate in the name of preserving their values. I hadn’t been so naïve as to have ignored the link between evangelicals and this kind of politics in the past, but I had held out hope that at some point, members of my faith would opt for an inclusive, supportive, “love they neighbor as thyself” interpretation. That people would find it possible to live simply, that others may simply live.

Today, this seems more remote than ever.

It’s hard not to be unnerved when I saw Donald supporters suggest lynching journalists –  or when I heard him call for media outlets to be shut down after criticizing him. As a writer, I have always known that there was a risk of upsetting people, but I had comforted myself with the knowledge that writers aren’t targeted with violence in our country. I also had assumed that politicians knew that they had to roll with the punches and accept media as a fact of open, democratic life.

It’s hard not to feel hopeless when the very idea of facts (as something separate from opinion or pie-in-the-sky wishing) has seemed to go the way of the dinosaurs (which, by the way, did exist). I feel like I’m living in upside down land where the very concepts of critical thinking, rational discourse, civility, and basic human decency have been thrown out with the bathwater.

It’s very hard not to feel discouraged when this election was apparently a referendum on who I am as a woman, who my friends and family are as people with diverse backgrounds, who I am as an intellectual and writer, and most of all, who I am as an intercultural professional. It’s hard to know what to make of a country that heard all of the hate coming from Donald’s campaign and supporters, and thought, “yeah, let’s go with that!”

And Also . . .

It’s not just that my side lost the electoral college vote. I’m worried about Donald’s victory unleashing something even uglier in our country. If his supporters sucker punched and stomped on and spit on and nearly strangled people at rallies who were different from them or dared to disagree with them, then how will they behave after this victory?

Moreover, as someone who has studied societies that have broken down and ended up with a strong man, I’m apprehensive that this won’t end well. You can’t spend the first part of your career studying Russia, Poland, Korea, and other places that had dictators, then hear Donald talk about his admiration for such rulers, and come away thinking, “Ah, well, I bet everything will be fine.”

Very simply, to me the result is devastating.

The Road Ahead

Our country is in the midst of a culture war, but as painful and personal as it feels tonight, we are not the only ones. Politicians around the world are calling into question not just our economic system, but the very idea that we should or can live and work together across cultural differences.

As intercultural researchers and practitioners, we face a long road ahead. We will need to regroup, reassess, and reaffirm our commitment to the pluralistic values that say the American Dream is big enough for everyone, and that the world is big enough for everyone. Indeed, if there is any takeaway from the election, it is that our work in the intercultural field has never been so important.

Paraphrasing one of my colleagues, today we may wallow in the bitterness of an outcome that is contrary to our mission and our spirit, but tomorrow we must wiggle into action with renewed courage and creativity.

I’ll meet you there.




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