Last year, I wrote two pieces in response to the election. Now, as we approach 2018, it seems like a good time to check in. So, what is the U.S. like today? And what do I think of intercultural work now?
America, the tired.
Most people in my circles are deeply, existentially fatigued. Every day brings outrage for those who value decency, civil rights, social justice, health care, climate change, the environment, education, professionalism, truth . . . and the list goes on. Even when we unplug from social media, it’s hard to sustain the illusion of normalcy. We’ll go out for a coffee and suddenly hear that our president is provoking North Korea into a nuclear showdown, shrinking national parks, or issuing another travel ban. And it’s not only the news whiplash, but the sifting of the factual wheat from the chaff of hysteria, hoax, and untruth that wears us down. For a thinking person, it is exhausting.
America, the mean.
This is not our finest moral hour. We have a president who suggested that Nazis and those who protest them are two sides of the same coin, endorsed a candidate who is accused of sexually harassing minors, and has repeatedly mocked women, veterans, minorities, and basically anyone that disagrees with him.
This corrosive atmosphere is having an effect. One of my teacher friends shared that some of her students use the president’s name to taunt others. She worries about the lasting impact on them of absorbing messages from a narcissist who delights in tearing people down. I worry about the toll on all of us of breathing in these toxic fumes. For example, PBS and Fox News both reported a spike in hate crimes since last November.
America, the divided.
The majority is deeply, consistently dissatisfied – but partisan support remains strong. According to Gallup, the president’s approval rating last week was 35%; only 7% of Democrats approve of him, but 78-83% of Republicans do. But the chasms go even deeper. As Pew Research notes, “divisions within the Republican and Democratic coalitions may be as important a factor in American politics as the divisions between them.” In this atmosphere, it can be hard to talk to anyone without tripping over a political wire. Little wonder that 58% of us said we were dreading political conversation over Thanksgiving!
America, the engaged.
Yet I’ve also seen a hunger to connect across seemingly entrenched, perilous divides. I joined my city’s diversity dialogue program this year, first as a participant and then as a co-facilitator. I found that when people moved past arguing and persuading and started sharing and listening, understanding blossomed. We saw that none of us really fit the stereotypes of liberals, conservatives, etc. And by attaching perspectives to real-life faces, they became harder to dismiss or dehumanize. Ideally, having experienced this dynamic in a closed setting, we can take our practice into the community. It may just be a beginning, but that’s where it starts.
I’ve also seen a deeper commitment to look our status quo in the eye and work together to make it better – even by white Christian seniors, the group many progressives blame for the election outcome. In my direct experience, at least some in this demographic do care and back their words with actions, like welcoming refugees at the airport, working as English tutors for immigrants, hosting candlelight vigils for Dreamers, and calling senators nonstop on social justice issues. I don’t mean to imply that it’s “enough,” or to naively ignore the broader political reality, but I also have to say that working side by side with these folks has been a salve for my heart. And it’s reminded me yet again that I, too, make assumptions, have biases, and can be pleasantly surprised to meet people who don’t fit snuggly in the stereotypical mold.
Finally, I have seen that, despite the macro level doom and gloom, it is possible to create an oasis on the micro level. For example, in my weekly ESL/American culture class, our students come together from Columbia, Mexico, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Serbia, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Sudan, Ethiopia, France, and elsewhere. Some wear tank tops and some wear hijabs, some plan to stay forever and some are here on holiday, but they all have something in common: they want to learn and be part of a community. By partnering with my co-instructor, designing lessons, and being patiently present, I can carve out a retreat where positive engagement and meaningful connection across differences is possible. In the midst of so much hostility and angst, that small difference means so much – at least to me, and I hope for them, too.
The years ahead
A lot of what we have seen this year is ugly, unproductive, bewildering, scary, dumb, and tiring. It is an understatement to say that this is a turbulent time in American life, and the way we work through this period will affect our society for generations. The one silver lining is that this administration’s politics in a new key* has awoken individuals, communities, and organizations to the fact that they have cultural problems. What’s more, in the face of major controversies and public relations debacles, the risk/reward calculus for many has changed. Rather than bury issues under the rug and hope they don’t come back to bite them, people and institutions increasingly feel a sense of urgency about learning to ride the waves of culture**.
That’s why, as I said last year, intercultural professionals need to be here now. And I’m going to keep at it – especially if it involves partnering with people who see things differently from me (and even if I need to take a break from time to time). After all, that’s what we trained for. Will you join me?
*Politics in the new key is a phrase used by Carl E. Schorske in his book Fin de Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture. ** Riding the Waves of Culture is the title of a book by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner.