OPINION: 'Interculturalism & Speech' - Carlos Cortes

april 2019 carlos cortes opinion Apr 15, 2019

“That’s against free speech.”

Diversity advocates often face this accusation –- explicitly or implicitly -- when they propose ideas for limiting speech that might be deemed offensive or harmful, including hate speech.  Fortunately there is a way to counter this accusation.  

Don’t take the bait.  Reject the premise.  It’s false.  Instead clarify that speech is not really “free.” 

In practice, totally free speech does not exist in the United States.  Rather our country has created an ever-changing system that balances robust legally-permitted (not “free”) speech with selective legally-restricted speech.  So when diversity advocates challenge certain kinds of speech, they are participating in the two-century U.S. historical process of trying to establish selected limits, sometimes legal limits, on speech. 

For the past year, as a fellow of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, I have been examining this process.  My research project has focused on the last fifty years of the diversity movement, particularly the speech-related issues it has raised.  On the basis of that research, I have concluded that the diversity movement consists of four main strands: interculturalism; equity-and-inclusionism; critical theory; and managerialism.

This is not the place to unpack all four of these strands.  I do so in my article, “Beyond Free Speech: Fostering Civic Engagement at the Intersection of Diversity and Expression,” which I would be happy to send you (write me at [email protected]).  Here I want to briefly compare the approaches to speech prevalent within two of these strands: interculturalism; and equity-and-inclusionism.  

Interculturalists have long sought to help people become more responsive to cultural otherness.  This includes recognizing the importance of both language and non-verbal communication.  For the most part interculturalists have emphasized voluntary individual and organizational actions to modify language (including body language) in order to better communicate across cultures, both internationally and intranationally.  

One interculturalist premise is that cross-cultural knowledge, understanding, and skills should improve personal interactions and contribute to inclusive environments.  If people improve in these three intercultural areas, they will modify their language and adapt their communication styles to build stronger relationships.  

But wait a minute!  Isn’t such speech adaptation to otherness a form of self-censorship?  Maybe so, particularly in today’s polarized environment.  But growing up in the Midwest in the 1940’s, I learned that such self-restraint (today sometimes known as self-editing) was merely common courtesy.  Interculturalism adds another dimension through the recognition that different cultural traditions have spawned varying ways of expressing courtesy and respect.

Alongside interculturalism has developed equity-oriented inclusionism, rooted historically in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  To such inclusionists, progress toward equitable diversity requires more than knowledge and sensitivity.  

They ask other questions.  What inequities are built into language use?  In what respects can language undermine equity and inclusivity?  While drawing on interculturalist principles (sometimes without realizing it), inclusionsts are more likely to address such issues as intergroup prejudice, power differentials, structural inequalities, and privilege-based individual and group advantages.  

Interculturalists and inclusionists often diverge in their approaches to addressing speech.  Interculturalists tend to emphasize voluntary speech restraint through greater understanding and empathy.  Inclusionists tend to be more willing to support organizational or institutional restraints on what they view as harmful speech.

Take one area of diversity-speech tensions: the idea of language correctness.  Because group labels continuously evolve, it is often difficult to determine what is the “correct” group term, particularly when group members disagree on their preferences (for example, Hispanic, Latino, or Latinx).  Now we also recognize increasing variations of individually-preferred gender pronouns.  In these constantly-changing circumstances, “mistakes” are inevitable, even by people of goodwill.  

For the most part, diversity advocates have tended to cut people considerable speech slack concerning language changes and new terminology.  However, in contrast to voluntarism-oriented interculturalists, some inclusionists support speech prohibitions, even sanctions for language deemed oppressive.  At least one major U.S. university has been considering punishments for people who use the wrong gender pronouns.

I don’t want to convey the false impression that these two diversity strands stand in total opposition to each other.  Indeed, many diversity practitioners operate within both strands.  Yet there is an inherent tension between an emphasis on voluntarism and the establishment of rules, restrictions, and sanctions.  

I believe in the importance of both supporting robust speech and pursuing greater equity and inclusivity.  To work simultaneously toward these two critical imperatives, interculturalists need to continuously and publicly wrestle with two fundamental but perplexing questions:

***In order to foster greater equity, inclusion, and intercultural understanding, how should we address the issue of modifying or limiting speech?

***In order to foster robust speech, in what respects should personal and group discomfort, offense, and maybe even pain be viewed as inevitable aspects of personal, institutional, and organizational life?

Let the conversations flourish!

Carlos E. Cortés, Professor Emeritus of History
University of California, Riverside 
[email protected]