Opinion: Rethinking Communication by Carlos E. Cortes

Jul 30, 2022

On October 19, 2017, I gave the keynote address at the SIETAR USA national conference in San Diego.  I took that opportunity to propose three strategies for modernizing interculturalism.   

  • *** First, revisit interculturalism’s basic principles, while also liberating ourselves from rigid adherence to past thinking that can straitjacket innovation.
  • *** Second, become less disagreement-averse, so that we can better engage conflicting views about applying interculturalist ideas to the messiness of the real world.
  • *** Third, stride more boldly out of interculturalism’s academic, training, and consulting safe spaces and become more active in the turbulent public arena of clashing ideas. 

Greek historian Heroclitus once counseled: “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  Times have changed in the five years since my talk, as have the challenges facing interculturalists. 

Please indulge me as I play my 88-year-old age card.  Drawing in part upon my recent experiences, I’m doubling down on my three previous recommendations.  But I also want to focus more intently on one interculturalist imperative: communication.  The desperate need for robust, respectful-but-critical, speak-and-listen discussions of central issues of contemporary life.  Unfortunately, each day provides examples of how such communication has broken down.

  • ***The internet, once proclaimed as a liberator of communication, has become a homeland for screaming, digital mobs, and mind-constricting ideological silos.
  • ***The rise of governmental authoritarianism has led to book banning, the imposition of orthodoxies, and the removal of “divisive” topics from curricula, especially diversity-related themes. 
  • ***Some government entities are imposing restrictions on diversity training, sometimes explicitly prohibiting such topics as privilege and cultural competence.

The last five years have provided me with a series of highly-personal experiential perspectives on current communication complexities.

     ***In 2018 I became an inaugural fellow of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.  From that has come my book-in-progress -- “Speech vs. Diversity, Diversity vs. Speech” –- an examination of the turbulent half-century historical clash between these two vital imperatives.

***In 2020 I became the inaugural co-director of the University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine’s Health Equity, Social Justice, and Anti-Racism curriculum.  One of my ongoing ventures is nudging and supporting often-reluctant faculty and students at health care institutions to engage more vigorously in delicate health equity conversations despite fears of being called out for their verbal “errors.”  

***In 2021 I became a member of the inaugural Content Moderation Advisory Board for Teachers Pay Teachers, the world’s largest online platform for educational materials.  This has meant addressing the complex challenge of developing clear, consistently-applicable community guidelines for removing inappropriate materials from the platform without inadvertently jeopardizing appropriate content.

These and other recent experiences have provided insights into the complexities of our changing communication environment.  Consider diversity training.  Unfortunately, much training has moved away from the encouragement of risk-taking conversations about critical issues and instead has lurched into toxic efforts to sanitize speech.  This shift in emphasis has encouraged verbal mistake avoidance rather than vigorous engagement with ideas.

Interculturalists need to try to help the diversity movement reverse this counter-productive course.  Less emphasis on calling people out for errors.  More emphasis on calling people in for important conversations.   

Let’s take the example of microaggressions.  A decade ago in his smart, incisive book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Derald Wing Sue provided a useful list of microaggressions, a list we should contemplate but not apply in knee-jerk fashion.  Unfortunately, some of Sue’s disciples have transformed his discussion-provoking list into a rigid, authoritarian, sometimes punitive set of do’s and don’t’s.

Take the first statement on Sue’s list: asking someone “Where are you from?”  It’s a question I continuously ask.  So why is it on Sue’s microaggression list? 

Because some people refuse to accept the response and add, “But where are you really from?”  That degrading follow-up question implies that the respondent has been hiding her true identity.  But the original question –- “Where are you from?” –- remains a constructive bridge to discovering interpersonal connections with other human beings.

       Yet instead of challenging the use of “where are you really from?,” some microaggression zealots have advocated that you should never ask anyone where they’re from.  Throw out the bathwater.  And while we’re at it, let’s toss out the baby, too. 

This misguided approach breeds interpersonal suspicion, stigmatizes human discovery, and invites people to operate from a “gotcha” premise.  It magnifies personal grievance and encourages personal fragility.  And it contributes to a mistake-avoidance atmosphere that undermines serious discussions of important diversity issues.

We desperately need to pursue what Tish Harrison Warren has called the “quiet, daily practices that rebuild social trust.”  In that quest, asking people where they are from should be an interpersonal and organizational priority.  Just don’t ask people where they’re really from.

          Critical self-reflection on the use –- and abuse –- of such diversity concepts is precisely the kind of internal conversation that interculturalists and other diversity advocates need.  Privilege, implicit bias, intergenerational trauma, trigger warnings, cultural appropriation.  All important concepts.  All also subject to misuse in ways that undermine robust discussions of equity, inclusivity, and social justice.  All requiring continuous critical reexamination.

Interculturalist conversations about communication should simultaneously address two fundamental questions:

***How can we foster robust, risk-taking conversations about complex and challenging diversity-related issues?

***How can we reduce the chilling effects of language sanitizing, rampant calling out, and “gotcha-ism,” which undermine those very conversations?

Not that interculturalists can “solve” the problem of communication.  As the irascible but insightful journalist H. L. Mencken once wrote: "There is always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong." 

However, through courageous self-reflection, unflinching conversations, and determined forays into the public square, interculturalists have an opportunity to provide unique and innovative insights into addressing our current communication malaise.

Carlos E. Cortés
Edward A. Dickson Emeritus
Professor of History
University of California, Riverside
[email protected]
June 2022