Communication? That Was My Major!
Communication seems so natural if unexamined. One uses the best words one can find to express what one is feeling. Of course, virtually everybody knows that this is a simplification at best: misunderstanding, confusion, limits of vocabulary, preconception and all sorts of other barriers are an everyday occurrence. What is not so clear is the remarkable degree to which culture (as well as polity, economy and gender) impact communication, negatively if interlocutors do not pay sufficient attention. Everything from eye contact to hand gestures to conversational pace and perception of interruption varies according to cultural distinctions (Blauner 2004, 144-146). Because of this fact, attention to such variation is vital for any discussion group, especially one occurring within multicultural societies.
The first, and relatively surmountable, difficulty with intercultural communication is the semantic difficulty. Language is fundamentally arbitrary: There is no objective problem with calling a dog “a cat”. What different individuals mean by the same term can be quite distinct. One of the ways that these terms become variegated is across cultural lines. For example: In my experience, what radicals or many black commentators mean by the word “racism” are any forms or practices, especially institutional ones, that have the effect of privileging or benefitting one group or another, whereas most liberals, conservatives or white commentators typically believe it means concrete prejudice (the classic “racist effect v. intent” debate; incidentally, I am not alone in this position: Bob Blauner describes precisely this phenomenon in “Talking Past Each Other” and Tim Wise does as well in “White Like Me”.1) In a discussion about racism in a multicultural classroom, a whole conversation could be sidetracked by whether or not a practice should be called “racism” rather than discussing the content of the practice. This is relatively surmountable if the atmosphere in the discussion is at all informative and if the instructor is sufficiently attentive to the distinction between semantic and substantive argument. Obviously there may be difficulties if literally different languages are being employed, but those are relatively trivial cases and can be surmounted by a facilitator with tact and grace.
Next, distinct cultures provide differences of substance in belief and opinion. For example, even two very closely aligned individuals (i.e. a black or Aboriginal feminist and a white feminist) may end up having drastically different tactical judgments and indeed understandings about the nature of oppression owing to distinct cultural backgrounds (Lake 2001, 7).
This may also manifest itself as silence. For example, Native American interlocutors may be hesitant to describe their unique cultural practices because of fear of being dismissed as primitive or silly (Robinson and James 2003, 81). Unfortunately, silence cannot be enumerated or responded to.
Further, the very way that people discuss will be altered by culture. A Greek participant in a forum may view impassioned argument as a sign of respect or flattery, while a Asian participant might view this as problematic and prefer to change the subject (Bucher 2004, 155). People from different cultures will vary in the way they perceive issues to be resolved or discussed.
And the very perception of the existence and nature of institutions and authorities will alter across cultural, political, etc. lines. Someone from an activist culture or childhood will be more likely to view authority as an adversary or at best something to be tolerated than someone raised in a military environment.
In each of the above cases, various prejudices and preconceptions interfere with the resolution of the barrier. Someone with sufficient prejudice may refuse to alter one's terminology or explain themselves, or respond with a kneejerk to a position that is viewed as offensive without questioning if there is simply a terminological quibble at stake. The fear of prejudice may cause silence, and challenging of substantive differences may be viewed as an attack upon one's person. Misunderstanding of anothers' relationship or understanding of institutions or authority figures and their perception of the proper way to discuss may artificially abort discussion or cause unnecessary conflict.
As I argued in a discussion group [and on this blog], our culture is one wherein serious discussion with attention to logic and relentless questioning of stated positions, in other words with the prerequisite for any authentic comparison of ideas, is abandoned in a majority of cases by a metaphorical rush to the state, to repressive mechanisms that allow one to win. The solution that most multicultural advocates end up proposing as an alternative is a strategy often described as “dialogue versus debate”: Everyone has an opinion; ergo, one should treat each opinion as inviolable, and discussion is largely based on opinions proferred in some kind of relevant order. I view this as people retreating into hermetic containers only sticking their head out to look for crossfire. This is superior to angry and acrid argument, but that is a “lesser of two evils” position. The alternative? Respectful and attentive debate, with no disruptive interruptions, with ideas being proposed, discussed, compared and rebutted, with warrants and evidence insofar as is available and people being asked to provide reasons for conclusions and premises. This strategy has any number of subsets, but it resolves the above difficulties by providing a mechanism that is only as limited as the available logic and evidence. The cause of truth and learning is served by such comparison because even ideas brought up that end up being rejected served a purpose in causing thought and, if the logic was sufficiently rigorous, being eliminated thus eliminating an unsatisfactory idea and thus establishing more worthwhile discussions.
It may be worthwhile to notice the various roles that people play in such a well-regulated discussion. The first is the Debater. The Debater is actually adopting a position, whether she believe its or not, for a prolonged period of time, arguing from that perspective and defending it from rebuttals. The Debater can be affirmative and/or negative: that is, they may argue to defend a particular concrete position or proposal, argue to undermine another such position or proposal, or do both. The Debater is typically the centerpiece of this strategy: whatever the agreed upon topic being discussed in a group is, she provides the meat. Everyone in a group may be a Debater, but this is unlikely. To keep track of the distinct positions and rebuttals offered by seven other speakers is a task likely only on an Internet forum and even then with substantial investment of time. Typically, the people with established or passionate opinions and experience in the area in question will be these voices.
But they are not the only possible role, and indeed the best conversations will include more. Another vital role that should be played, at the very least by the facilitator or group leader, is the Devil's Advocate. This classic position is to argue for a moment from a different perspective or with different reasoning than one would normally agree with or utilize, so as to make sure that an obvious position is heard and that those arguing a different position have taken it into account. There are a few caveats. The devil's advocate should announce that they are function as a devil's advocate. They should do so sparingly, as the risk of the Devil's Advocate is that unimportant, irrelevant or unenlightening positions may be advocated without an appropriate check. And, while this is difficult to detect, some may use the pretense of being a Devil's Advocate as a way to express what they actually believe or perhaps a slightly more extreme variant of what they believe. Unfortunately, this has the risk of devolving into immature discussions or simple controversy or offensive statements for their own sakes (what in Internet parlance would be called “trolling”). When this is occurring, it may be because the forum is not sufficiently open to dissident or alternative viewpoints.
Two more roles individuals play are the Commentator and the Questioner, very closely related. During the course of discussions, topics will come up that some may not have extensive argumentation to provide for but that do beg questions or invite comments. These participation types should be encouraged almost without limit as they are very brief, vary the pace of the discussion, and can be quite insightful and valuable. However, if the questions or comments are excessively rhetorical or confrontational, they should be aborted.
And, of course, no one should be afraid to provide their own personal opinions, experiences, outlooks and philosophies, to whatever degree and in whatever depth they wish to. If they are personal experiences, they should not be denied, though it is fair for someone to question the relevance of the experience (respectfully), and if someone flags that they wish to not have an opinion challenged, it should be only responded to generally or used as a springboard rather than an argument. My model does not exclude opinions being presented and then not challenged or at least not challenged directly. Another thing to note is that value claims can not be demonstrated to be “wrong” per se, and since it is quite likely that people will come to the table with rather distinct value sets and estimations of the worth of various entities, the majority of the time if the remaining debate is upon distinct values the debate should be jogged along, as those debates are not likely to end in resolution.
The facilitator or discussion leader's job in such a system is complex. If the debate and discussion does not represent a sufficient cross-section of viewpoints, she should broaden the debate and discuss new viewpoints, hopefully proposing readings. She must make sure that there are sufficient pauses, prompts and opportunities to allow everyone a sufficient chance to chip in, especially if the grade in a discussion section is linked to participation. Part of this includes enforcing a reasonable limit on discussion time (most of the time this shouldn't be necessary, but if it becomes a problem comment “tickets” can be used, or perhaps a timer or hourglass circulated around the class), including cutting off someone who has spoken for some time or who is rambling. This may mean stopping the thought process of someone who thinks vocally, but unfortunately time is limited; however, if possible, the person should be allowed to continue if it makes sufficient sense. In line with this, the facilitator should be prepared to allow substantial backtracking to make sure people who had a thought can bring it up. When an argument is developing in ways not likely to be productive or conducive, they should be prepared to gently shove the discussion a different direction. If factual difficulties are encountered, the ideal situation would be for the facilitator or the relevant participants to do some research and circulate it through group e-mail. And the pace of argumentation and discussion must be controlled.
We have an obligation to tolerance. But we also have an obligation to truth. The way to resolve these values is to not simply incorporate and tolerate more viewpoints, not to simply look for and applaud what is good, but also to identify and discuss what is bad, to test and compare viewpoints. It is the only way to truly respect and tolerate others, to move past simple multicultural tolerance to polycultural interaction and exchange.
1. Blauner, Bob. “Talking Past Each Other.”