When cultural competence is cruel.

It is now common practice for organizations and businesses not only to declare their acceptance of diversity but also to proclaim their celebration of diversity. Employees may be asked to demonstrate how they value diversity in all forms. When someone says or does something insensitive or even intentionally hostile to a particular group, that employee is often ordered to receive training in cultural competence. And, just in case this scenario sounds too negative, employees and people in business often seek out cultural competence training in order to work more effectively with members of unfamiliar groups. Before traveling to China, for example, business people might study up on the social practices of Chinese people. And after a brief course and some exposure, they feel confident they are competent.

Proponents of cultural competence training assume that knowledge of another culture will result in workers who are sensitive, understanding, compassionate, and fully accepting of unfamiliar groups. This seems true intuitively and even anecdotally. I grew up in the southern United States, and I have personally known racists who soften toward other races once they get to know a few people from the once loathed group. Personal interaction does, indeed, breed greater acceptance and understanding. Sometimes.

In his book Cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiahgives a description of Victorian adventurer Richard Francis Burton who was truly a master of cultural competence, learning many languages and traveling extensively.

Richard Francis Burton

Burton understood a variety of cultures, languages, and religions enough to be accepted among natives in some instances. He was also a racist, who recorded his negative opinions about a variety of groups, including Africans, Indians, the Irish, French-Canadians, and the Pawnee Indians. Stating that Burton refutes the idea that “intimacy must breed amity,” Appiah notes, “You can be genuinely engaged with the ways of other societies without approving, let alone adopting, them.”

Exposed to cultural competence training, a hateful person will not become a nice person. CEOs of transnational corporations tend to travel extensively and meet a variety of people. They may become more open to different cultures, if they do not happen to be psychopaths (British journalist Jon Ronsen wrote a book claiming that about four percent of CEOs are psychopaths, double the rate for the population at large). Knowledge of other cultures does, however, help us to understand the motives, needs, and desires of other groups. In reality, humans have pretty much the same motives, needs, and desires across the globe even if we have found different ways to express them.

Florida Governor Rick Scott recently angered anthropologists when he said Florida did not need to be producing any more of them. He feels there won’t be enough jobs for anthropologists, so it is a waste of resources to give them degrees. Surely a few jobs will open up when the current anthropologists retire, so it would seem short-sighted to cancel entire programs, unless you really think anthropology is a waste of time regardless of job prospects.

Anthropologists and I both suspect that is what Rick Scott really meant, but I will leave it to anthropologists to explain the value of their work. I will only note that anthropologists do the groundwork that is needed to interact with other cultures in a competent manner. With that, anthropology does increase the opportunity for profit, which seems to be the only concern these days. Never mind the fact that understanding other cultures and groups enriches our lives and makes the world a slightly nicer place to live.

My question for Ron Paul: Autonomy and health care

Earlier this year at the Tea Party debate, Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if a person who chose not to buy health care should be left to die. Paul responded that this person’s friends and community could support him and pay his bills. Many in the audience seemed to be all right with letting this person die.

Conservatives and libertarians both express a strong commitment to autonomy, which they sometimes refer to as freedom. The new health care law is unacceptable they say, because it requires individuals to purchase insurance. People should not be required to purchase insurance, but they should be responsible for the consequences if they do not have insurance. Of course, this scenario is rarely a problem for anyone, and Blitzer asked the wrong question.

I would want to ask a different question. I want to know about the person who has worked all her life and been successful. After 20 or 30 years, she decides to expand her opportunities by starting her own business. Remarkably, her business is profitable in its first year. She can afford to buy insurance, but she cannot buy adequate coverage because she has preexisting conditions that every major insurance carrier refuses to cover. When she contracts a serious illness, she is driven into bankruptcy because of medical bills that are astronomical but quite common. Should our country let her die? Should she be permitted to slide into bankruptcy?

Autonomy is not quite as simple a question as it apparently seems to Republicans and libertarians. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin described two types of liberty: one is negative and the other is positive. For conservatives, it is imperative that individuals not be forced to do something they may not want to do and no government intrusion is acceptable. This is negative liberty. For liberals, such liberty is meaningless if one is unable to make the choices he or she desires, which is positive liberty.

Describing the liberal view of positive liberty, Berlin says,

“It is true that to offer political rights, or safeguards, against intervention by the state, to men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition; they need medical help or education before they can understand, or make use of, an increase in their freedom. ”

While conservatives will not force someone to purchase insurance, liberals want to ensure that everyone has the option to have health care. Everyone who needs health care and cannot obtain it becomes a liberal in an instant.

The number of uninsured in the United States is said to be around 50 million, but many more than that have inadequate insurance. Unfortunately, most people do not realize they are underinsured until it is too late. Many people only learn that their treatment will not be covered by insurance after they have received the treatment. What kind of autonomy is this? What is the value of liberty if it leaves one with no options to avoid bankruptcy, untreated illness, and death? Is this really what we want to be?

I paid you back, so what’s the problem?

One of the most common chants at Occupy Wall Street protests is, “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.” Critics of OWS (Erin Burnett of CNN, for example) have been quick to point out that the banks paid back the bailout money they received, and they expect we will find this to make things all right again.
Why doesn’t it make things all right? To me, it is kind of like having a brother in law who is also a gambling addict. When he can’t cover his bets, he comes looking for a loan to cover him just for a few days, you know. You give him the money, because otherwise he will destroy your entire family, and you sister and her children may end up homeless or living with you. To avoid absolute disaster, you cover his bets knowing it is no long-term solution to the problem. You hope he will get help. You hope he will change, but you know he won’t change until his own world collapses or he goes to jail, but you still feel trapped.
So, you pay, he puts it all down in a big bet and makes a huge winning. He pays you back and gives you a little extra for the trouble. He even suggests that you invest a little of the extra in some risky bets of your own. After all, you won’t really be losing anything. In the meantime, he continues to take even greater risks on long-shot bets. You continue to live frugally in order to protect the family when the next crisis comes, but you are really starting to get fed up.
This is the scenario we have, except our situation is worse. Taxpayers covered the bets for the banks, but taxpayers were not kept afloat. Many people lost their jobs, and even more lost their homes. The global economy was severely damaged, but the people who caused the damage did nothing to repair it. They repaired their own bank accounts but made no reparations to the rest of the people who were affected. People who have expressed their outrage at this injustice have been beaten, pepper sprayed, and put in jail. When will the people who caused this crisis be held accountable?

We are flawed. Redemption is possible.

This week a proposal to discredit the Occupy Wall Street movement was leaked to the public. The consulting firm (Clark, Lytle, Geduldig, and Cranford) would charge the American Bankers Association $850,000 to develop a campaign to destroy OWS. Included in this service is a search of OWS “leader’s” civil and criminal histories, including bankruptcies, tax liens, judgments, litigation history, and “other associations.”

Many people support the OWS movement because they have lost their homes, are bankrupt, have lost their jobs, and face a multitude of financial and social problems. Discovering that they have such problems should not take much work. All one has to do, really, is read the heart-breaking stories on We Are The 99 Percent. We are all leaders of this movement, and I hope we will continue to embrace the imperfect, the vulnerable, and the tarnished.

Everyone has problems, and everyone has a past, and everyone is human. As long as we are human, dignity is possible. As long as we are free our voice matters. I read a column today expressing sadness for Lt. John Pike, who pepper-sprayed students at UC-Davis. Indeed, he is a human being, and anyone one of us may have acted the same way in his circumstances. If he can speak as a human, flawed and vulnerable, I feel sure he will be forgiven and embraced. It may take him years to be able to face what has happened to him and express it.

Oddly enough, the CLGC proposal also paid a compliment of sorts to the OWS protesters. It says, “It may be easy to dismiss OWS as a ragtag group of protesters, but they have demonstrated that they should be treated more like an organized competitor who is very nimble and capable of working the media, coordinating third party support and engaging office holders to do their bidding.” They are certain that OWS is much like the ABA, a centralized and powerful organization looking out for its own interests. They don’t imagine that citizens may be motivated by a sense of justice and fairness. In their amoral world, they cannot imagine people who operate within a moral framework.

Also in the proposal, they mention that both the Tea Party and OWS supporters are angered by the bailouts of banks and the irresponsible behavior of the financial industry. It says, “This combination has the potential to be explosive later in the year when media reports cover the next round of bonuses and contrast it with stories of millions of Americans making do with less this holiday season.” No suggestion, of course, that executives should perhaps hold back on bonuses. Rather, they will simply find ways to manage public anger over their own greed, rather than curbing their greed the least little bit.

I said any human is worthy of dignity and respect and that redemption is always possible. It is clear that the financial industry is nowhere near redemption. They are not even near recognition that their own behavior is immoral and intolerable. They do not have a sense of shame. It is our job to show them that we have a sense of justice and a sense of honor. We must let them know we find their behavior shameful.

The High Cost of Occupation: The High Cost of Injustice

According to various reports, the Occupy Wall Street movement has cost cities upward of $10 million. As the protesters are angry at the diversion of public funds away from public services (I know people say no one knows what they want, but they are really quite clear about what they want), it might seem that this wasteful spending is only making things worse. The more cities spend on police, the less they can spend on libraries, public parks, infrastructure, and all the other things that make society work. We might ask whether military ordnance such as Tampa Police Department’s tank (no, armored rescue vehicle) is a good use of money, but policing protests takes a few pennies either way.

Somehow, it seems cities always have enough money to deploy an army to suppress a non-violent protest but not enough money for basic services. The cash tin for security is bottomless. But surely, even those in power would rather not have to spend all this money on security if it can be avoided. No one wants to have to live with barricades everywhere. And no one wants to live with the inconvenience of constant protests.

And that is the point. Protests are intended to create a situation that everyone would rather avoid. As Martin Luther King put it, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” This is what this movement, and any other political movement, seeks to accomplish. It is obvious that $10 million is not enough to create a crisis for the current established order.

When the current order is threatened, it will of course blame the dissenters for a new sense of crisis and chaos. This blame is misplaced. It is a breakdown of order that provokes civil disobedience in the first place. Mass movements are made up of people who want a just and civil society. As John Rawls, another great American philosopher, said, “If legitimate civil disobedience seems to threaten civil peace, the responsibility falls not so much on those who protest as upon those whose abuse of authority and power justifies such opposition.”

Which brings us to the final point. The purpose of protests is to make the cost, financial and otherwise, of injustice greater than the price of justice.

Tea Party Fights Corporate Abuse

The East India Company, chartered in 1600, was the first corporation in the modern sense. Members would invest capital, management would conduct the operations, and investors would receive repayment in proportion to their investments. For the first time, investors and mangers were separate persons. At this time, it was unclear who would be responsible for wrongs committed by the corporation.

As this and similar ventures developed, investors were increasingly separated from the actions of the corporations, and limited liability (investors could only lose the amount they invested in the corporation) became the norm by the end of the nineteenth century. This also made corporate immortality possible as corporations could outlive their owners.

The British East India Company (BEIC) rapidly gained economic power and exerted global influence. It formed the largest standing army in the world at the time, gained control of India and the surrounding islands, controlled the opium trade in China, and managed slave trading out of Madagascar. One-third of British parliament members held stock in BEIC, 10 percent of British tax revenues came from tax on BEIC tea, and the King depended on loans from the company. In exchange for these benefits to the British government, BEIC was granted many favors, including monopoly rights.

The company conscripted thousands of British for forced labor in Jamestown, a colony set up in America by BEIC. Eighty percent of these laborers died before completing their seven-year tenure. Because of its rapid expansion and competition from small colonial business, though, BEIC was almost bankrupt. It was able to overcome this setback with more favors from the British government, which expanded its monopoly and led to the 1773 Tea Act, lifting tariffs on tea and enabling BEIC to flood the market with cheap tea and destroy its competition.

This was the catalyst for the Boston Tea Party. During the Boston Tea Party, protestors dumped more than 90,000 pounds of tea into the harbor, which was then closed for more than a year and a half. This led to the battles of Lexington and Concord; as a result, America’s founders vowed to protect the United States from corporate power and corruption.

The Boston Tea Party is an enduring symbol of America’s popular resistance to the collusion of corporations and government against the interests of the people.

Information for this blog came from:

1. Christopher D. Stone, Where the Law Ends: The Social Control of Corporate Behavior (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

2. Shelley K. White, “Corporations, Public Health, and the Historical Landscape that Defines Our Challenge,” in The Bottom Line or Public Health: Tactics Corporations Use to Influence Health and Health Policy, and What We Can Do to Counter Them, ed. William H. Wiist (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).