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.

Some basic ideas regarding knowledge

This is information for students and may be less than entertaining, provocative or illuminating for others. The following are some ideas related to knowledge and how philosophers regard knowledge:

Realism–This is a belief that there is a “real world” outside of our minds that has features corresponding to certain facts that are not dependent on our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices.

Anti-Realism–While it may seem that this would claim there is no such world as described by the realist, the anti-realist claims that whatever world exists outside of our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices, whether it exists or not, cannot be known.

Verificationism–Some feel that we should attempt to improve our knowledge by verifying what is true and what is not true. Verificationism typically involves testing our knowledge against our experience through observation, mathematical analysis, or, in some cases, our emotional responses to things (this last one is quite controversial and will be discussed later if I get around to it). While the attempt to verify knowledge seems an attempt to discover the “real world,” one may claim that any form of verificationism is a form of anti-realism, given that verification relies on our perceptions, observations, language, and beliefs to be practiced.

Relativism–Relativists believe that our beliefs and knowledge claims are formed by our individual or cultural experiences and that there is no unifying conception of reality shared by all humans. In its crudest form, relativism claims that no claim to knowledge is superior to another. If someone from one culture believes that disease is caused by angry gods and someone from another culture claims disease is caused by viruses and bacteria, then it is a kind of arrogance, or worse, cultural imperialism to claim that one view is better than another. A more nuanced view would claim that cultural perceptions form our descriptions of things and those descriptions form our thoughts, given that thoughts are expressed through language.

Skepticism–Skepticism is a view that it is impossible to know what is real or not real outside of our own minds. Skepticism manifests itself in a variety of ways. The skeptic may approach life with a great deal of humility, recognizing that claims to truth are ephemeral and fleeting. The skeptic may be committed to verifying truth claims with the understanding that any truth claim may be modified. Or, the skeptic may decided to focus on the only thing any individual can truly claim to know, the contents of one’s own experience. This last approach leads directly to something called phenomenology, which is not the subject of this blog.

As for myself, I attempt to approach life from a standpoint of skeptical humility. I think that beliefs should be based on the best available evidence, but I also believe that modifications to such beliefs are always possible and, indeed, necessary. With hard work and attention, we can improve our lives by discovering beliefs that enhance our lived experience rather than impeding it.