Or, why I prefer to nod and smile affably and not contribute to the debate on identity politics, while getting on with actually bridging differences.
A lot of the current debate on identity politics tends to emerge from those who hold what are regarded as socially progressive views about these topics. For the sake of argument, I would like to suggest that there are actually two fields of study that are part of this debate. The disciplines of sociology and psychology.
Psychology constitutes, by means of the scientific method, a body of organized knowledge, the purpose of which is to describe, explain, predict and in some cases influence behaviour. "Behaviour" includes conduct and internal processes (thoughts, emotional reactions, feelings, etc) that may be inferred from external actions.
Sociology is the study of human relationships, the rules and norms that guide them, and the development of institutions and movements that conserve and change society. Sociologists now study the historical development of class relations and its relationship to economic, political and ideological processes.
For most of the 20th century, the discipline of psychology was prominent in the public consciousness with such personages as Skinner, Freud, Piaget, Erickson and Rogers. The discipline of sociology grew in increasing significance during the late 20th century and also has its well-known names: Durkheim, Weber, Foucault, Habermas and Bourdieu.
A simple, however reductionist, summary might be: psychology examines individual human behaviours, while sociology examines collective human behaviours. Again, fearful of simplifying, we might say there is a debate going on about who or what is responsible? Individual human responsibility or collective social systems? Again, fearfully broaching… In the Boushie/Stanley encounter, who/what is responsible? Two individuals making very emotional responses and stupid behavioural choices that ended in tragedy? Or two products of socially pre-determined systems where this outcome was completely predictable? Interestingly, the court system is built on the notion of individual responsibility (intent/behavior) and verifiable proof – thus the outcome of the trial. The popular media and a generation of millennials raised on sociology (systemic responsibility), not psychology (individual responsibility), however, see through the lens of the socially pre-determined inevitabilities of racism and unconscious bias.
In search of more clarity, I would like to introduce the discipline of anthropology into this conversation:
Anthropology is the comparative study of past and contemporary cultures, focusing on the ways of life and customs of people around the world. Applied anthropologists use their knowledge of peoples and cultures for practical purposes. They do this framed by anthropological concepts and a methodology - ethnographic fieldwork - that portrays people in their actual circumstances.
Anthropology has a long tradition in Canada. In fact, Franz Boas, considered by many as a founder of the discipline, did his most significant ethnographic work among Canadian indigenous peoples in the late 1800s. One of his students, Edward Sapir, was chief ethnologist for the Geological Survey of Canada (1910-1925), producing seminal work on linguistics and culture before his death in 1939. He was also an ardent pacifist and humanist who challenged narratives of European cultural superiority over Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Other students of Boas included Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.
It is within the learning framework of anthropology that I have spent most of my adult life. I was born and raised for the first 11 years of my life in the multi-ethnic mix of 1960s northern Ontario. I was exposed in everyday life to multiple, first-gen central and eastern Europeans, with some Scandinavians thrown in. This social context also included First Nations peoples. As an elementary school-aged observer, the stark reality of “poor living conditions” and “people in distress” was apparent. My parents, primary influencers of my early worldview, spoke of “these poor people who need help.” My parents, generally, had a positive desire to be service-oriented rather than judgmental or derogatory toward First Nations people; this included several summers where we “camped” on, or near reserves, to facilitate religious education experiences. My father tells a story of visiting in Norval Morrisseau’s home in the late 60s.
These early life exposures were fundamental to my understanding of difference. Languages, foods, living conditions, customs, values, were “interesting, but different.” To be explored and understood. I would go on to have other experiences with First Nations friends (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Huu-ay-aht First Nation). Further life experience has led me to engage with people and explore cultures in Mexico (6 weeks), Egypt (14 months), Cyprus (1 month), South Africa (6 years), Hungary (5 weeks), Niger (2 months), Ghana (6 weeks), Sri Lanka (8 months), India (2 months), and The Philippines (1 month).
OK, thanks for all that, Dan, so what’s your point?
“Applied anthropologists use their knowledge of peoples and cultures for practical purposes.” How does this knowledge and experience of diverse peoples help us in this current conversation? One of the applications of anthropology is to the discipline of intercultural communications, which aids in the development of intercultural competence.
Intercultural communication is defined as situated communication between individuals or groups of different linguistic and cultural origins. This is derived from the following fundamental definitions: communication is the active relationship established between people through language, and intercultural means that this communicative relationship is between people of different cultures, where culture is the structured manifestation of human behaviour in social life within specific national and local contexts, e.g. political, linguistic, economic, institutional, and professional. Intercultural communication is identified as both a concept and a competence. Intercultural competence is the active possession by individuals of qualities which contribute to effective intercultural communication and can be defined in terms of three primary attributes: knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Let’s catch up. Psychology situates the debate in individual terms, sociology as systemic and collective. Intercultural communication (an area of applied anthropology) says, "hold on, let’s sit down and figure out what’s going on and how we can move forward." This debate has individual, social, cultural, linguistic, political, economic and institutional implications. Meaning, engagement and dialogue is complex and any simplistic, reductionist media bites (on either side) completely miss the point.
The person who says “get your act together and pull up your bootstraps, Colten/Gerald” is missing the more complex work that needs to be done. As is the person who says “systemic racism caused this tragedy, we need to deconstruct the system.” It’s clearly both/and. But you know what? – all that takes time and commitment to engage, while suspending judgement in the meantime. And “the meantime” may take a long time.
Intercultural communication/competence provides these clues to the work that needs to be done:
- Am I sufficiently motivated by curiosity, by justice concerns, by empathy (whatever) to engage in a sustained manner, over time, with differences?
- Am I prepared to pay attention to myself (my attitudes, values, behaviours) and to others (attitudes, values, behaviours) so that observations, reflection and insight from experience with difference begin to alter my perceptions, assumptions and sensitivities?
- Will I engage in increasing knowledge acquisition regarding cultures, institutions, histories, values, roles, conventions, and behaviours of the people I find myself among?
- Will I adjust my behavior to the needs of a given cultural context for the sake of respected communication? Will I apply acquired communication practices to my engagement with people of other cultures?
And that’s my point. I’m tired of the debates – they only lead to further polarization, an entry-level phase of developing intercultural competence. I’m tired of the arm-chair, sophomoric social philosophers. I’d rather just sit down and spend some time engaging with, and learning from, someone who sees things different from myself – and doesn’t feel a need to convert me to their way of thinking. Maybe after I’ve listened long enough, I might get a chance to respectfully share my thoughts.
So I would respectfully suggest the beginning point is individual response (engagement, rethinking, changed behaviour) that leads to changes in systems, over time, because enough individual responses produce systemic change.