Cultural work in a post-truth, narcissistic world

This November I attended a SIETAR meeting for the first time. Not sure why it took me so long to engage with intercultural professionals and educators at this level. I certainly recommend you don’t wait as long as I did. The gathering I attended was the annual conference of SIETAR USA in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The convention officially started on the day after the general elections in the United States and to say that the results of the American vote had a dampening effect on the crowd would be a massive understatement.

Interculturalists, it turns out (unsurprisingly), tend to be rather progressive when it comes to matters like social justice, equality, global trade, immigration, diversity, inclusion, and tolerance. Which made the news of who will be the next U.S. President a tough pill to swallow for many attendees. During several of the conference sessions people were processing the outcome of the election, sometimes quite emotionally.

At first glance, the election results might be seen as a terrible piece of news for our profession. The winning candidate did just about everything during his campaign to give the impression of a misogynist, xenophobic, racist, intolerant narcissist. Some observers even position him very closely near fascist leaders. If the character he has been modeling is to become an acceptable mindset in the American mainstream, how will interculturalists manage to avoid being sidelined as liberal idealists, many in our field ask. How will we defend the relevance and importance of our work in the face of a culture war in which no more neutral zones seem to exist?

I admit, these questions were also running through my mind as I was glued to the TV screen in my Tulsa hotel room during that long night of November 8. On the following days I experienced the emotions of my fellow SIETAR conference attendees and something inside of me snapped. It must have been Tatyana Fertelmeyster who, during her session, said: “Diversity is a fact of life. Inclusion is a behavioral choice.” She continued to say (and I’m paraphrasing here) that this election swept like a tornado across the United States and in its trail the storm uncovered a lot of garbage on all sides of the political aisle. Garbage which had been hiding in plain sight. The good news is: Now nobody can claim they weren’t aware of its existence.

The puss in the wounds of this country is now out in the open and we need to clean it up. That’s why this election result may in fact be a blessing in disguise for cultural coaches, trainers, and educators. This is an awareness which grew within me during the SIETAR conference. Listening to keynote speakers like film maker Dr. Shakti Butler, intercultural guru Jack Condon, or attorney and Cherokee advocate Brenda Toineeta Pipestem reassured me that “cultural work” is more than work. It is my passion. And whenever the circumstances may seem to get unfavorable for my work, I choose to see it as additional motivation to work harder.

Part of this means that the intercultural field will have to come to terms with the next U.S. administration. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that appeasement is a winning strategy here. As someone who grew up in Germany and who has a finely tuned radar for intolerance, racism, and chauvinism, I say: Let’s be vigilant. Let’s be on the lookout. And let’s be ready to confront those who imperil justice and social peace.

Some of the claqueurs who accompanied the Republican campaign during the last 18 months would have not stepped into the limelight as confidently as they are doing now. Especially the so called “alt-right” movement appears to feel emboldened to spread their vitriolic hate message. To me the moniker of this fringe group is nothing but a politically correct euphemism. And if we learned one thing during this election cycle, it’s that PC talk isn’t helping our case. So let’s call the “alt-right” by its original name: white racist nationalists, aka Nazis.

While you will find me unconciliatory towards racist extremists, I am quick to point out that it would be a huge mistake to denounce every American who voted for the Republican ticket as being racist. There are many reasons why people voted for either of the candidates. Pundits have been analyzing this ad nauseam.
What strikes me – from an interculturalist’s perspective – is that, in a time were 24/7 news cycles and social media outlets form people’s opinions, it has become the norm for many of us to restrict our information input to sources which confirm our view of the world. Much of the Western world lives in opinionated echo chambers in which talking points and information gathering is simply rehashed to pass the filters through which we choose to experience life.

The internet has been revolutionary in the way it has democratized access to information. What the internet fails to accomplish (because it’s not designed to do so) is to help us weigh and interpret information. The web is a data pipeline, not a political or cultural educator. And it is the arrogance of those who feel they stand on the right side of history which led to the election of the next U.S. President. It doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum – many people, almost everyone in American society, as well as in many other Western countries, are failing the communication test.

We have forgotten or unlearned to listen to each other. It is time we step outside of our echo chambers and to expose ourselves to mindsets which are different from our own, even if we find them unacceptable. After all, isn’t this what we as interculturalists teach our clients?
We will have to relearn to talk with each other instead of about each other. The power is in the dialog, not the monologue. Having those conversations will require some discipline and patience.

Allow me to remind you of an article which was published earlier this year on The Culture Reflections Blog which dealt with the fear of the foreign. The article mentions a TED Talk by Elizabeth Lesser who suggest we “take the other to lunch” as a method to overcome our own biases, to listen, and to learn.

As a cultural educator I view it as my responsibility not only to condemn and actively oppose any form of racism, misogyny, discrimination, or marginalization — I also see it as my job to break down the walls in people’s heads and to create connections between competing world views by allowing people to discover their commonalities.

We may live in a post-truth world were people trust the reverberations of their echo chambers more than fact and reason. Let’s view this as a mandate to educate and to mediate. Since there is “no return to a world before globalization,” my work, my passion is more important than ever. It may be hard. And it will be worth it.

Are you with me?

Christian Höferle

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