Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Without Truth There Can Be No Peace

By Jean Mavrelis and Thomas Kochman - 05.27.2009

For our first blog topic we decided to focus on President Obama and how his style of communication is not only individual, but also culturally influenced.

President Obama’s willingness to confront controversy directly is no secret, but beyond individual style, is there a cultural explanation as well?

Obama most recently demonstrated his willingness to deal with controversy head on again at the recent University of Notre Dame commencement in talking about abortion. Rather than deal with the polarities he asked both sides to approach the issue collaboratively looking for common ground with respect to the other’s position despite basic disagreements with it, and generally not shying away from things that make us uncomfortable.

We have seen this approach before in other venues as when Obama shook the hand of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the 5th Summit of the Americas or in his inaugural address when he said to the Muslim World “We will extend a hand if you will unclench your fist”. Those who take the either/or “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” approach often set conditions that require agreement on fundamental issues prior to negotiation. They see “extending a hand to a potential adversary” before such agreement has been established as too “unconditional”. But this is a misread. Obama does set conditions: but the conditions set do not initially revolve around the need for agreement but around the need for civil engagement. As Obama himself recently demonstrated in the G-20 Global Economic Summit, face-to-face talk and respectful listening are persuasive in and of themselves. They “reveal our common humanity” as Obama said in his inaugural address and work against the tendency to demonize those whose positions differ from ours.

In looking for cultural underpinnings of Obama’s approach, several come to mind.

President Obama’s willingness to engage “hot topics” such as race and abortion and his ability to manage the turmoil that such emotionally charged topics generate resonate with the African American cultural construct surrounding forthrightness which we characterize as “truth before peace” and is reflected by such African American sayings as “Tell it Like it Is,” “Keep it Real!”, “No Pain, No gain”. This, in stark contrast with the conflict avoidant “peace before truth” orientation of mainstream U.S. people when engaging “hot topics” reflected in such sayings as “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” “Don’t Rock the Boat” and the protocol the military developed in dealing with sexual orientation: “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.”

Obama’s approach to search for unity or common ground despite disagreement resonates not only with the African American cultural construct of “Unity of Opposites,” but the East Asian orientation to create harmonic balance in dealing with opposing forces as our Chinese American colleagues Adrian Chan and Barry Mar often point out in their discussion of yin/yang. As an example, see Duen Hsi Yen’s illustration of the Chinese ideograph for “crisis”. Note the linked oppositional duality expressed for “crisis”: the left character denoting “danger” and the right character “opportunity.” As a corollary, note the old Hawaiian saying (also from Duen Hsi Yen) “Love and conflict are binding.” Harmonic balance –internal as well as external–is also something that Native people strive for as our Native colleague Leah Arndt often points out. Another of our Native colleagues Marin Webster Denning often talks about the way differences are worked among Native groups. Resolution is achieved not so much by insisting upon agreement. The standard is more “Can you live with it?” which also necessitates accepting whatever disagreement and internal dissonance may still remain. Maybe that’s the standard to use living in a pluralistic society and multicultural world where differences abound and one size does not fit all.

One Response so far

An interesting paralinguistic aspect of President Obama’s speech style is what comes across as a hesitation – stutter, with speech gaps. A similar speech style by his predesessor President Bush was often attributed to lack of eloquence. It also did not help when words were mispronounced and phrases bungled. With President Obama his style may be heard as serious, thoughtful, particularly given his academic background. Care to comment?

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