2 Intercultural Communication and Cultural Relativism

Concerns about Cultural Relativism

The Tuckerian Turn:

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A simple, fruitful approach towards learning intercultural communication skills, as a parsimonious way of giving valuable perspective to the various skills and concepts demonstrating the relationship between communication, culture, perception, verbal and nonverbal language, listening, and intercultural communication/interviewing, is to apply the three questions Dr. Charles Tucker would pose to his students in every Communication class he taught at Northern Illinois University. Professor Tucker stated that: “Communication courses ask you to consider three fundamental questions: “Who am I?” “Who are you?” and, “What are we doing here together?” In a profound sense, these three questions enlighten and guide the approach to the class in this PressBook.

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Professor Tucker asks his students, “Who am I?” In doing so, Tucker’s first question points to an examination of one’s self and works towards the student “self” arriving at an understanding of both who the student is as a person and, necessarily, having knowledge of one’s own culture–after all, the elements or components of their own culture help define who the student is–who the student regards herself to be, and how, through what kind of lens, the student perceives the world. If we hope to move on towards intercultural communication competence, necessary for navigating our globalized world, individuals must honestly confront and answer, but then move beyond the first question and be open to taking the risk of asking those of other cultures the second question, “Who are you?”

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The first question, “Who am I?” is a key to opening the door that allows relationship and knowledge between the “self” and the “other.” Now, as explained above, this open relationship and knowledge are gained by asking the second question, “Who are you?” Through this question, posed to someone (the other) of another very different culture, real intercultural communication begins to emerge. Remember that, before asking questions of someone of another culture, one’s own culture is vital in shaping your individual identity, values, worldview, beliefs, biases, language, religion, and means and methods of interpersonal communication. Having gained some knowledge of oneself and one’s culture along with the interrelationship between the two, the basis for meaningful intercultural communication with the other is more solid and success more likely. This stands to reason, as possessing knowledge of the other’s culture, i.e., a knowledge of the same cultural concepts, some mentioned above, that are used to understand one’s own culture can now be focused on the culture of the other.  Such knowledge allows for better, more informed, questioning and dialogue by allowing the student to ask relevant and useful questions directed to genuine learning about the other and their culture.

Cultural Relativism: The Elephant in the Discourse

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A note of caution must be made, however. As just mentioned, the student, to be an effective cultural communicator/interviewer, needs to be keenly aware of their own predispositions and assumptions and that, put broadly, that their own cultural forms who or what they are. Given this, as Stephen Fuchs (2001) points out, “cultural observers are also cultured observers, they come with a ‘habitus,’ which means that observers are [conditioned by their own culture and] are trained and accustomed to using distinctions of their own culture…[which] provides observers with the material and symbolic means of observation….” (p.155).

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Fuchs (2001) argues for the pervasiveness of culture in shaping vital aspects of its members’ identity. Still, the profound and pervasive influence of one’s own culture in shaping perception and worldview and imparting to its members its own peculiar categories, distinctions, and means of approaching and learning from the world and from other cultures does not, in and of itself, prevent the possibility of acquiring a genuine, meaningful, and, in a real sense, objective, understanding of other cultures through careful, informed, and respectful intercultural communication/interviewing. Intercultural communication competence of great meaning and depth may be arrived at precisely because, though such communication indeed occurs between individuals shaped by their own unique and profoundly distinct cultures, the even more profound similarity of a common humanity or human nature visible and accessible via intercultural communication trumps the barriers of cultural differences. In fact, the existence of a common human nature is the key that allows the interviewer and interviewee to open closed doors and begin to acquire a deeper understanding of own each of their cultures. This reservation against cultural relativism, specifically linguistic relativism stems from the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.” Hussein (2012) explains that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserts the influence of language on thought and perception, which strongly implies that speakers of different languages from different cultures perceive reality differently–language, in effect, determines worldview (p.642).

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At this juncture, it is important to deeply stress once more that human beings are not necessarily bound and blinded by culture with its unique categories, concepts, and constructs when honestly, respectfully, and openly observing, learning about and understanding other cultures. That this mutual understanding may occur is, unfortunately, contested or clouded by the pervasive underlying concept of “cultural relativism.” Many scholars and students hold, consciously or unconsciously, some form of cultural relativism which regards cultural, religious, social, legal, familial, economic, etc. beliefs, practices, and traditions as relative to a given culture (Chin-Dahler, 2010). It is premised on the idea that all aspects of human cultures are relative to one another; that is, all cultures are equally valid and any standard of evaluation, assessment and judgment must be culturally internal only–any cultural criticism must come from persons of that culture. Persons of other cultures and traditions characterized by differing perceptions, values, and worldviews cannot hope to reach the point where any moral judgment or evaluation regarding the other culture can be reasonably made apart from cultural biases–such evaluations are labeled “ethnocentric” (a strong tendency to reflexively view one’s own cultural worldview, beliefs, and practices as superior to those of other cultures); and is considered a legitimate obstacle to intercultural understanding, respect and dignity. Cultural relativism holds that a culture’s values emerge in the context of particular social, cultural, economic, political, geographical and environmental conditions. Hence, each culture is relative to one another and can only be assessed according to its own lens, boundaries, and worldview.

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In this view, to be culturally sensitive and amenable to communicating with, and learning about, other cultures, one must adopt an attitude of openness, neutrality and closely monitor or even censor one’s judgments that, as indicated, stem from one’s own unique cultural worldview and biases. Because, for cultural relativism, every person’s values and worldview are culturally determined, no reasonable normative judgments can be made–all cultures and aspects of cultures are equal before the bar of values and morality which are, in and of themselves, culturally determined and hence relative. Thus, we must be tolerant and open-minded in the relativistic sense by wholly suspending judgment when learning about or interacting with those of other cultures.  So, for example, a westerner has no basis upon which to legitimately criticize the cultural practice of female genital mutilation. In France, immigrants and refugees who practice female genital mutilation, polygamy, arranged marriages of underage girls or coerced marriages of women, often openly defend their cultural practices as legitimate simply because they are cultural practices they wish to preserve of which a westerner, or western values, according to cultural relativism, hold no truck.  In Guatemala, a stunted child of 4 years old wanders aimlessly in the dark, utterly ignored by global sophisticates of other cultures who, as cultural relativists and global citizens, ignore the child because of the Guatemalan practice of poor women and their children coming down from the mountains to beg from tourists for a living–who dares judge, act rightly?

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For cultural relativism, all outsiders must, in the worst sense of the word, be tolerant and non-judgmental in the face of cultural practices and beliefs other than one’s own. Such a stance is unfortunate. In the history of the United States, many critics foreign and domestic, appealing to standards of universal human justice as articulated in the Declaration of Independence (for Lincoln, our founding document), openly and rightly criticized our institution of slavery as abhorrent not only to universal human rights and equality, but stood as a glaring example of hypocrisy in the face of our own culture’s guiding principles of human equality and unalienable rights, true everywhere and always.

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Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink, such as cannibalism, human sacrifice, and female genital mutilation, and human trafficking have had to be accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned or viewed critically and in an ethnocentric light. Other issues begin to “blur.” The world weighed in on whether or not children should be separated from their parents at the US Border as the parents sought asylum.  The continued conversation about children’s rights concerning work, education, and access to clean water and sanitation show these rights are not universally held throughout the world. Yet, if one believes in human rights, does not one believe in a sense of some truth?

Professor Patrick Deenan (2012), referring to American culture, was struck by Allan Bloom’s critique of relativism.

Bloom made an altogether different argument: American youth were increasingly raised to believe that nothing was True, that every belief was merely the expression of an opinion or preference. Americans were raised to be ‘cultural relativists,’ with a default attitude of non-judgmentalism. Not only all other traditions but even one’s own (whatever that might be) were simply views that happened to be held by some people and could not be judged as inferior or superior to any other. [No opinion held by one person can be determined to be superior to the opinion of another; nor can any one culture be assessed by the values of another or universal values, for that matter]. He bemoaned particularly the decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true. In one arresting passage, he waxed nostalgic for the days when people cared: ‘It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another, but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously’… (Deneen, 2012).

Of course, if values, beliefs, attitudes, language, worldviews, etc. were, in fact, fundamentally culture-bound as cultural relativism contends, then it follows that researchers/business people/individuals from one culture could never hope to understand and communicate deeply and meaningfully with those of another culture.  Ironically, the simple fact that the very concepts of culture, intercultural communication, and intercultural communication competence are all “constructs” or insights of various Western thinkers of Western cultures does not, by dint of origin, necessarily diminish their explanatory effectiveness or usefulness for the mutual cultural communication competency and understanding between individuals of different cultures (Nisbett, 2003).

The Tuckerian Turn: Beware the “Echo Chamber:”

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Interviewees who attempt to forthrightly respond to the “Who are you?” question(s) impart valuable insights into their particular perspective of their own culture. These insights emerge from Professor Tucker’s third question, “What are we doing here together?” As we shall see, it is this question that eventually leads to intercultural communication competence and/or confidence.

Regarding Professor Tucker’s third question, “What are we doing here together?” along with its intercultural perspective, it must be mentioned, unfortunately, that in these divisive times there often exists a barrier or wall, largely self-imposed, which impedes or prohibits moving from the notion of “Who am I?” (i.e., understanding our own culture) to an honest consideration of the next question, “Who are you?”–a question asked of someone from a different culture that is fundamental to begin the process of learning about other cultures and thus ultimately engaging competently in intercultural communication through Tucker’s third question. A wall is built between cultures; it prevents moving forward from Professor Tucker’s first question by limiting, in our social media age, our communication to those people who are “just like me” in many aspects of culture: nation, appearance, political opinions, economic circumstances, religious beliefs, social practices and overall values, norms, and worldview. A straightjacket is applied and tied to our opinions and conversations, limiting our conversation to unchallenging “like-minded friends” and comfortable “contacts”–often termed the echo chamber–in which the conversation consists of “Who am I?” and perhaps “Who are we?” and, finally, “Why are they out to get us–we who are guardians of the true and good?”

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In his professional blog, seminal Communication scholar John Stewart (2017) remarks,

It’s called the ‘echo chamber syndrome….’ We only listen or speak inside closed chambers that echo [and amplify] our current beliefs and opinions.”

The result, Stewart continues, is polarized (or polarizing) communication of one-sided arguments, spoken to the choir, that necessarily “reduce[s] the quality of our critical thinking” (2017).  Moreover, says Stewart, such communication divides us from friends, family and colleagues–truly a danger to a democracy the health of which requires open, honest civil discourse. In sum, we become trapped in a “Thunderdome” of our own making, where any deviation from the loudest “Echo” is promptly ostracized. Read more:  http://www.johnstewart.org/blog/2017/12/8/echo-chamber-or-community.html.  To gain more information about critical thinking, in general, and to gain a better vocabulary on terms related to critical inquiry see: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/open-minded-inquiry/579 .

Note that cultural relativism is entirely consistent with this development. If no means exists to assess and evaluate opinions, they are all equal after all. Certainly, then, the loudest opinions shouting down rival opinions as “fake news” will prevail.

 

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