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.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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