Political Correctness or Political Culture?

Political Correctness or Political Culture? May 11, 2017

You have your ups and downs. Years ago a professor (Stanley Hauerwas) at the Duke Divinity School made it to the cover of Time Magazine. More recently DDS students managed to get their school on national TV by holding up a banner behind the commentators booth in the NCAA Basketball finals. Priceless. Now Duke is again in the national news, but not in such a good way.

Duke, according to the New York Times, has become a new battle ground over political correctness. You’ll find the story here, or in the Washington Post, or all over Facebook. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/09/education/a-new-battleground-over-political-correctness-duke-divinity-school.html.

Political Correctness? I don’t think so, although the term has come into common usage by conservatives to disparage cultural change. See Rod Dreher’s account of the controversy here. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/duke-divinity-crisis-griffiths-documents/

What is happening at Duke isn’t merely about internecine conflicts in academia and the rules that govern professional discourse. (Although this is how Dean Elaine Heath approached it) It is even less about political correctness in the sense of forbidding discourse about certain accepted political positions. (Although this is how Valerie Cooper approached it, by insisting that decisions about racial equality and inclusiveness are part of unquestionable values written into policy.) http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/may/8/paul-griffiths-duke-theology-professor-resigns-ove/

It seems to me that it is about changing culture and the failure to adapt to those cultural changes, only some of which relate to rules governing academic discourse and the values of the institution, although both arise out of culture.

One way of characterizing cultural difference related to communication is to distinguish between “high context” and “low context” cultures. In high context cultures those who involved in discourse operate within a deep, rich, shared context that provides the framework within which all statements are understood. No communication is comprehensible without a deep knowledge of the context of relationships within which it is made. And without reference to that context all statements may be misconstrued.

Low context cultures assume that all the information necessary for comprehension is included in the communication so that reference to context is unnecessary, and that dragging in context is misleading.

Let’s look at the Paul Griffiths case above. In a high context culture it would be assumed that there is a lot going on in the background: his personal life, long term faculty relations, the larger social context, and etc. One might assume that he’s even a proxy for someone in higher position of authority. Or one might assume that this is related to a completely different agenda and is intended to distract attention for other things going on in the academic environment.

In a low context culture his communications (and those of others) would be assumed to mean exactly what they say and no more.

Oh yes, the character of the communicator is also judged differently when a high context culture judges a low context culture and visa-versa. For those in a low context culture high context communications seem to come from people who can never really be honest or trustworthy. For those in a high context culture low context communicators are just insensitive jerks who don’t know how to be polite.

These differences are vastly exacerbated in the world of digital communications. The most important context for all communication is the carriage, expression, and tone of voice of the communicator. All of these are absent in email.

US academic cultures continue to be shaped by the fact that for centuries they were the domain of Anglo-European men and were rooted in the academic cultures of England and Germany. This made them dominantly low context among peers, and to bring in another measure of culture, high power/distance with regard to assumed subordinates. For this reason they were always somewhat alien to US popular culture, as discourse around ivory towers, pointy headed intellectuals, and those who can’t do so they teach attests.

But in the last half century the wider US culture has flooded into academia, bringing with it not only a suspicion of the “faculty club” culture coming from within but also new values and assumptions about communication (and many other aspects of culture). Add social changes, and the lack thereof, that empower, embolden, and embitter different groups and the odds of miscommunication raise considerably.

Is there a lesson? Yes. First, since email is a low context medium it should be used primarily to convey information in a way that is comprehensible without reference to context. Enthusiasm and disdain alike are better communicated face to face – although the expectation that the latter will be well received in any culture is foolish.

More importantly all participants in academic discourse need to be aware of not only what they want to communicate, but the rapidly changing cultural environment in which they are communicating. Assuming we want to create an effect, it is wise for us to consider the culture of our audience or we might create the wrong effect.

When I lived in Austria (a low context culture) it was worthless for me to tell a repair person, “It would be good if you can come on Wednesday morning.” The word “would” simply communicated that I didn’t know what I wanted or didn’t care. What worked was, “Come on Wednesday morning at 9:00.” When I lived in Malaysia if I told a student, “Could you see me Wednesday at 9:00,” he or she would worry for days that I was signaling that I’d either been offended or intended to have someone else (a fearsome thought) come to the meeting.

The mastery of the knowledge, skills, and habits that make cross-cultural communication possible is difficult. It takes both commitment and time. It remains to be seen whether modern academics are willing to make that commitment. Clearer is that in the emerging academic culture communication based on outdated assumptions of fading cultural norms will no longer be excused.


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