GUEST COLUMN: Councillor votes revealed different intercultural styles

Samantha Thompson of the Sarnia Pride Alliance participates in a candlelight vigil at Sarnia city hall, June 2016. Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

 

Brad Morrison

Brad Morrison

The city council debate and vote on May 6 to support Pride Month opens an important public conversation, one that reveals different approaches to inclusion, diversity, equality, and fairness.

At the meeting, every councillor agreed with the principles of equality and fairness, but reached different conclusions about how inclusion and diversity should be put into action.

How does such agreement break down into division, not only at city council, but also in the larger Sarnia community?

Research into intercultural thinking styles offers a possible answer. How we think about inclusion influences group decision-making. Business and industry are increasingly using assessment tools to measure and develop how executives and employees think about inclusion and diversity.

One such assessment tool is the Intercultural Development Inventory, or IDI, which helps corporations, schools, and organizations map how employees, students, and volunteers process inclusion and diversity issues.

The IDI helps explain how city councillors can agree on the principle of inclusion but disagree so strongly on implementation.

Their vote on recognizing Pride Month is an intercultural issue. There is no singular Sarnia culture. Our community has multiple cultures, and individual Sarnians identify with one or more of these cultures.

The IDI assessment tool describes intercultural thinking styles, or competencies, along a continuum. When thinking about culture or groups, whether that be a culture we belong to or not, we can approach this with a monocultural mindset or an intercultural mindset.

At one end of the continuum is denial and polarization when thinking about cultural differences. In the middle of the continuum, where most people fit, is minimization. At the more developed end of the continuum is acceptance and adaptation. Intercultural development happens as we mature along this continuum towards acceptance and adaptation.

The arguments given by city councillors revealed their various intercultural thinking styles. Some argued we risk harming people if we draw attention to their differences. At best, this argument reflects the minimization monocultural mindset, where differences are to be minimized to achieve fairness. More likely, this statement reflects denial of differences.

Intercultural competence explores differences in order to accept and adapt to cultural differences.

People tend to overestimate their intercultural competence, according to the IDI tool. We think we are accepting of differences, but assessment reveals we tend towards minimization. The calls to treat everyone the same — even the liberal mantra of being inclusive — are strategies to keep the status quo by avoiding wrestling with differences.

In my address to city council on May 6th, I observed we often respond to differences — different gender identities and sexual orientations — with fear. I argued that religion and politics can mask this fear and contribute to the oppression of people we see as different.

People also tend to regress to polarization and denial when they feel threatened. Members of the Sarnia Pride and Transgender Association heard accusations they are scaring people. This claim reflects a polarization mindset — an Us versus Them orientation —triggered by perceived threats to our cultural status quo.

We may all agree that inclusion and diversity are core values, but how we think about the pathway to inclusion differs according to intercultural competency.

Pride flags and rainbow crosswalks are invitations to learn acceptance and adaptation.

 

Brad Morrison is an ordained minister serving Grace United Church in Sarnia