Five culture scams to avoid in 2022
Let’s admit it: culturally speaking, we haven’t been our best selves lately. Before we were hit by the current pandemic, the first two decades of the new Millennium had all been about connecting and understanding. Trade, tourism, education and entertainment exposed people to one another’s various beliefs and for many, made the barriers elusive. Values were an issue, but increasingly of priority rather than identity: British first and European second, Chinese first and Taiwanese second, female first and executive second, or vice versa? Those were serious dilemmas, but it seemed certain that more exposure would yield more data, which would lead to rational explanations, reasonable adjustments, synergy and even harmony. It seems so far away now, even a bit naïve, doesn’t it?
For an intercultural consultant, these two years have been like a goldmine full of carelessly placed dynamite. Change always creates challenge, and some had long been fed up with globalisation. Eagerness to name, shame and if possible, punish the promoters of strange ideas had been with us for long. But until 2019, self-appointed defenders of national, traditional, ethnic, religious, gender and other identities against cartoonishly portrayed villains gained little traction: those who travelled or digitally connected with ‘the others’ could easily see they were not so different after all. COVID19 changed all that. I generally dislike comparing this pandemic to wars, but moving between increasingly fortified mental barricades, does expose us to snipers, stray bullets and friendly fire, not to mention those hidden explosives.
Most of us feel fed up and frustrated, and the human brain does what it evolved to do in critical situations: make snap judgements based on limited information. Trying to stay safe inside homes, communities and countries, people reach for the simplest possible narrative and blame those outside. Let’s not pass judgement, because we are hardwired to think territorial and instinctively mistrust strangers, doing what has helped humans collectively survive since the ice age and beyond. The weird outsider, whether newly arrived or home-grown, is an ancient stereotype — an architype. In 2022, this scary stranger will make a dramatic return not as a witch, barbarian, pirate or assassin but as the anti-vaxxer, racist, sexist, neo-colonialist, promoter of foreign ideas, enemy of democracy, socialism or monarchy, violator of national pride and doubter of wokeness.
That will make life even harder for everyone. But I also happen to agree with psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, who coined the term ‘archetype’ a hundred years ago, that the more we understand and discuss such mental monsters, the less power they yield over our free will. Researchers of paranormal phenomena are instructed to show curiosity and ask questions when they see a ghost. I suggest the same approach whenever we encounter anger and resentment towards clashing cultural values: we shall have plenty of opportunity to practice this year. Whenever you feel stuck in a crossfire of warring squads in clashes of civilisation, take cover and find out who’s firing, how their weapons work and how to mind your business without joining the carnage yourself.
For a start, here are some of the most common cultural scams that people use on- and offline, often unknowingly, to draw others into their argument. From my childhood in Iraq under Saddam Hussein through my studies in philosophy and diplomacy, then my diplomatic and consulting work in places like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, China and travels around the world, not to mention my native Hungary, I spotted these five as the most resilient and versatile. I catch them everywhere from ancient texts to political speeches and corporate meetings. You may spot them surprisingly often after you read this, including in your own arguments. When you do, I recommend disarming them with a cool, cautious and constructive mindset.
Culture Scam Number 1: We are rational, they are emotional
This is an old, basic and quite clever trick: we are explaining, they are quarrelling, which implies we’re right. It was long used to keep women away from education and voting. It pops up today when enlightened liberals call their opponents ignorant, one religion claims that the other one doesn’t make sense or governments prevent ‘impulsive’ actions like protesting, criticising or creating upsetting art. They cannot help it, the claim goes, and if users of this con have the authority, they will benevolently help those unruly souls discipline themselves, or else. When you see it, look closer and you will find sense and emotion on both sides. The louder someone claims to be rational, the more emotion is involved.
Culture Scam Number 2: Our best against their worst
This scam thrives on scarce information, showing the good side of our values against the bad side of theirs. Ethnic and national hatred has used this meme for millennia, but my recent favourites also include Donald Trump’s partiality to Western European over Middle Eastern immigrants, cliches about American war drones versus Chinese high-speed trains (see cartoon) and old people’s short-sighted racism compared to inspiring Millennial digital connectedness. Corporations and governments fling this rubbish while they fight for our money and mobile phones. Expose this trick by scratching the surface veneer and adding a few items of good and bad on both sides: the plenty of material will surprise you.
Culture Scam Number 3: Blame their birth
The first two cons tend to emerge at the beginning of disputes. When they fail to convince, we often assume the listener misunderstood because they are German, Vietnamese, male, female, dark or light skinned, rich or heterosexual by birth. A clever way to refute bothersome opinions, because the opponent cannot change their birth status, can they? Thus, white (including Asian?) people shouldn’t opine on racism and imperialism, men cannot grasp feminism while women won’t understand the male perspective, and rich people generally cannot contribute anything to the debate except donations. But the scam falls apart when you realise that people born into the same situation do not think and act the same way.
Culture Scam Number 4: One day they’ll understand
A brilliant trick to dismiss someone’s argument is to claim that their opinion is an earlier version of yours on an evolutionary curve of beliefs. It is a well-crafted maze of circular argument: they disagree because they are inferior and they are inferior because they disagree. But one day, they will slap their forehead in a great ‘Aha!’ moment and realise that we were right all along: that socialism is better than democracy (or vice versa), their religion is the primitive version of ours and our education makes them clever like us. A twist to this con is the claim that the other side marches towards destruction and will come back one day begging to live like us. A way to counter it: look closer and you will find that most developmental curves are actually roller-coasters.
Culture Scam Number 5: Yes, but we’re special
A final refuge when other arguments fail. Yes, our anti-imperialist nation uses force, but only for the greater good. Yes, we smash shopfronts, but only to highlight their violence. We decapitate statues dedicated to bad people. We shout at them because we’re rightfully angry. We hunt down, name and shame bullies. We make racists aware of their race. We revenge humiliation by aggressors. We break their eggs to make our well-deserved omelette, and squeeze their lemons for it’s our turn to drink lemonade. Eventually, we inflict the injustice we fight (spy, expose, quarrel, ostracise, punish) because we are the good ones. ‘Exceptionalism’, as it is known, is the ultimate culture scam, a collection of all others and thus the sharpest. Its antidote is exposure. Try it: when you feel special, go online and find your dilemmas, business ideas and holiday photos in multiple copies.
But that is exactly why we matter, whether we contribute questions or answers. Clashes of cultures are not like Hunger Games, but like debates between the Sales and Product department at a firm. Nobody ever wins, but that what moves collaboration forward. Thank you for your great support so far, keep the conversation going and keep in touch in 2022!