Culture and Conflicts over Prejudice and Discrimination

Our cultures are immensely diverse, creative and rich with unique approaches to problem solving, yet they also form the basis for power-based, adversarial, cross-cultural conflicts, leading to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. 

Diversity is a rich source of innovation, creative solutions, and unique ways of adapting to changing environments, yet it is rapidly disappearing — not only genetically, but culturally as well, as isolation gives way to homogenizing global interactions and relationships.  It is therefore essential that we find ways to benefit from diversity by reducing cultural stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, and learn to collaborate more effectively in locating richer, more diverse solutions to transnational problems.  To do so, we need to appreciate the importance of diversity, improve the methods and techniques we use to resolve cross-cultural differences, and discover ways of applying them on a large-scale.

To begin, we can recognize and appreciate that culture includes all the diverse ways people understand and learn to live in the world, how they meet their needs, what they imagine and dream about, how they communicate and relate to one another, why they do what they do, what they permit and prohibit, how they respond to change, how they resolve their conflicts, and how they relate to those who are different.

In this sense, every individual, family and couple, every group, organization and nation produces culture.  Culture both reflects and shapes what and how we understand, think and feel. For this reason, whatever conflicts with our cultural assumptions and expectations limits what we are able to perceive and understand, blocking us from experiencing what is foreign or unimaginable, including within ourselves, and triggering resistance to diversity and change.

As a result, most cultures implicitly assume they are superior to others and that their ways are “right” or “better,” yet there is no absolute scale by which one set of cultural values can be judged better than others, except according to some standard that is itself a byproduct of culture.  This does not mean all cultures are equally effective or successful, or able to represent the views of all their members, or adapt to new conditions, or good at solving problems, or that there is no such thing as cultural learning, progress and evolution; or that all cultural practices are sacrosanct, beyond criticism, eternal and unable to improve.

Cultures are based, in part, on values, and values change over time.  Once a given value gains recognition within a culture, it can become a benchmark to judge other cultures, especially those with opposing or contrasting values.  All cultures “socialize” their members, teach them “the rules” and pressure them to conform by rewarding compliance and punishing deviance and disobedience. As Emile Durkheim observed, “The sacred is what is protected by prohibitions.”

Yet these same prohibitions and pressures to conform can easily be extended to people living in different cultures, conditions or historical periods.  Moreover, most cultures encourage prejudices of various kinds and tolerate discrimination even against their own deviant members, as ways of ensuring conformity through social pressure.  These prejudices are expressed through ridicule, jokes, insults and discriminatory put-downs that end in conformity or ostracism, reduced status and a shrunken capacity for empathy that can easily spill over into chauvinism and violence. People in every culture want to be accepted, listened to, acknowledged and respected, and as a result, are easily drawn into denigrating and disparaging others, especially when they themselves are newly arrived or somewhat different, and might be treated similarly.

Among the devices used by cultures to teach, socialize and unify their members are not only stereotypes, but archetypes, myths about heroes or villains, stories about conflict, parables about behaviors and their consequences, metaphors for processing information, judgments for defining self and others, and ready-made “scripts” for all occasions that increase unity, often at the cost of understanding. As a result, the stock villains are often loosely disguised members of other cultures, whose differences are feared rather than learned from or admired.

We define our own cultures principally by their differences with other cultures. The greater the difference, the more defined the culture.  Yet differences can, as a result of conflict, be combined with fear, greed, anger, pain and other uncomfortable emotions, easily triggering misunderstandings, stereotypes, and future conflicts. As a result, our tolerance of differences decreases as the magnitude and emotionality of our disagreements increase. Every culture therefore develops techniques for responding to conflicts and mediating cultural differences, often without transforming the stereotypes and prejudices that linger beneath the surface, only to emerge full-blown in future disagreements.

For these reasons, it is possible to regard all conflicts as cross-cultural.  Cultural conflicts can occur, for example, between those who are precise and those who are ambiguous in communications, those who are open or closed in personal revelations, those who are formal or informal in processes, those who are demonstrative or restrained in emotional expression. Repeated behaviors of any kind in any group, no matter how small, lead to the creation of cultures, including cultures of conflict that reflect the diverse ways people interpret and respond to disagreements, as for example, with defensiveness or listening, ridicule or appreciation, counter-accusation or apology, isolation or collaboration.

All cultures assist people in ascribing meaning to events, especially those that involve differences or conflict. The eminent cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, for example, wrote in The Dance of Life that some cultures are fixed and closed while others are fluid and open, especially in their attitudes toward space and time, but also in their approaches to conflict.

Hall distinguished “high-context” from “low-context” cultures that differ in the role of context in ascribing meaning. In high-context cultures, especially those that are fluid and open, such as those that arise with collaboration, democracy and emotionally close relationships, most of the meaning in speech emerges from its context.  In low-context cultures, on the other hand, especially those that are fixed and closed, such as those that arise with power, law, bureaucracy and emotionally distant relationships, most, if not all of the meaning is expressed in the precise words that are used and context is less important — often because the context itself contains conflicting meanings.

It is possible to go further and say that prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination operate precisely by minimizing context, which might otherwise lead to a more nuanced understanding of differences, increased empathy and deeper understanding.  On the other hand, in collaborative relationships and complex circumstances where context is far more important, empathy is essential if differences in social status, economic wealth and political power are to be understood systemically, rather than entirely as personal failures.

Hence, cultures with dissimilar races, genders, religions and political views require a high degree of skill in reading context, not only to understand the meaning of any communication, but to boost empathy between its members and reduce conflict; whereas cultures that are based on prejudice rely on stereotypes and pre-judgments that require little or no context to interpret. This allows people, for example, to uphold the principle of formal or legal equality while ignoring the prevalence and persistence of actual discrimination, which requires historical and sociological context to understand, generating chronic conflicts, for example, between supporters and detractors of affirmative action programs. Many political disagreements are attributable to this difference in orientation.

Additionally, nearly all social, economic and political conflicts appear purely personal, yet are actually grounded in implicit, unspoken cultural perceptions, assumptions and expectations, including myths, archetypes and stories that reveal hidden biases.  However, in cross-cultural mediations and dialogues, we have discovered that it is possible to significantly increase empathy, reduce stereotyping and prejudice, and resolve cross-cultural quarrels by clarifying the context in which they arise, engaging in open dialogues regarding differences, collaboratively negotiating solutions, and making cultural perceptions, assumptions and expectations explicit and negotiable.

Interest-based techniques are useful in reducing stereotyping and prejudice in interpersonal cross-cultural disputes, but they are sometimes less successful when the source of conflict is on a larger scale, or chronic and systemic, or when it flows from a prolonged history of socially sanctioned, economically reinforced, politically legitimized discriminatory practices, and is reinforced by on-going social inequality, economic inequity or political autocracy.

Systemic forms of discrimination such as “institutional racism,” do not require or rely on personal prejudice, crude stereotyping, or open expressions of bias. Instead, they imperceptibly and implicitly link values of unity, conformity and sameness with prejudice and discrimination, often in order to maintain domination and control by privileged elites, and to reinforce social segregation based on status, wealth and power.  The deepest roots of prejudice and discrimination lie less in individual malice and personal spite, than in social, economic and political systems which are grounded in inequality, inequity and autocracy.


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