The streets near my house hum with the sounds of city life. Steady beats of urban music blare from passing cars. Police and emergency-vehicle sirens scream for attention. Parades of well-dressed professionals march by each morning on their way to work.
By day, the historical streetscapes come alive with people and laughter. Under the blanket of darkness, however, the sidewalks are empty and often scary.
When new companies and workers began relocating to this neighborhood several years ago, mom and pop merchants were ecstatic. Property values rose sharply, and as higher-salaried workers moved in, entrepreneurs foresaw increasing profits.
Years later, most businesses still are awaiting better days. Newcomers are apparently happy to be here but unsure of the neighborhood’s safety. Instead of going out to lunch, they have fast food delivered to their desks. After work, they flee to their cars and head home. Meanwhile, the increased traffic congestion has driven away some of the customers whose dollars helped sustain local businesses.
So, amid unprecedented prosperity, some established businesses face the prospect of failure. This is but one of many ambiguities we face in daily life. Profitable companies downsize their staffs. Upscale neighborhoods are stained by school violence. Minorities in free societies need courts to protect their rights.
In our global village, we residents need training to adapt to the cultural ambiguity swirling around us. A person can be tolerant and yet biased. A worker may embrace diversity yet object to quotas. A leader may fight for freedom and yet justify slavery. A poor family may be nicer and more moral than a rich one. Businesses that survived tough times may go broke once prosperity arrives.
In my neighborhood, businesses are discussing ways to help workers in their office buildings feel “safe.” They are considering hosting a series of block parties to encourage people to come outdoors and feel comfortable together. Wise entrepreneurs understand that ambiguity is something they must accept.
Individuals find these contradictions in other cultural groups very unsettling. Our first response is to reject or to challenge them. Sometimes we fall directly into the “either/or” trap.
Unfortunately, when we are in this mode, we are far more likely to shut down conversations. We’ve all done it. “You are either with us or against us.” “Either you give me the job or you are a racist.” “Either you support affirmative action or you are a bigot.”
Life is rarely so simple.
Whenever we categorize people without making an attempt to penetrate their layers of complexity and ambiguity, we miss an opportunity to learn. This prevents us from developing flexibility, empathy and other skills related to cultural competency.
Across the globe, world citizens are called upon to handle ambiguity. Somehow it seems fair that the people with the most practice with a republic ought to light the way. Instead of getting hostile, we must attempt to understand why the Iraqi people want our help and yet seem to dislike us. We must try to understand why Muslims who favor democracy don’t share our affection for religious freedoms.
The businesses struggling to survive the city’s renaissance are on the front lines of change. So are we all. The right skills will help us all survive.
(Linda S. Wallace is [email protected])