To celebrate my birthday, I addressed a group of Global Scholars at Chattanooga State Community College on the societal trends in this political environemnt through the lens of cultural anthropology. Chattanooga is experiencing major cultural shifts as globalization transforms the South’s demographics. We are very much in need of a new generation with global leadership skills, multicultural expertise, and political involvement.
We explored a sustainable template for understanding our cultural shifts and applied it to the current election cycle. Given our loud, raucous, colorful, and unpredictable politics, the magnitude of this challenge is mind-boggling. I began my talk by sharing why the old English term “mind-boggling” comes so naturally to me. Moving from British colonial Bermuda to Long Island, New York gave me a good understanding of culture clash. I arrived at public school wearing my Bermuda HS for girls uniform. I used English spelling and quoted Shakespeare, referred to the U.S. as “The States”, and requested a cowgirl outfit and horse at our third floor walk-up apartment.
Whether it’s language, clothing, food, or literature, I’ve had to adapt multiple times. Some might call it being flexible, others refer to the process as intercultural competence, but I refer to it is cross-cultural entrepreneurship. You know you’re different, but strive to develop a personal brand that can be identified and appreciated across cultural boundaries. Cultural adaptation has a sink-or-swim bottom line to it, that is highly motivating.
When I hit Harvard as a freshman, I asked the Dean if I could major in diversity, specifically, religious diversity. Diversity didn’t exist in academia back then and neither did the major. She explained that although I was admitted because I was different and added interest to the class, I will major in English or Economics like everyone else. My entrepreneurial offer to design a religion diversity major for the university did not go well.
The Matrix System
So, I created the major on my own by choosing the brand new major of Folklore & Mythology, spending part of my time at the Divinity School and the rest in the cultural anthropology department. I‘ve applied the resulting mix of theories to diverse communities in multiple time periods and documented the process in countless articles and books, including the theory text book, Matrix Model Management System.
For the first time, I’m applying my System to politics. I began the presentation referring to cultural anthropologist, Claude Levi Strauss. His methods of organizing and analyzing cultural information was called Structuralism. It asserts that culture is a set of learned behaviors and ideas that characterize a society. His methodology of organizing the Big Data of the limitless details that go into producing the learned behaviors, is beyond mind-boggling. So, I created the Matrix System to interpret Structuralism and make it accessible and easily digestible.
To understand the Matrix System, begin by picturing a triangle with a center that is the Societal Infrastructure common to every society on the planet. Included among the themes of this infrastructure are Economics, Education, Healthcare, and, of course, Politics. While the themes are universal, they vary across the nation, and the globe. To better organize the variables involved, we organize them into three distinct, but interactive, points of the triangle: 1.) Geography & History 2.) Demographics and 3.) Belief Systems.
The belief systems are shaped by the previous two categories. Whether emphasizing logic or faith, beliefs shape our Societal Infrastructure. Logic will emphasize proofs & ideas. However, in times of upheaval, protests, and violence, faith will outweigh logic as upheaval, protests and violence intensify emotions.
Fortunately, there’s a short hand for all this information called Cultural Artifacts. They can be Sports, Food, Architecture, and Movies. Or, they can be stereotypes and idioms. What these artifacts have in common is their power to represent geographical, historical and demographic components of a society. Every time we tell a story about ourselves, whether it’s a book or a tweet, we provide a wealth of information about our background.
The power of stories goes beyond the personal. Groups are held together by these cultural expressions and represented by them. Stories define us and distinguish groups from each other. Technology escalates the quantity and intensity of those stories. And that brings us to 2016 politics.
Cultural Artifacts in a Globalized World
Campaigning has shifted from traditional appearances to social networks with links, photos, videos, and blogs that blur geographic, historic, and demographic boundaries. With the assistance of technology, globalization has changed our demographics and the structure of our society – especially its politics and economics. Given the combination of technology and globalization, societal pushes & pulls mean strange, unexpected bed fellows. Globalization-friendly businessmen join forces with disenfranchised blue-collar workers who want major economic shifts. Young millennials join forces with senior boomers who want substantial societal changes. The two major parties still exist, but have lost clear boundaries and defy past definitions.
The usual 2-party system is being edged out in favor of Identity Politics, an old term seeing renewed interest. Rather than logic and ideas, we see emotion and ideals applied with intensity to cultural expressions. In this inflammatory environment, compromise is viewed as weakness, a willingness to let others conquer and crush one’s personal and community identity. Negotiations are minimal when there are few grey areas, only winners and losers. The win-win situation has become a fond piece of nostalgia.
That’s why political operatives in campaigns are looking at demographics and the growing power of discreet diverse groups so closely in 2016 politics. The groups are key in the highly emotional battles of this election. Rather than bring different groups to unify with party affiliations, the operatives study the geography, history, and economics of diverse communities. The intent is to either buy their vote, neutralize them, or crush them.
Yet, the campaigns are often wildly off base in 2016 politics, underestimating the magnitude of demographic shifts: the growth of ethnic diversity, evolving changes in gender roles, the waning of the middle class, the shift away from religious affiliation, and the generational shift away from the Baby Boomers to the Millenials. The result of these shifts is a desperate, frenetic communication style. The sound bite and photo op have become weaponized with emotional warheads.
Politics Go Global
My bottom-line advice to the Global Scholars was not to use the non-vote as a solution in an ugly campaign environment. In this environment, that will only side-line them and render them irrelevant. Today, I reminded them that is one of the last election that Baby Boomers like myself will shape the outcome. Walking away from participation is no longer an option for the young generations who may not be conscious of taking on the mantle of leadership.
Globalization means that future leaders will constantly be subjected to the messy, vague, complex and unexpected. They must navigate a world that is inclined to use its dynamic energy to delegitimize rather than unite. But if we harness this massive energy rather than letting run amok, we have the potential to meet our challenging global future. Deploying this energy is what the presidential campaign is all about. The process is noisy, contentious, and scary but also provocative, revealing and energizing. For our youth who are on the verge of making history, it’s time to step up to the plate.
Editor’s Note: While this article was originally written in 2016, it remain relevant, if not more so, today,