Cultural intelligence in an age of terrorism

Jan 13 2015 by David Livermore Print This Article

Whatís a culturally intelligent response to the horrific events in Paris last week? Iím not sure. Seeing one more ďbreaking newsĒ alert about another terrorist attack fills me with a sense of sadness, disgust, and hopelessness. On the other hand, my resolve for promoting cultural intelligence (CQ) is greater than ever. Bear with me as I ruminate in a bit different direction than my usual posts about culturally intelligent work and leadership.

Weíd expect that our increased connectivity through travel, technology, multiculturalism, and global trade would have made us better at interacting with people of difference. But culture runs deep. And as we become more global, tribal identities assert themselves more powerfully than ever.

The greatest divisions of our day stem from vastly different views about how we should live together. People who believe in the ultimate right of free speech are living next door to people for whom following a set of creeds trumps all else. There are no easy answers to the hatred and rage that drives someone to kill a fellow human begin in cold blood simply because they disagree with them. And thoughtful debates are needed for when free speech and satire is in part responsible for inciting that rage.

But Iím convinced that a culturally intelligent response begins with refusing to lose hope. The terrorists are not the majority. They arenít winning. And our best denouncement of their misogynistic rage is to refuse to resort to their intolerance ourselves.

Donít shut off the news in denial. And donít resort to profiling all Westerners or all Muslims, or police officers, or black men.

The terrorists are a tiny minority among our population of 7+ billion people. And the terrorists are not getting the last word.

We must unabashedly denounce terrorism, misogyny, and oppression, whatever the source. But as we do so, weíre wise to also step back and ask whatís behind the behavior. Every behavior makes sense if you have enough information. That doesnít mean we accept or agree with it. But what might we learn if we step back to consider why someone believes something so strongly that theyíre willing to kill others and themselves to uphold their beliefs? And why might some societies believe itís in their best interest to give people the freedom to express vitriol?

My sadness by the events of last week was quickly turned into hope when I saw the global outpouring of support that happened in the hours following the attacks in Paris. The evening it happened, I walked by the French Embassy in Copenhagen and saw a diversity of people standing in the rain and cold for hours, simply to pay their respects.

Twitter erupted with Muslims denouncing the attacks and claiming that terrorism does far more to damage the image of Muhammad than a satirical cartoon does.

Non-Muslims in Paris started a #VoyageAvecMoi movement that mirrored the #IllRideWithYou campaign in Sydney. These are campaigns started by non-Muslims offering to escort Muslims who were fearful of revenge attacks.

Social media lit up with not only #jesuischarlie support, but also with outcries for the lives lost in Yemen and northern Nigeria last week.

Cultural intelligence begins with the motivation to learn and understand othersí cultural perspectives (CQ Drive). You canít eradicate terrorism on your own; but you can make a difference in your own circle. What might that look like?

Speak up when someone in your network starts religious profiling. The vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world are going about their lives peacefully. Just as the average Christian had nothing to apologize for when Christian fanatics engaged in genocide against Muslims in former Yugoslavia, Muslims shouldnít be expected to apologize for horrific acts done by a few fanatics. When someone mutters some monolithic description about people from another religious or cultural group, challenge their ignorance.

Have lunch with your Ďotherí. Think of someone you know who views the world in a vastly different way from you, religiously, politically or otherwise. Share your perspectives with each other and donít try to convince the other person to see things your way. Seek to understand each other.

Donít lose hope. Alongside the vicious acts of hatred are stories of people reaching across faiths, cultures, and languages to forge relationships and work together. Jews and Arabs are aligned together (e.g. Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies). Police officers and African Americans are embracing and looking for solutions together. Hutus and Tutsis have worked together to rebuild Rwanda into an increasingly vibrant economy. Donít let the stories of violence crowd out the larger stories of mutual understanding, reconciliation, and cultural intelligence.

Iím not suggesting we should ignore the violence and terrorism with blind optimism. Something has to be done. And Iím not interested in politically correct, culturally sensitive conversations that minimize debate and over-emphasize common ground. But for the majority of us who believe strongly in our own values and perspectives but also want to learn from the perspectives of others. Letís use the power of our differences to stop terrorism in its tracks. Now thatís something that gives me hope!

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.