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Sometimes the Only Way is Through

This week I’ve spent too much time thinking about controversial topics. Brad is well aware of this. In our collaborative partnership, I’ve uncharacteristically been the initiator of calls that end with long discussions on the day’s hot topic. (Normally Brad is the one bugging me with ideas.) In the sports world, the particular topic that everyone seems to be tweeting, Facebooking, or talking about is transgender athlete Lia Thomas competing at the NCAA championships, which seems to boil down to a tug of war between fairness in sport and inclusion and equality.

Don’t worry, this isn’t my hot take on the topic. I don’t have one. There are no good answers. Instead, it’s about how we handle controversial topics. It could be gun-control, abortion, covid policies, or whatever else gets people riled up. When such topics arise in online and offline dialogue, a particular pattern follows. We get fired up, stake claim to our side, and in doing so simplify or avoid the actual hard and messy details. This leads to frustration, and of course zero understanding or progress. We all do it. The question is why?

Let’s look to a concrete place for answers. Consider the case of someone immigrating to a new country. They are accustomed to certain values and behaviors. How they act, eat, talk, and work are all heavily influenced by the culture they grew up in. Now, they find themselves in a new and foreign place with different norms and maybe even different values. As they adapt to their new country, how do they make sense of their place? How do their children understand their heritage and the only place they’ve ever lived?

They essentially have multiple identities. All are seemingly important. All are pulling them in different directions at the same time.

Research shows there are three ways in which people who find themselves with multiple cultural identities handle such a situation: they categorize, compartmentalize, or integrate their cultural identities. Categorization is when they try to avoid conflict, picking one culture as the dominant one. Compartmentalization means they separate; for example, around family, they act in accordance with their heritage, around their schoolmates, they act like their peers in their new country. Integration is when they make sense of the complexity. They acknowledge the differences in cultures but also see similarities. They reconcile and make sense. Choosing ‘both and…”

Now, let’s apply that same line of thinking to other points of conflict in life. Where one part of our identity buts up against another. Or where one desire or need seems to conflict with another.

How do we deal with difficult topics that seemingly force us to take a stand? We either categorize or compartmentalize. When we categorize, we take the dominant stand. We say we are for X, Y, or Z, and simply ignore anything that might contradict that view. We are a Yankees fan, even if their star tests positive for steroids or cheating.

Or we compartmentalize. We may recognize and even identify with different sides, but we keep them separate. The you at church, at work, and at home are often kept separate. Teenagers are masters of compartmentalization. They show up to church or synagogue or the mosque acting like angels, treat their friends or teacher or coach with kind regard, and then are a rebel at home. Compartmentalization allows us to avoid discrepancies.

Most of the time, we choose the easy way out. We compartmentalize or categorize. We avoid or separate. What we need more is the final way to adapt, integration. Research shows that multicultural individuals who are able to integrate have higher levels of psychological well-being and a greater sense of coherence.

Integration means dealing with the thing. It means seeing the similarities between various ideas or identities, while also recognizing where they differ. It’s trying to see the whole picture, with all of the nuance we can muster. It’s being able to sit with conflicts, not jumping in to defend, and recognizing that life is a lot messier than we realize. Integration doesn’t mean we don’t stand for anything, that we don’t identify with a group, idea, or place. As with the original example of immigrants, integration means “that while people adapt as they move from one cultural context to another, they still feel that they belong to all their cultural groups.”

How do we integrate? It requires three skills:

  1. Acknowledging the nuance and complexity. That multiple viewpoints are available.
  2. Accepting the differences, and looking for similarities.
  3. Making sense of the contradictions, and where we may stand based on our values.

In other words, we can simplify or separate to avoid dealing with the thing. We can make all controversies seem like good versus evil. Or we can accept, reconcile, and integrate. We can deal with the reality of the thing, not just the simplified version presented to us. But doing so requires sitting with discomfort and not jumping down each other’s throats. We must understand that even in the most straightforward debates, there’s more nuance underneath.


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