Posts by Carlos E. Cortés
Carlos E. Cortés
Professor Emeritus of History
University of California, Riverside
Let’s talk about the Holiday Season.
December is bearing down, Christmas will soon be with us, and you want to be sensitive to those of different religious persuasions. So what should you say when you decide to wish season’s greetings?
The Old Days
When I was growing up in the 1940’s in Kansas City, Missouri, it was simple. Sometimes you said “Merry Christmas.” Sometimes you said “Happy Holidays.” You listened to Bing Crosby singing both “White Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” Nobody I knew was offended.
My home was religiously mixed. My Jewish immigrant maternal grandparents fled from late-nineteenth-century Eastern European religious oppression. In Kansas City they practiced Reform Judaism. They observed Passover, Hanukkah, and the Jewish High Holy Days. But they also loved celebrating Christmas.
My mother sang in her Jewish temple choir. But she also sang Christmas carols -– we all sang Christmas carols — when the family, including my Jewish grandparents, gathered around the Christmas tree to open presents. Needless to say, my Mexican Catholic father also enjoyed Christmas.
The New Days
Things aren’t that simple today. Choosing your season’s greeting has turned into unarmed combat.
In one corner we have those who insist that you should always say “Happy Holidays” because “Merry Christmas” is insensitive, if not downright offensive, to some. In an attempt to be more religiously-inclusive, some organizations have officially dropped “Merry Christmas.” Some retailers have gone so far as to mandate that their employees only use “Happy Holidays.”
In the other corner we have those who have declared such actions to be a “War on Christmas.” Songs have been written about the “War on Christmas.” One major national organization set up an online poll asking people to rate stores on their treatment of Christmas, with one of the listed choices being “offensive.” After spending Christmas Day, 2009, with my wife’s extended family, during my drive home I listened to an entire hour on talk radio devoted to the “War on Christmas.”
Enough already, folks. Let’s all calm down.
Desperately Seeking Neutrality
“Happy Holidays” is a perfectly good neutral salutation. However, it ceases to be neutral when it becomes urged or mandated as a conscious replacement for “Merry Christmas” rather than as a freely-expressed alternate seasonal greeting.
Trying to restrict the use of “Merry Christmas” is a misguided if well-intended effort by some to mute a deeply-embedded American cultural tradition. True, some traditions deserve interment. But saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t one of them.
Maybe I run in the wrong circles, but I’ve met few non-Christians who have ever indicated to me that they found “Merry Christmas” to be offensive or exclusionary. And, because of my diversity work, I’ve talked to hundreds, maybe thousands of people, about this topic.
Certainly not all Americans celebrate Christmas or greet people with “Merry Christmas,” but that doesn’t mean that they feel offended or excluded because someone else says it to them as a genuine expression of good wishes. Hearing “Merry Christmas” comes with living in a nation where three-quarters of the people are Christians and where school calendars are organized around the Christmas holidays. Being in the minority doesn’t turn you into a hot-house plant that needs constant protection against innocently-proffered, well-meaning remarks.
Who’s Offended? Who’s Offending?
I’ve never heard a major Jewish or Muslim or Hindu American leader say that “Merry Christmas” was offensive. Nor have I seen this position taken by any of their national organizations, although admittedly I have not conducted a complete analysis.
- Jewish radio talk show hosts like Michael Medved and Dennis Prager wish their listeners “Merry Christmas.”
- My Muslim stockbroker wishes me “Merry Christmas.”
- So do my Hindu and Sikh friends.
- Irving Berlin, a Jewish composer, wrote “White Christmas.”
- Non-Christians like Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, and Neil Sedaka have recorded Christmas albums.
So if so many of those who are supposedly “offended” aren’t, then how did the idea arise that “Happy Holidays” should replace “Merry Christmas,” not just accompany it? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve got a hunch. My guess is that this admonition came from well-intended Christians who were laudably trying to be more inclusive or seeking to avoid being offensive. Right goal, wrong action, leading to the “War on Christmas” backlash.
The “War on Christmas”
“Happy Holidays” may have been a ham-handed “solution,” but this alone doesn’t explain the rise of those who hysterically declare that there is some “War on Christmas.” So what has driven that proclamation? Two causes, as I see it.
First, we’ve cheapened the use of the word, “war.” Not sure when this began. Maybe it was the 1960s’ War on Poverty. Since then we’ve launched war after war — on drugs, illiteracy, cancer, smoking, obesity, global warming, and, of course, terrorism. If we disagree, it’s got to be a war — ergo, the Culture Wars. It’s gotten so that, if you want to attract attention or show that you’re serious about something, you’ve got to either declare war or accuse others of declaring war, like the so-called educational “war against boys.”
So it was linguistically convenient to label Happy Holidays activists as anti-Christmas warriors, although my guess is that most of those Happy Holidays enthusiasts are Christians. This soon morphed into accusations that anyone who used “Happy Holidays,” no matter how innocently, must be part of the “War on Christmas.”
Then there was another contributing factor. This was a wonderful opportunity to participate in that growing national self-indulgence of becoming a victim. Hearing “Happy Holidays” provided a great opportunity for many to join the ranks of the “offended.”
For demagogues who trade on riling up their followers — or listeners — the ersatz “War on Christmas” was manna from heaven. And the campaign has worked. Some polls show that a majority of Americans now find “Happy Holidays” to be “offensive.” I wonder if that means boycotting Bing Crosby?
Certainly there have been ludicrous individual efforts to try to dumb down the cultural celebration of Christmas. In 2009, apparently based on the complaint of one (repeat, ONE) county resident, a top official of Sonoma County, California, banned stars and angels on Christmas trees in county buildings. The County Public Defender openly defied the ban and set up a Christmas tree, crowned by a star, in his office lobby. That Public Defender happened to be Jewish. The brief ban was rescinded. Yet these individual incidents, even misdirected Happy Holidays company mandates, don’t come close to being a War on Christmas.
Can’t we disagree on things without declaring war or accusing others of declaring war? Can’t we offer alternative perspectives without resorting to hyperbole and demagoguery? Can’t we interact without drawing lines in the sand? We should be able to exchange sincere traditional greetings — including both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” — without becoming offended or worrying about offending.
So let me offer some ideas for addressing this conundrum on your campuses. At its core, it requires learning to chill out in December.
- Recognize that not everyone approaches Christmas in the same way. Many Americans do not celebrate Christmas. Others view it as a cultural event, say “Merry Christmas,” and sing Christmas carols without subscribing to Christian theology.
- Don’t try to convince or coerce people into dropping “Merry Christmas.” Christmas is not just a Christian celebration. It’s a thoroughly American cultural holiday in which millions of non-Christians participate. And for millions of Americans, wishing “Merry Christmas” is an integral part of expressing and celebrating the holiday season.
- Assume good intentions. Don’t become offended if someone wishes you either “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa.” Recognize that somebody saying “Happy Holidays” or a store putting up a “Happy Holidays” sign is not an insult to Christians any more than saying “Merry Christmas” is an insult to non-Christians.
- Drop the “War on Christmas” rhetoric. It’s inflammatory and divisive. There’s no war. Misguided individual actions, yes. But no war.
- Make a serious effort to respect the various religious traditions that co-exist in our society and on our campuses. But don’t do it merely by some convenient Hanukkah add-on at Christmas-time or by trying to extend the holiday season time frame so that it manages to embrace Ramadan (which began in August this year). At the proper times, let’s all pause to recognize and honor, at least briefly, the important dates of our nation’s varied religious traditions. In the case of Judaism, that would include the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, despite the fact that they don’t occur conveniently near Christmas.
So let’s end the December Wars and declare victory –- for all Americans. Even those who seem to enjoy playing the victim and relish being offended are welcome to join the “peace effort.” Our nation would be a far better place if we could find common ground by showing true respect for our diversity, including religious diversity, and recognize that there are many ways of expressing appreciation for that diversity.
That would be a giant step toward becoming a more inclusive society.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about Season’s Greetings.
A Conversation about Diversity with Carlos E. Cortés
Professor Emeritus of History – University of California, Riverside
Let’s talk about Limits.
On June 28, 2010, in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the U. S. Supreme Court voted 5-to-4 to uphold the right of the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law to deny official recognition to a student organization, the Christian Legal Society (CLS). Hastings’ action had barred CLS from access to state funding and use of school facilities.
Albert Einstein recommended, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” So here’s the issue in a simple non-lawyer’s nut-shell.
Hastings has a nondiscrimination code for student organizations. The national Christian Legal Society requires members to sign an agreement to refrain from “a sexually immoral lifestyle,” which includes having sex outside of heterosexual marriage. The upshot is that this requirement excludes gays and lesbians, ergo discrimination. When Hastings refused to recognize the local CLS chapter, the organization took Hastings to court.
The Supreme Court could have ruled in favor of the CLS’ right of free association. Or it could have ruled in favor of Hastings’ written nondiscrimination policy. It did neither. Rather it punted, which is why the ruling’s fall-out may go on and on and on.
Instead the Court ruled in favor of Hastings on much narrower grounds –- that it had an “all-comers” policy, meaning that recognized student organizations had to accept all students who wanted to join, which CLS was not willing to do. To the court majority, this policy was OK because it was “viewpoint neutral.”
Principles in Collision
I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t comment on the legal issues involved. Obviously they are complex enough to provoke deep division within the court.
But as a diversity specialist, I find this case to be extremely significant precisely because it pits hallowed diversity principles against each other. And it exposes a slippery-slope topic studiously avoided in many diversity discussions –- the issue of when, how, and why to set Limits . . . to almost any diversity principle.
I’ve been addressing the Limits Dilemma for two decades in my diversity talks and workshops. Yet it’s also something that I find many diversity advocates unwilling to face head on.
Things were simple back in the good old days of the Civil Rights Movement. Our moral compass was clear. Eliminate racism. Down with sexism. End segregation. Simple enough.
But over the decades, diversity stuff has become more complicated, particularly when diversity principles collide. The Greek philosopher, Epictetus, argued that you must go beyond developing a moral compass. You also need to learn how to apply that compass to the map of the world, with its messy complexities.
Consider some of the general principles espoused by diversity proponents like me, principles that collided in the Hastings-CLS situation:
- support for full inclusion.
- opposition to discrimination.
- the richness of multiculturalism, including the right –- even the benefit –- of people creating and maintaining affinity groups based on common identities.
- respect for groups with varied sets of beliefs and values, sometimes referred to as cultures.
- the importance of multi-perspectivism, such as learning to understand (not necessarily accept or tolerate) the perspectives of others, including group perspectives with which you may deeply disagree.
- the need to be responsive to group differences, not just individual ones, rather than championing one-size-fits-all “solutions.”
The Limits Dilemma
Because these principles clashed in the Hastings-CLS case, whatever the Court did, its decision would have inevitably set Limits by elevating some diversity principles over others in this specific instance. Most post-decision reactions, however, have tended to gloss over this dilemma.
Backers of the decision tend to laud the Court’s support for Hastings’ “neutral” all-comers position, even as some rued the Court’s unwillingness to address the written nondiscrimination code. This reminds me of Mark Twain’s comment, when talking to a friend who claimed that he was “neutral” on a controversial issue. Responded Twain, “Then whom are you neutral against?” The Supreme Court supported neutrality against the Christian Legal Society, a victory for “one size fits all.”
In contrast, some opponents have framed the Hastings decision as the approval of a secular institution that was stomping on people of faith. Wait a minute! People of faith didn’t form a united front on this case. For example, while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Orthodox Jewish organizations supported the CLS, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and Reform Jewish organizations supported Hastings. Absent some tortuous logic that manages to exclude Jesuits and Reform Jews from people of faith, that framing doesn’t hunt.
So the Hastings-CLS case involves competing diversity imperatives: anti-discrimination vs. respect for cultural differences; full inclusion vs. support for affinity groups. Platitudes and moral pieties won’t help us engage the complex ethical challenges that arise when diversity principles clash and force us –- as institutions and as individuals –- to determine organizational and personal Limits.
Challenges for Student Affairs
Here are a few considerations for Student Affairs professionals.
- The Court’s decision was narrow, particularly its refusal to rule on Hastings’ more-elaborated written nondiscrimination policy, including the Limits it placed on individual organizations. This means that we’ll have to await future nondiscrimination code cases, some of which are already coming down the pike.
- An “all-comers” policy might “work” in a law school, but it’s trickier at the undergraduate level where, for example, fraternities and sororities select their members. What about a women’s choral society or a Muslim student association or a sports club for those with disabilities?
- Some campuses might wish to form work groups involving Student Affairs professionals, diversity experts, and legal counsel to conduct an ongoing review of current practices and written policies, while also discussing their future implications and possible unintended consequences, including the Limits Dilemma.
- When discussing complex diversity issues, we all need to be wary of holier-than-thou posturing. That also means refraining from demonizing people with whom we disagree and positions which we oppose.
Student Affairs professionals are going to need to strengthen their analytical “multicultural muscles” –- their ability to think through and make tough decisions in situations where laudable diversity principles collide. Traditional awareness training, multicultural abstractions, and rhetoric about privilege and social justice won’t suffice. We need a new generation of applied diversity training that helps professionals address the Limits Dilemma by testing conflicting diversity principles through complex real-world issues.
So let’s thank Hastings, the Christian Legal Society, and the Supreme Court for, however unintentionally, bringing us to this important multicultural crossroads. Let’s also hope it leads to more nuanced, less strident, diversity discussions.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about this case and about Limits.
A Conversation with Carlos E. Cortés
Professor Emeritus of History – University of California, Riverside
Let’s talk about labeling.
Nevada Senator Harry Reid put his foot in it when he referred to Barack Obama as “light-skinned” and having “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” These quotes surfaced this year in the book, Game Change, which dealt with the 2008 presidential campaign.
Some of the flap focused on Reid’s choice of the word, “Negro.” But that flap also raised a larger issue, the labeling of societal groups.
Well, since group labels can be so problematic, why don’t we just stop using them?
I’ve heard speakers, including diversity trainers, recommend such an approach. Get real!
We can’t live without group labels — for people, for other animals, for things. Labels are vital to communication. We couldn’t speak or write about groups without using labels.
- We don’t just buy cars. We buy Fords and Toyotas and Volkswagens. And we use group labels to talk about them.
- We don’t just write “fruits and vegetables” on our shopping lists. We use group labels to specify apples or bananas or beans or broccoli.
- People don’t just have dogs. They have Dachshunds, Cocker Spaniels, and German Shepherds.
- Tigger isn’t just our kitty. He’s an Ocicat.
We couldn’t talk about a group’s history or culture if we didn’t use a label to specify what group we’re talking about. When we discuss intergroup relations, we use labels for the groups that are interacting.
Group labels are integral to life and communication. On college campuses we use them constantly, such as:
- when describing the demographic make-up of our institutions.
- when talking about generations – Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials.
- when referring to some student groups or student centers.
- when titling courses and academic programs.
Group labels inevitably give rise to controversies, often heated ones.
Some labels are clearly wrong, mainly historically-grounded epithets used to disparage and insult a group of people. But the opposite of wrong isn’t always right. It may just be preferred, and preferences change, constantly. These changing preferences should be respected. Yet sometimes multiple labels for the same group may end up co-existing, often without any single label emerging triumphant.
Group labels change. In 1969 my campus, the University of California, Riverside, established the Mexican-American Studies Program, with support from UMAS (the United Mexican-American Students). UMAS then became MeCHA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlán. After I became Program Chair in 1972, a group of students came to me, demanding that we change the name of our program from Mexican-American (passé) to Chicano (more in vogue). I told them they didn’t need to demand, just ask. We voted to change the label and the university approved.
Label preferences change and negative epithets become labels of pride. When I was growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, during the 1940’s, you could insult people by calling them “queer.” Although that term is still controversial, we now have college courses on Queer Theory, Queer History, and Queer Literature.
Change happens. Handicap gives way to disability and, in some situations, to special needs. Each label reflects a distinct way of envisioning the group and the changing world around it.
Multiple labels for the same group sometimes co-exist. Students take Native American History classes while using books published by the American Indian Historical Society. I attend Latino conferences, read Hispanic and Hispanic Business magazines, and contribute to the National Council of La Raza.
Labels can be a puzzlement. Don’t become disoriented if the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People celebrates Black History Month by holding an African American Unity Dinner to raise money for the United Negro College Fund. One of Harry Reid’s blunders was being asleep at the switch, linguistically. But we all make labeling mistakes. It’s inevitable.
So what should student affairs professionals do? A few suggestions.
- Don’t be afraid of group labels. They’re necessary for communication.
- Avoid historically-grounded negative group epithets, unless they have morphed into labels of group pride.
- Remain alert to changing group preferences and respect those changes. But don’t expect to find a permanent, change-resistant right word.
- Cut other folks some slack. None of us can be up-to-date on changing preferences for every group. We’ll make “mistakes.”
- Don’t play group label “gotcha,” because constantly correcting others throws cold water on communication.
- Pick your moments to explain label changes. Usually it’s better to do it one-on-one, not in group discussions to embarrass others and show off your supposed labeling superiority.
Group labels are inevitable and necessary. Try to use them in ways that connote respect rather than disparagement. But realize that nobody ever achieves labeling perfection.
You won’t always be right. In fact, you can’t always be right because sometimes there isn’t any right. We’ve got to learn to live with that dilemma.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about labeling.
Welcome to the beginning of Diversity: A Conversation, dedicated to this subject of profound importance to our nation and certainly to higher education. I hope this can become the site of a calm, civil, contemplative conversation about diversity, an exploration of its complexities and ambiguities, and an examination of its real-world consequences, challenges, and opportunities.
- You’ll respond and raise other issues.
- I’ll respond to your responses.
- We’ll talk, not shout.
Our conversation will take us in many directions. We shall:
- explore diversity, the idea.
- consider its real-world applications.
- examine controversial issues and dilemmas.
- express alternative views while seeking common ground.
- and, of course, discuss the intersection of diversity with higher education, particularly student affairs.
But why now? And why a conversation? Let’s start with the first question. Why? Quite simply, because OrgSync asked me to write this column.
This past November I gave the closing keynote address at the western regional conference of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. In attendance was an OrgSync representative, who involved me in conversations with other OrgSync members. This led to an invitation to write a regular diversity column for the OrgSync blog.
The offer came at a serendipitous moment. I had just finished the manuscript of my autobiography and had begun working on a book on diversity. The book will bring together ideas based on my four decades of dealing with diversity issues — as a history professor at the University of California, Riverside and, since early retirement in 1994, as an independent diversity lecturer, writer, consultant, workshop presenter, and futurist.
In working with more than 1,000 institutions and organizations, I’ve grappled with the myriad diversity-related complications that arise:
- when perspectives clash.
- when theory collides with practice.
- when bigotry erupts and discrimination persists.
- when attempts at solving problems generate perplexing unintended consequences.
- when history invades contemporary life.
- when the future becomes now.
Why do I want this to be a conversation? Because we need one.
Not a debate, not an irate exchange, not a rant, not a stream of hyperbolic accusations and criticisms, not obdurate defensiveness, not an erecting of ideological ramparts. We’ve had plenty of that. Rather a simple conversation, honestly and seriously addressing tough issues and perplexing dilemmas with civility and without vitriol.
The kind of conversation I’ve been having around the country at colleges, universities, school districts, independent schools, government agencies, businesses, national organizations, religious institutions, and community groups. The kind of conversation I’ve been having each summer during my two decades of teaching about diversity for the Harvard Institute for Higher Education’s Management and Leadership in Education (MLE) and Management Development Program (MDP).
I envision a conversation that:
- seeks thoughtful approaches to old challenges and contemplative responses to emerging issues.
- leads to greater intergroup understanding and deeper insight into culture, institutions, social structures, and societal practices.
- moves us toward common ground while recognizing that differing positions will remain.
- recognizes similarities while also enabling us to live more constructively with differences.
- considers ways to work toward both excellence and equity.
- enables us to create a more constructive and less strident engagement with diversity.
- helps us become more reflective in our own lives, more capable in our careers, and more effective on our own campuses.
We can all benefit from such a conversation. I hope you’ll join me in making that conversation a reality.