Ask the White Guy: Is It OK to Alter Your Standards to Conform to Another Culture?

The White Guy responds to a reader's comment regarding the imminent repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and what consequences could result when cultures conflict where our troops are stationed abroad.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

[Here] is an honest question that hit me this week after a briefing from the Afghan Marine Brigade commander. My comment is regarding the eminent [sic] repeal of DADT. If it is repealed and gays are serving openly, what happens in the Middle East and Afghanistan? I am certain Al Qaida and the Taliban will use this as recruiting propaganda in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sorry if it seemed offensive, I am an ENDP (Myers-Briggs) and it is in my nature to ask tough questions that bring out the strongest arguments from people. I think it is critical to examine the impact of these decisions. I think the timing for the repeal is very, very bad.

This is a good question—and a common theme in diversity management. The answer goes back to defining values.

Our culture is increasingly demanding respect for people’s orientation. As Admiral Mullen said in the congressional hearing about ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.” I think he did a magnificent job in simply expressing the crux of this matter. President Obama recently put a deadline on ending DADT. It’s just about over; our country’s values have been expressed. Many gay and lesbian troops have served in the two wars we’ve been fighting for the past eight years (as they have served since our Revolution). We are at the threshold of finally respecting our service people and veterans for the whole people they are.

In my opinion, it is damaging to change our values to conform to other people’s values.*

The minute we cede our values, we put ourselves on a slippery slope. What’s next? Their culture doesn’t allow women to be in positions of authority (outside the house)? OK, women won’t serve in this area. Hmm, what about Secretary Clinton (or Secretary Rice, before her)? No problem, we’ll send a man. Don’t like Christians, Hindus, Buddhists or Jews? Of course—we’ll send a Muslim.

Oh, oh—now WE look and act like the Taliban.

History demonstrates that you can win the war by projecting power kinetically, but you win the peace by projecting values. What is more of a recruiting aid to al-Qaeda? Upholding our civil and human rights—or our side torturing people and bending the law with “flights of rendition”? I think we help extremists best when we are hypocritical.

* This is not meant to give license to be rude. Do you prefer modest dress? No problem, we’ll dress modestly. Don’t drink alcohol or eat pork? No problem, we’ll serve you halal meals and we can skip the beer today to be hospitable. Is it Ramadan? No problem, we won’t have a business lunch.

Sexuality shouldn’t typically come up in a business setting. For example, it’s not acceptable to make out with or fondle someone in a business meeting, or a squadron picnic, in the cockpit, on the firing line, or out on patrol. Now if you ask about someone’s family, you may hear something that is different than what you do (in my case, my wife and I adopted children that are not our race). That’s OK—as a reader recently wrote, “I’m not different than you, I’m different like you.”

One last thing: Our constitutional protections on religion mean that the end of DADT and a religion’s rights are separate. Our Constitution protects your church, synagogue or temple from ever having to marry two men or two women. Those are our American values.

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  • I think you are “spot on” with your comments about repeal of the DADT legislation. If was a stupid policy and it actually created more harm than help. How can someone tell if a soldier is GLBT in a uniform on patrol, in a staff meeting or driving a tank?

    I understand the military is a unique kind of workplace but no workplace should prevent people from being themselves and doing their job to the best of their abilgies.

  • I completely agree. We have to be courteous towards those with different value systems, but that stops short of performing acts of discrimination toward devalued groups, just because someone else believes in doing so. To do so is cowardly and just plain wrong and, you know, I do not believe that it would earn any respect from anyone.

  • Nicely argued. I think we should celebrate what we have in common – not what makes us different because, aren’t we ALL different?

  • Luke, concise yet thorough response! Why do people wrongfully project that an out gay person’s sexual orientation is going to be any more obvious than a straight person’s? That says something. Another question is whether Al Quida (and the like) use the fact that Israel allows openly gay people to serve in the military as a recruiting tool? And who cares if they do! The moment that we curb our morals to conform with their hatred (within the bounds of common decency, as you explained), they win. Many nations allow gay people to serve openly in their militaries, but none of the what-if scenarios that defenders of DADT ever manifest there. Hmm…

  • Luke,
    It is an exceptional response. I agree with everything you said except “our country’s values have been expressed”. We are a culturally diverse country and there are still millions of Americans who disagree with the repeal of DADT.

    One of the guests asked a great question, “How can someone tell if a soldier is GLBT in a uniform on patrol, in a staff meeting or driving a tank?” They can’t, but the decision will be announced in the international press. Al-Qaida and the Taliban will try to exploit the very point that “our country’s values have been expressed”. It may make some insurgents fight harder. Some of the individuals who are our allies now may abandon us.

    The services are studying the impact of the repeal. What if they determine the repeal will have an adverse impact on our military and the war effort?

  • Agreed, and congratulations on a great piece of writing!

    I’ve always been amazed by the number of GLBT men and women who are willing to risk their lives in the military for a country that did not afford them equal rights!

  • I am so happy for all of us Americans that DADT is being repealed. My personal reason (which does not have to be shared by everyone) is that repealing DADT is a form of acknowledgment of our shared humanity. Most every human being engages in the sex act. Who cares with whom and how sex is had, as long as it is engaged in behind closed doors and no one dies as a result.

    This is a victory for homosexuals in the armed services. This is a victory for straight, white, Christians. This is a victory for Blacks and Latinos and everyone else! The homosexuals get what they want and the straight, white Christians get absolved and forgiven.

    Straight, gay, black, white: Diverse America…. listen up! This country has a PILE of problems that need solving. Time to set aside differences once and for all and act like a TEAM and solve these problems. It is within our power. It is within our reach.

    Let us set aside the old ghosts of the past generation. Let us lay the spirit of the Baby Boomer “categorization” of humanity to rest now in the 21st century. Let us begin to learn who we are for one another. Let us have a return to people speaking clear and intelligent English to one another in America, without words’ meanings getting all twisted around. Let us live in fellowship and harmony and joy and abundance and prosperity.

    Despite the circumstances, do not stop believing. Never give up hope. It is the last thing to be lost.


  • I agree that ENDA should pass and DADT should be eliminated. However, I can’t help thinking that we must offer other people the same right to maintain their values and standards that we desire for ourselves. When values or standards are inconsistent, this can lead to an intractable conflict. For an example, let’s say we insist that the sexual orientation (or any other demographic dimension) is irrelevant and thus send as an important emissary to another country a person who is gay (or whatever). If that is contrary to their values, they have a right to reject that emissary. Whose rights should dominate? Unfortunately, I do not see any easy solution to this dilemma. My general point is that we should always mentally reverse roles when making statements about rights and appropriate behavior and then ask whether we would still defend the same position. In John Rawls’ terms, we should consider all policies from “behind the veil of ignorance.”

  • Luke,

    I second the motion: You say that if you have clarity around values, decision-making becomes streamlined. YES! YES! YES!

    Let me put forth a scenario: A Muslim, A Christian, and a Jew are all on the same board of directors. Someone says something controversial that interrupts a healthy debate around a business decision.

    Two choices become apparent: one: either the members argue ad naseum and break down the communication process and kill the space for a good business decision to be rendered: i.e. one that is at once geared toward protecting the environment and creating profit OR two: take on a posture of listening instead of talking. Hear out the person who is speaking to you and who is saying things that are occurring as “grating” or as “intolerable” or as “difficult to hear”.

    Clarity around values provides the space for all three people, the Muslim, the Christian, and the Jew to express themselves fully and not to offend anyone at all! Why? Because even if God (be He the God of the Jewish interpretation, the Muslim interpretation or the Muslim interpretation) is the SAME benevolent force in the universe. The messenger is not as important as the message. And, we humans continually assume that we “know” God. I assert respectfully that we do not and that we cannot. There is some knowledge that is outside of our ken.

    Philosophically speaking, this is what Rawls refers to as the “veil of ignorance”. Rawls means the ignorance of emptiness and meaninglessness; not the ignorance of hatred and bigotry and intentional hard-headedness.

    What would it be like if we were being open and patient with one another?

  • I keep hearing about the “effect on the milatary”. I am a classic military brat. I grew up in military communities around the world. In those days, the 50’s and 60’s, the military was the only truly integrated place in the country. I will always remember attending segregated schools off-base in Alabama and how strange it was that my friends from next door had to take a different bus. My father was a top sergeant Ozark Hillbilly, but his friends included Blacks, Latinos and Orientals. During WWII, a Black sailor died saving his life in the North Sea and he felt a deep obligation to be intolerant of intolerance. I don’t see any difference here. It is about accomplishing the mission and having each other’s backs, not about race, culture, religion or sexual preference.

  • Hmm. Yaser Arafat was well-known as being gay but that didn’t seem to stop Muslims from following him for decades as their leader. Maybe openly allowing gays in the military would set an example for tolerance that would pull people away from Al Quida and the Taliban – after all, many Muslims abhor the intolerance of those groups.

  • In regards to your comment, “in my case, my wife and I adopted children that are not our race,” there is only one race–the human race.

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