Message from the Dean: Where Else is Ethics in the RCAH?

December 16, 2011

In my last message ("Where is Ethics in the RCAH Curriculum?") I talked about how ethics is embedded in the very lives we lead in the college. I suggested that while there are no courses solely dedicated to the history of ethical theory or applied ethics (e.g., medical ethics, business ethics, and journalism ethics), the studying, the hands-on creative making, and the collaborative civic engagement we do are social practices that value certain moral virtues. Specifically, in the RCAH we strive to live our learning with honesty, care, and mutual respect. 

Where else is ethics to be found in the RCAH? The answer is not carved in stone over the entrance to the college. It is not a motto or a moral imperative. It is implicit in the term we use to describe our first-year curriculum: transcultural.  RCAH 111 Writing in Transcultural Contexts and RCAH 201 Transcultural Change through the Ages introduce entering students to a concept that is often unfamiliar to them. In the many different sections of these two courses, each RCAH instructor presents a distinctive interpretation of the meaning of transcultural. What do they have in common? What is their implicit ethical content?

For example, students taking RCAH 111 this semester could choose from among sections devoted to travel writing and the writing of exile, stories that explore the voices of marginalized groups in the U.S., stories that highlight the differences between different literary genres, and stories that shed light on different regions within the state of Michigan. In every case, however, the focus has been on how different cultures mix, collide, and are transformed through their particular encounter with other cultures. A similar common purpose runs through the RCAH 201 sections this semester. Whether they are focused on the visual arts, the performing arts, or literature, and whether they concentrate on Africa and Europe, the Caribbean, Native American tribes, or ancient Greece, the emphasis of each section has been on how cultural changes have occurred through a process of conflict, compromise, domination, and resistance.

In these courses, “transcultural” does not refer to the transcendence of culture or its homogenization. It is not a synonym for multicultural, a term that has become vaguely associated with aspirations for racial and ethnic harmony. Transcultural relations and transcultural change refer to complex encounters with the Other and how these encounters change both parties.

In these encounters cultures do not disappear without a trace any more than they appear miraculously out of nowhere. Phrases like “hybridity” and “mélange” sometimes are used to name what emerges from this process, whether it is a more mixed-race population or a new blend of tastes, fashions, and sounds. How fairly these parties are included in the emerging social order is an important ethical issue. Will they have the same rights and duties as others?  Who owns and controls their culture -- their sounds, sacred sites, and products? These too are ethical questions, even if they are couched in legal terms such as intellectual property.

This is only the beginning of the story -- we might call it the ethical fine print. As we trace these transcultural encounters, there are often jagged edges and even sharper points of disagreement on a larger scale.  Who has been dispossessed, displaced, or disenfranchised, and by whom? Who has benefited, unwittingly or not? Are reparations due? Can compensation even be calculated? In the process of transculturation there are always historical legacies to reckon with and shared responsibilities to meet. There are no easy answers to these questions and no permanent solutions to these problems. Disagreements persist and to ignore the issue is to decide it one way or another.  This is what makes these issues ethical.

Settling accounts and acting responsibly are ethical tasks that cannot always be handed off to the state, for in some cases the state has its own vested interest.  Outsiders may step in to try to create tribunals and criminal courts in order to achieve a just reckoning, but this is rarely the end of the story. The people themselves may come together in hopes of reconciling their differences responsibly and building a more inclusive community. None of these is a perfect solution, but they keep the issues alive and their ethical significance in focus.

As older languages are absorbed into new ones and sometimes resurface, as artistic styles evolve, as borders are crossed and redrawn, and as the "privileges and immunities" of citizens change (as we have seen with our own federal Constitution), there is no avoiding ethics, in fine print or in large type. The ethical writings of famous past thinkers addressed the concrete transcultural changes that were occurring in their societies. Although their grand theories of justice can serve as inspirations for us, they cannot relieve us of the hard work of reckoning and responsibility that we face here and now. “Transcultural” may be an unfamiliar word to our new students,  but the relationships and changes it refers to are central to our experiences and central to the mission of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.