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Episode 3 (season 2): Mounir Samuel on Language, Today's Big Question, and the Diversity-skill in Employment

"There's a cognitive dissonance between who we are, our actual concerns, what we value, and how we'd like to live—in green environments, greeting neighbors warmly, comfortable among diverse cultures, where churches and mosques celebrate together."

>>> Intro

Welcome to this episode where we join Mounir Samuel at his kitchen table. We invited Mounir as a guest on our podcast following the success of his book "Je Mag Ook Niets Meer Zeggen. Een Nieuwe Taal Voor Een Nieuwe Tijd" now in its second edition with even more insights. In his book, Mounir offers recommendations through 15 values to shape our language and reality to be inclusive—or more aptly, diversity-skilled. One of the book's standout quotes is, "An encounter happens twice. First in the mind, and then lifelong in reality." Our conversation aims to better understand how to make these real-life encounters possible, including in the workplace. Join us and meet Mounir Samuel in this third episode of season 2.

Mounir, you are a political scientist, author, journalist, performance artist, trainer, presenter, and cultural entrepreneur at the intersection of media, politics, religion, language, culture, and climate, seeking answers to today's big questions.

You're making me blush.

We always give our guests the opportunity to introduce themselves on the podcast. For those who might not know Mounir Samuel, how would you introduce yourself?

I'd say my name means "he who brings light," and I see it as my life's mission to reflect God's light, shining where there is darkness, even if it's often uncomfortable, requires stepping out of the comfort zone, and is confrontational. In this country, I'm often called an uncomfortable messenger or a Prophet in that sense. For me, it's about constantly seeking how I can show God's unconditional love for everyone and everything without sweeping anything under the rug. The truth is, we're at a crossroads in time. If we don't make certain choices now, we soon won't have the option. I'm talking about the climate crisis, the collapse of international law, and many other issues like the rise of extreme right-wing fascism, violence against women, sexual violence, the movement against LGBTQ+ individuals, and more. We're living in a disrupted time, and sometimes, it's necessary to "break the bones to set them straight" (I hope that's not ableist, but I find it a powerful metaphor).

You're not just a linguistical engineer but also a kind of societal osteopath.

I love that term! I'll have to add it to my website.

Well, welcome, and we're thrilled you agreed to join the podcast. You've already touched on the societal impact you hope to create or contribute to. What energizes you to start your day with enthusiasm?

Gospel music. I always wake up to music and try to rise with praise on my lips, as the Psalms suggest. I wake up, write, move, and cycle through the city to music. I can't do anything without it. It's not always Christian music, but in the morning, I love playing music with soul and spirit. It could be India Arie or similar artists. It's more faith-based music than the typical "gentle shepherd Jesus" tunes, but it's music that stirs my soul, brings hope and light. Considering the complex, challenging, and sometimes frightening issues I deal with, including their intersections—because nothing stands alone for me—and witnessing the immediate effects of the climate crisis at a scale and speed unimaginable at this kitchen table, one might expect me to become depressed. And I was for many years in my twenties, especially when working as a correspondent in war zones. But by embracing beauty and standing in the eternal love of God, knowing "this too shall pass," and that there is life after life and a beginning to every new start, I remain upbeat. So people often say, "You're discussing the most terrible things but with a smile." Because I have hope beyond despair. If I start my day with aggressive hip-hop, I won't have the same energy. Though it can be enjoyable at the gym, it serves a different purpose there.

In your book "Je Mag Ook Niets Meer Zeggen," you emphasize that language shapes reality and can also exclude realities. You present five themes and fifteen values, providing ample context, history, and urgency, along with recommendations. Essentially, it's a thoughtful book that encourages readers to reflect on various matters.

As part of the Web-Blenders group, we're committed to creating meaningful work for as many people as possible. "Meaningful" in two senses: firstly, considering that we spend so many hours of our lives working, it's crucial to feel a sense of contribution; and secondly, creating jobs that ensure a sustainable world for future generations.

Exactly. Meaningful work is one of the four pillars of true happiness. Contrary to popular belief, it's not love or romantic relationships, but rather friendship, family, meaningful work, and giving. Surprisingly, 80% of people in Northwest Europe are in jobs that don't make them happy, leading to what we often label as burnout or stress symptoms. But, I believe it's more about psychological distress. There's also another group: those who not only seek meaningful work but are currently employed in roles that conflict with their ideals and beliefs. Such a situation can cause profound unhappiness. You might be earning well, but for how long can money mask and cover up those wounds?

Yes, I see your point. We often hear about 'people being distant from the job market,' but we turn this around by asserting that it's the job market that is distant from people.

That's correct.

In your book, you discuss various urgencies, but when thinking about said distance and obstacles, what would be the first urgency that should be addressed?

Let me start by explaining a bit about the book. You can think of it as a blueprint for what I call a value-driven and diversity-skilled society, and consequently, for such environments in education, healthcare, workplaces, government, police, etc. It works from the inside out, starting with the core identity of every individual. What do we often know about a child even before they breathe their first breath of polluted air? Their gender, or at least, what we assume with the unfortunate trend of gender reveal parties. And that's where the labeling and assumptions start. "We're proud to announce the birth of our son," and "We're happy with the birth of our daughter"—note the diminutive. This labeling continues, starting with the child's physical attributes and then expanding. In the book, I build upon this like a pyramid—being of Egyptian-Dutch heritage helps in this metaphorical construction. As the child grows and begins to move, read, or interact, they may face challenges, like not being able to walk, see, or process information at the same pace as their peers. Then they face a handicap, not because of their ability but because society isn't equipped to accommodate them. Then comes the part about decolonization and racism. I have a dark-skinned father and a white mother, but as a child, I never thought of myself as having a 'color,' even though I had literally two color groups at home. But when I first went to school, I came home and asked my mother, "Why do I have a different fur than the other kids?" indicating that the other children had made me aware of my different skin color, which I innocently referred to as 'fur.' And when you draw this to the labor market, it's about this accumulation of labels. In the book, I extensively address sexism but also link it to how people of color are treated—or rather, interacted with—and stack these issues. We tend to diminish women, starting with "little girl," then "young lady with a cute job," who has written a "nice little book" and set up a "cute little business." But let's compare how we approach a 20-year-old white man and a 20-year-old Moroccan-Flemish man. Let's say the first man is 1.75 meters tall (or 1.85 meters in the Netherlands) and Mohammed is 1.70 or 1.68 meters. We call the white Flemish or Dutch man 'guy,' 'gentleman,' 'sir,' and Mohammed gets 'little guy,' 'kid,' 'little fellow.'

This belittling continues and carries over into scenarios such as salary negotiations, where one might lack confidence due to a hyper-awareness of how they're perceived based on appearance, accent, beliefs, or even gender. The book serves as a framework where I first construct, then deconstruct, and finally reconstruct, leading towards a truly value-driven society with a language that acknowledges and facilitates justice and equality. It envisions a world where people interact on a much more equal footing, whether at a meeting table, during presentations, or in discussions on institutional racism, accessibility issues, or how we treat people with dementia. For instance, a person can have an illustrious career and win Nobel Peace Prizes, but once they're diagnosed with dementia, they're often reduced to just their condition, erasing everything about who they were as a parent, employee, or artist. We consistently dehumanize people, even referring to individuals in wheelchairs as "the wheelchair," reducing them to their assistive device. Recognizing this highlights the stark inequalities in our society and the challenges present in everyday interactions across different identity lines, where it's simply more comfortable to be a Peter than a Patricia. Many claim, "You can't say anything these days," until they attend my training or read the book and realize, "Wow, we really need to change our language." Even the most resistant individuals, who may start off defensive, eventually engage when a topic resonates personally, perhaps relating to their mother, a child with dyslexia, or a spouse with bipolar disorder. It's about finding that one point of connection that allows us to build bridges to people with refugee backgrounds, migration histories, and more.

It's all about forging deeper connections.

Yes. But you need an emotional trigger, which is often missing because we discuss topics in a very one-dimensional manner. We talk only about Islamophobia (though I prefer to call it Muslim hatred), only about sexism, only about institutional racism. Or you hear, "It doesn't concern me because I'm colorblind"—which, by the way, is a medical condition, not a social-psychological fact. Everyone perceives color, especially skin color. But when you start linking these issues, you can create emotional engagement from an area of misunderstanding or indifference. And it turns out that even if you are a black lesbian transgender woman in a wheelchair—bringing a lot of diversity to the table—you could still harbor Islamophobic or anti-Semitic views. Having multiple diversity "checkmarks" doesn't automatically make you a champion of diversity and inclusion, terms I find somewhat problematic.

I'm glad you brought that up. Diversity and inclusion are often confused, and I've reached a point where I think, "Enough about diversity—it's a given. Let's take action on inclusion!" That was until I read your book, where you introduced the concept of "diversity skills."


Please explain.

Diversity simply means variety. If you look it up in a dictionary, it's defined as the state of being diverse. So, you can have a diversity of music styles, a diversity of people. Honestly, if this is a revelation in 2024, I'd question whether evolution is really happening (a doubt I often have, to be honest). Inclusion, on the other hand, is about integrating people who are different in any way. This could mean being a tennis player in a football club or a Muslim in a Christian community. The point is, you are the 'other.' And eventually, you might be allowed to participate, but it's more about joining something that already exists.

To draw an analogy with a party, as I do in the book, imagine this: a party is planned, the venue booked, the time set, the music style chosen, the DJ hired, and the snacks decided (whether halal or not, alcoholic or not, meat-based or vegan). All these details are predetermined. Then there's this marginalized group, standing aside, and you think, "It's unfair they're just in the corner; they should join in." But they had no say in any of the arrangements, which is also true for most companies. They haven't had the chance to influence the culture, language, systems, level of participation, or even the processes for addressing issues, from confidential advisors to whistleblower systems. So, you're included in what already exists, but you're not really building a new company where everyone starts from an equal footing.

Of course, I understand that there might be a director and that companies, even those claiming to be horizontal, often have a vertical structure. But who decides the culture? Who defines what 'good work' is? An interesting concept I've developed is the privilege pyramid, which, instead of positioning oneself on a single line—thereby reproducing discomfort and exclusion because someone is always at the back and the same people are always at the front (leading to a lot of discomfort and the people in the middle breathing a sigh of relief because they have just enough privilege not to feel guilty but not too much)—I have participants build a pyramid outside of themselves, asking, "What building blocks take you furthest in society, or in your company or school?"

At a major Dutch company, a key player, I trained 120 people, and to my astonishment, they were almost all blond except for one black woman; there wasn't even a brunette among them. Blue eyes were also predominant, which is rare in the Netherlands; I felt like I was in a remote part of Australia! It was quite shocking. When they formed groups to build the pyramid, the first thing that stood out was that all the men immediately formed their own groups, turning it into a battle of the sexes, complete with jokes and remarks. The men, especially the older ones, quickly discarded certain cards: non-binary, black, transgender woman, possessing a Dutch passport, leaving few options to build the pyramid as I had instructed. When I asked why they removed those cards, they said, "They don't apply to us." I then asked, "What's the key to success in this company?" The answer was entrepreneurial spirit. But then, what defines entrepreneurial spirit? From their perspective, they saw each other as entrepreneurial, implying that those who didn't resemble them weren't, since none were hired, except for the one woman who was a receptionist. I couldn't make them see this as a significant blind spot, a term I find complex, until the women showed their pyramid. They walked around viewing the other seven pyramids, which had placed black, non-binary, and transgender woman at the bottom. A man insisted, "We have a horizontal organization," yet their organization was far from horizontal in this pyramid scheme. This insight is confronting because you think you have objective hiring criteria and that your company values curiosity and inquiry. But in many cultures, asking questions might be considered impolite or inappropriate. If you're a person of color, you learn to keep a low profile, not to be too loud, too energetic, or too present. In the Netherlands, I often hear, "Don't be so noticeable," "Don't take up so much space," "You're so loud," "You're so emotional." Women and people of color, especially feminine gay men and transgender women, are frequently told they're overemotional... "Are you on your period? Do you need sex?" It can go very far. Then you naturally become more reserved, less likely to ask questions, labeled as uncurious. Meanwhile, Pleun and Olaf, who never face such remarks, can freely ask additional questions. Though in Flanders, people might be generally less inclined to ask questions and be loud, speaking here from the bold Dutch context.

This perceived objectivity is an illusion.

It's shaped by what we recognize and are familiar with. So, we identify certain forms of professionalism or leadership. But if we truly examine today's world leaders and commercial giants like Elon Musk, we find a dangerously destructive cocktail propelling these men to success, sometimes at the cost of global stability, whether through warfare or launching rockets. We need a reevaluation where we question whether prosperity is the ultimate measure for a society, or if it should be well-being. New Zealand, for instance, decided years ago to abandon Gross National Product in favor of a happiness index to gauge societal health, presented annually in a state address similar to what some countries do during their budget announcements. So, what should we be assessing? Is it about how many people are incarcerated, or how many have re-entered the job market? What are the metrics we should be focusing on, and do we need to redefine them?

I can imagine there's a lot of resistance to these ideas.

That's the fascinating part. At the start of my training, when I ask who feels restricted in what they can say, only two or three hands go up out of a hundred. But when I ask who thinks we should all speak less, about half to two-thirds agree. And when I ask who wants to learn how to express themselves better, nearly 90% raise their hands. The media and populist politics have spun a narrative that's been endlessly reiterated until it's believed, but in reality, most people are eager to engage in necessary conversations. They're deeply concerned but unsure how and why, and this real concern doesn't always emerge from elections or surveys. The majority of Dutch and Belgians are genuinely worried about climate change, and those living in flood-prone areas fear the eventual encroachment of the sea or rivers. It's clear from every study that most people are concerned, and in every gathering, regardless of political leanings, this topic resonates. Yet, looking at election results and the success of parties that deny climate change or refuse to act on it, you'd think we're indifferent. There's a cognitive dissonance between who we are, our actual concerns, what we value, and how we'd like to live—in green environments, greeting neighbors warmly, comfortable among diverse cultures, where churches and mosques celebrate together. Yet, we might be hesitant to voice these desires or unsure how to, allowing our narrative to be hijacked by those with a more destructive, albeit clear, story that doesn't reflect our society. Many who vote for parties like Forum or PVV conscientiously recycle, engaging in what you might call ecological or sustainable practices, yet you wouldn't know it from the polls. That's why I find it crucial to continuously engage with different communities, from schools to community centers, helping people realize who they truly are, their genuine motivations and aspirations. I'm convinced that most employers, even those leading predominantly white or male-dominated companies, would prefer a different setup. However, they often fall back into comfortable patterns based on assumptions.

You mentioned earlier living with hope. That hope seems to be evident in what you're saying, along with a kind of confidence. Or am I seeing that wrong? – I mean, am I not understanding this correctly?

For the people wondering about the grappling with language, it's because phrases like "take by the hand," "you can see it," "you can hear it," "a handbook," "take the first step," all imply ableism. They assume that everyone can grab, see, hear, stand up, and take that step. This isn't inherently wrong—before anyone thinks "now I can't say anything"—but it's important to be aware of how society is geared towards being able to see, hear, process information, etc.

Yes, I have hope, but sometimes that hope exists despite humanity. On one hand, when meeting people individually or in groups, you realize there's much more passion, love, and value than what the news might suggest. And when I consider the success of this book... It's remarkable that an Egyptian Dutch, devoutly Christian trans man of color with a visual impairment can influence what's considered "new Dutch," widely accepted as "this is it"—truly unimaginable! I'm not even a linguist or language expert. For me, language is more a tool than an end in itself. But I also have this deep belief that this world will pass away, and a new earth will come, which is a completely different way of living. It doesn't make me a doomsday prepper waiting in a basement for the end times; it gives me a kind of hope.

In recent months, I became somewhat despondent, especially considering the situation in Gaza. But then I was in Egypt. In Luxor, you have these temples right in the middle of the city—the McDonald's is literally opposite the Luxor Temple. The oldest parts of the Luxor Temple date back 6,000 years. Time stands so still there; it's eternal, beyond seasons, centuries, and millennia. And I thought, considering all that Egypt has endured, being the world's first colonized country by the European expansion of the Greeks and Romans, followed by the Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, French, Italians, and British... Reflecting on that... The period of colonization lasting over 2,000 years is still nothing compared to the great pharaonic reigns that lasted much longer. And in Egypt, despite current challenges, there's a sense of resilience: "we stand." And those statues still stand, having survived earthquakes, famines, wars, massive Nile floods, and severe droughts. This provides a sense of eternity beyond the daily concerns. I found liberation from the day-to-day worries there, which deeply impacted me, especially now.

You explain in a way that also urges us to open up the world of work, and the 'society in miniature' that a work context is, to the fact that there's more to us, that we are more.

Yes, I believe the biggest issue in our society is our inability to be still, to move in silence, and to delve deep enough within ourselves to take our gut feelings seriously—they're often accurate indicators. They warn us of rising waters, misguided elections, increasing violence against women, an overly sexualized society, and the reality of racism. Across all religions and philosophical beliefs, whether it was Aristotle, the Stoics, Buddha, or Jesus, there was always a period of retreat—into the desert, atop a mountain, or as a hermit—often before their calling. Muhammad (peace be upon him) was in the desert before his revelation. This is a cross-religious, cross-philosophical truth, and one of my favorite Bible verses is "Be still and know that I am God." Unfortunately, this isn't translated the same in Flemish and Dutch Bibles, but it's about finding stillness to recognize the divine.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I'm unable to function in a nine-to-five job. It makes me depressed, sick, utterly mad, or it would do the same to my colleagues. I just can't do it. This means I'm often restless, as I don't have performances or gigs every day. But this also gives me the space to deeply introspect, which allowed me to write ‘Je Mag Ook Niets Meer Zeggen.' In it, I navigated through my own experiences of sexual violence, transition, discrimination, ethnic profiling, and bullying to make it relatable for readers. However, it's not a biography or a personal narrative—it transcends my individual experiences. I had to forgive society or certain individuals within it to write a value-driven, loving book with universal insights that resonate with what it truly does to a person, without making it about me. Otherwise, it would not be broadly applicable and would become just another narcissistic "selfie book." This was a huge challenge and also the best therapy I could have ever had, though the process was far from enjoyable. I cried a lot and became furious, reliving suppressed memories. It was a personal journey.

But when discussing society, because I sadly—and it does make me very sad—don't have a partner, a family, a nine-to-five job, and because I'm not engaged with social media due to my vision, I'm not caught up in a TikTok race or have children calling for "daddy." This gives me much more distance, peace, and space to dwell in deep discomfort. It makes you uneasy, restless, and impatient. But just when I think I'm sinking into depression or becoming too detached from society, I gain incredibly clear insights and practical solutions because I take the time to truly listen. To listen to the Earth, to the outcry of society. What's the loudest cry in society today? "See me, hear me, listen to me, believe me!" This is what the person protesting racism cries out. It's what the farmers blocking roads demand, what the #MeToo movement and Women's Marches, fighting for the next wave of feminism, are saying. It's the plea of Muslims who've felt excluded and marginalized for years, of Jews witnessing the rise of anti-Semitism and feeling personally attacked by the catastrophic policies of Israel. It's the scream of the youth warning us that the planet is dying, that there might be no future for them, questioning the very idea of bringing children into this world. It's the constant outcry. But it's also the whisper of the lonely elderly in a care home, as cuts after cuts are made to healthcare, driving them to vote for far-right parties because they no longer feel their country is their own, no longer feel safe or recognized in the streets or in the news. It's this constant cry. But you can only hear it if you become very still and think, "What's the common thread among all these movements? Among all this shouting, but also among all those young people lost to TikTok and Instagram, or those 'incels' lost in the dark web?" It's always "See me, hear me, believe me."

You're essentially taking a broad view, recognizing the interconnectedness, the intersectionality. You can't focus solely on inclusion without considering the ecosystem it's part of. But if we zoom in specifically on employment and job-seeking, we always differentiate between structural issues like institutional racism, housing crises, and the challenges of public transport accessibility without a car, and personal issues like shyness, unfamiliarity with local customs, doubts about eye contact, or self-promotion in interviews. When guiding job seekers, should the focus be more on overcoming personal hurdles or tackling these structural barriers?

In day-to-day interactions, from the standpoint of "see me, hear me, believe me," the personal approach is crucial. However, this must be balanced with an acknowledgment of systemic exclusion. If we fail to recognize this, we risk reducing societal challenges to mere personal problems. Zooming in, there are a few key points:

  1. Understandable Dutch is also correct Dutch. We need to move away from the traditional job application letter, which disadvantages people with dyslexia, multilingual speakers, and those with lesser Dutch writing skills. Let's allow for new forms of application, like video messages, and recognize the immense value of multilingualism in a global and, more accurately, pluricultural society. For someone for whom Dutch is their eighth language, it's understandable they might make mistakes, particularly with articles, which are notoriously rule-defying. This is a simple, practical piece of advice.
  2. Representation correction is necessary. This is my term for quotas. Having just one "Mohammed" or one woman at the top often leads to undue attention due to their rarity among similar-looking peers, inadvertently making them representatives of an entire group. True diversity is achieved when you have multiple individuals from the same background, revealing the uniqueness of each person's experiences and breaking stereotypes. It's crucial to hire multiple diverse individuals simultaneously, for everyone's benefit, to reshuffle the deck. This allows for initial bonding over shared experiences but eventually leads to broader integration based on shared interests or values beyond just identity. This is why the EU now supports quotas for women. But "quota" is a loaded term; it's really about correcting representation, a starting point rather than an end goal. Ideally, hiring wouldn't be based on identity alone, but on a mix of factors including skills, experiences, and perspectives, without reducing individuals to mere "tokens" of diversity.
  3. Diversity inquiries should be thoughtful, not tokenistic. When seeking to diversify, it's crucial to avoid reducing individuals to diversity "checkmarks." Martin Luther King Jr. warned against tokenism—hiring one black woman, for instance, shouldn't be about her bringing "the black perspective." What is "the black perspective," anyway? Experiences vary widely within any group, and it's essential to seek specific viewpoints or experiences—Afro-centric, Islamic, LGBTQ+—without assuming any single person embodies the entirety of that perspective.

By focusing on these areas, we can work towards a more inclusive and equitable job market and society, where diversity-skill is genuinely valued and structural barriers are systematically addressed.

Basic Dutch is still Dutch. We're focused on correcting representation, not just ticking off diversity checkboxes.

Yes, but we're seeking different perspectives, lines of thought, and insights. This might mean, for instance, aiming to expand collaboration with East Africa and seeking experts in that region. This could unexpectedly include a white Dutch individual who spent their childhood in East and West Africa due to their parents' missionary or diplomatic work. While this person shouldn't be the only hire, their unique background could serve as an interesting bridge alongside other hires from the region.

Mounir, may I thank you sincerely?

You're welcome.

I could listen to you for hours, but...

Everyone is welcome to read my book.

By the way I’d love to visit Flanders again. I always find working there intriguing due to the focus on language and how its interpretation varies so significantly. I always learn a lot from those experiences.

Please let us know when you’re coming.

Will do.

>>> Outro

You've been listening to an episode of 'Let's Talk About Work,' a podcast by the WEB-Blenders group, supported by I-Diverso. Our discussions revolve around work, the journey to employment, well-being at work, and everything related. You can find us on your favorite podcast platform and at www.blenders.be/podcast. Follow us on social media on LinkedIn under Podcast Let's Talk About Work, and on Instagram as blenders.podcast.letstalk. Stay updated through the Blenders newsletter. Were you intrigued? Did this conversation spark any thoughts? Would you like to be one of our next guests? Let us know at info@blenders.be, and you might just find yourself joining us at the table soon.