Community Media as Wisdom Institutions

This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be having a conversation about the role of community media as a potential wisdom institution, and how we, as community media makers, can play a role in developing an inclusive and forward-looking culture that helps new and emergent members of our communities to contribute to a society that is sustainable, ethical and vibrant with creative energy.

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The explosion of anxiety in our society comes as a result of people and their communities being left to fend for themselves in an increasingly complicated and interconnected globalised culture. The values of international capitalism, which fuel this anxiety, are geared towards the reward of individual enterprise (i.e. speculation), while at the same time largely disregarding the contribution to society by anyone who isn’t interested in wealth and power accumulation as individuals. If your focus is care, not gain, then you won’t find yourself at the front of many queues for resources and status.

Furthermore, as our society continues to change, with wave after wave of new technologies altering the way we use transportation, communication, biotech and Artificial Intelligence, to name only some of the massive changes we are facing, we’ve really got no other option, so it seems, than to try to work things out for ourselves. Increasingly, and for many of us, there are perilously few places and institutions that help us to gain a stable footing, from which we can stand firm and look and plan ahead.

Those who came before us never had to deal with a society so technically rich, complex and interconnected as ours. The question that is relevant presently, then, is if we can work out what the hell we are doing, how we can pass that knowledge and experiences, that wisdom, on to future generations so that they don’t have to start from scratch and try to work thing out afresh themselves? What are we going to leave those that follow us, so they are well-equipped to face the challenges of the future?

If the values of consumer capitalism are the dominant framework and set of values we are expected to operate within, then no wonder many find the pursuit of individual satisfaction, popularity and personal wealth at all costs, so demoralising and disillusioning. Our instrumentalised mass and social media platforms suggest these are our only options, but those of us who support participative and developmental forms of community media, might just be able to contribute, in some small way, to the establishment of a viable alternative.

In our attention economy and me culture, there are few places for shared and collaborative communal development, based on mutual support and understanding. Instead, we are expected, according to the tired and vapid cliché of celebrity CEOs and politicians, to be the ‘change that we want to see in the world,’ as if we can adopt a persona for ourselves that can solve what are really collective problems. In this shallow and narcissistic world we have few opportunities to explore the full depths of our character because few of us have exposure to, or are embedded within an established and long-standing social and cultural framework, and that culture’s wisdom institutions.

Instead, we are expected to be the best version of ourselves and to adapt to the circumstances by projecting a persona that ultimately can be swept away when circumstances change. What happens if we don’t like this supposed best version of ourselves? Do we just discard it and concoct a new version of ourselves? Will our families and friends, our associates accept this adaptation as simply a change of clothes or costume?

Modern life is troublesome for so many people because the boundaries between our traditional institutions and identities have been dissolved over the course of recent time. Our individual failure becomes overly personalised as an individual moral failing or corruption, which is justified as a modality of personal choices, regardless of the setting and environment in which we find ourselves.

Membership of social groups, like trade unions, is now regarded more as an insurance policy against bad employment practices, rather than a viable collective response to the balance of power between workers and capitalists in the economic realm. Education, similarly, is advanced as a vehicle for personal gain that enriches individuals, rather than contributing to the commonwealth of shared wisdom.

Again and again our social institutions, many that have been built up over generations, get wilfully reconstructed for them to readily fit with the free market mindset. The same is true of our media. As consumers, we are now expected to choose media services from a range of global media platforms, rather than from local and indigenous services that we all contribute to and have a stake in. Similarly, as potential producers of media content, we are reduced to the level of ‘influencer’ as a common denominator where we are expected to play a contrived role that is focusses on monetizing what media we create by sharing it in a world of otherwise vapid and meaningless guff.

The question for me, then, is how will we ensure that our young people can be initiated into a viable, sustainable and ethical culture? If our social experience is fragmented and distracting, what are the values and cultural forms and practices that we should invest in now, so that future generations might take ownership of them and value them in turn? What guidance and support can we offer to new entrants to our communities, both those who come of age and those arriving in our neighbourhoods, beyond ‘think and act for yourself’?

What do we need to provide that will support people who are entering our shared commonwealth and history, so they can play a constructive and mindful role, with a critical perspective of both the good and the bad. What do we expect our future generations to know and to value about the collective story and journey that each of our ancestors have taken and travelled uniquely and diligently? What is the work that we have to do to maintain, correct, renew, inspire, critique and transform our culture?

This does not mean dogmatically sticking to one side of the narrative of our common story, come what may, but rather taking the diversity of experience and giving each bearer of each story their due respect in the telling of these stories. The river of life is shaped by both the flow of the water that runs through it, and also the banks that are formed on either side. Do we have the wisdom institutions we can depend on that will ensure that we are learning and using the lessons of our past to build for the future, without damaging or living inharmoniously with nature?

Our wisdom institutions, it sometimes seems, are like food concession stands in an airport. Designed for passing trade, serving an approximation of the ‘real’ without connection to the lives and histories that are embodied in the cuisine being served. The wisdom institutions that we have retained have been co-opted as places of edutainment and transactional personal interest, supporting consumption but not reflection. Our inherited wisdom institutions have been turned into destinations for the tourism industry. We encourage passing trade and spending on so-called ‘experiences,’ rather than providing spaces for reflection on the principles of belonging and collective identity. Experiences are packaged for us. We are simply passing through and can only access a limited approximation – a simulations – of what culture represents.

A river has two banks and cannot be traversed unless we understand the function of different kinds of embankment. Marshland, weir and tributary, each providing vital conjunctions of environment that we must understand if we are to value their role in controlling and supporting the flow of the river and its associated habitats. The flow of the river requires not just knowledge of the function of the river and its banks, but the wisdom to know how and where to stop, and what we can learn from its passing.

A more meaningful role for community media, then, and given these circumstances, might be one in which cultural understanding in the forms of observance and initiations, is fully embraced. Not because it serves a commercial function, but because it is the glue that binds us together. Wisdom is more than applied knowledge.  Wisdom demonstrates that one has learnt from experiences and have recognised the virtue and efficacy of the integrated set of practices and ideas that we channel through and around our culture. This might be faith-based or non-faith based; it might be mystical or empirical; it might be traditional or innovative; it might be conservative or progressive. Either way, having a recognisable and designated space – or in this case, a media platform – through which we can assess these concerns and ideas, in the service of an essential social and cultural purpose.

In the past, our wisdom institutions have been strongly centralised and institutionalised, and may to a large extent remain so. The government, the monarchy, the church, the national media institutions, and so on, are all part of the fabric of our lives that has been rooted in our experience. However, as society has diversified and information and media technology has decentralised, and we have been provided with access to alternative forms of common experience, the legacy wisdom institutions are being displaced. Over thirty million people watched King Charles III inaugural address to the nation across all media channels. The BBC, however, is no longer, the monopoly institution that it once was. But in times of national concern it retains primacy as the broadcaster of the state and people, and is more than a recognisable ‘brand’, but stands for something that is meaningful – objectivity, impartiality and respect, as a counterbalance to sensationalism and prejudice.

This distributive and decentralising process, as these new and emerging networked media platforms are introduced, is having a profound effect on our collective character, which is compounded by increased social diversity and cultural nonconformity. The diversification of our culture become normalised, and we feel the slipping away of the monocultural assumptions that we might have inherited and felt comfortable with. It is no longer possible, within the UK at least, to assume that everyone shares the same basic values and cultural assumptions. Cultural homogeneity is no longer the case, and community media is a good example of how different groups of people can come together to represent non-traditional and divergent forms of cultural interest, identity and expression.

Community media is a patchwork of diverse focal points for cultural representation that has no centralising order or philosophy. There is no single approach to community expression because community media is driven from the grassroots upwards, and therefore does not adhere to a unifying strategy. Because many different perspectives are possible, and many different threads of possibility can be followed, the question we might wish to now pose is in what way can community media be the bearer of meaningful community expression? Can community media play a constructive role in the renewal of our collective, cultural and social life? Are community media groups and projects adding to the common store of knowledge and heritage that will enable both established citizens and news or engagement citizens to play a positive role in cultural renewal?

So, while some in the industrial media may try to represent social and cultural change as an attack on the established order, we might hope that the changes that we want to bring about are learnt and tried at in our many different, local and informal proto-wisdom institutions, that form our community media activities and projects. We can hope that change will be compounded when previously closed and insular institutions gradually open their doors to new generations of story bearers. The people who have formally been excluded from the mainstream of cultural conversations.

However, we should not be discouraged to see those changes happening. Rather, we should seek to add to the dialogue of understanding that comes with changes in perspective. If we affix ourselves dogmatically to the way we have always done things, and leave those who have always done them in situ, without accountability or the prospect of change, then our culture will become sterile. Community media has the potential, then, to carve out a series of small, independent cultural spaces where community wisdom can be renewed, where our young and new arrivals can be initiated, and where our culture and social values can retain a sure footing.

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