This week at the Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In, we’ll be chatting about how we can develop and support inter-cultural forms of community media engagement, that are suited to a dynamic and multifaceted society, which is able to bring people together from all social groups to meet the challenges of the future.
This week I helped a community radio station to write and submit a C-DSP licence application, which is a community licence for a digital radio station on Small Scale DAB (SSDAB). The purpose of community radio is to provide programming that achieves ‘social gain,’ whereby the programmes that are broadcast, and the access that people get to make their own programmes, have a social gain function. This can include programmes that support social cohesion, the expression of experience, deliberation, and discussion. As well as the fostering of expressions of identity through self-representation.
What was interesting about this station was how they recognised the need for an ‘intercultural’ model of engagement, rather than a multicultural models of engagement, because they aim to bring different people together to share their interests and concerns, in a way that is integrated, rather than segregated. So instead of providing a space for people to make and share radio programmes that are defined separately for each social group, their aim is to get different people working together and to come up with something new.
In the past, the model of social gain that community radio in the UK has referred to, is the multicultural model. With each station licenced to serve a specific, rather than a general audience. Serving the needs of specific minority groups can make a massive difference to people who identify with them, but they also run the risk of segmenting and compartmentalising people, whether this is by age, ethnic identity, religious identity, cultural association, and so on. The intercultural approach, however, seeks to look beyond these apparent divisions, and asks wherever possible bring people together in a community of interest, rather than as a community of delineated and separate identities.
This is not to say that our identities are not important, because they clearly are. However, when we project into the future, it’s possible to surmise that our identities may matter to us in a different – though no less important – ways, most of which we don’t comprehend yet. Anyone living in a modern, urban, metropolitan city or town, will be acutely aware of the challenges and legacy of the multicultural model as it has been experienced in practice. Life in some cities seems to resolve around people from different groups maintaining their equidistance, rather than fluidly interacting with a concern for a common future.
There can be a tendency, because we have a model that lacks an explicit sense of integration, that cultural events and celebrations remain grounded in the past and keep looking backwards. I see the logic in this. Having one’s heritage and social journey acknowledged and accounted for in an official public record and experienced as a significant set of experiences in the cultural repertoire, is incredibly affirming. We should always seek to represent the struggles and challenges of everyone in our society.
My concern, however, is that in only revisiting the past, and looking at the experience of our communities through the lens of those past stories, we run the risk that we will not be able to tell the stories of tomorrow. We can become stuck in a mindset that isn’t fit for the present, never mind being fit for the future. To put it bluntly, if we can keep giving voice to those people who were leaders in former struggles, then we aren’t tuning into the wisdom of the people who are fighting today’s struggles. As a younger generation surpasses and older generation, it is the duty of that generation to learn to act as guardians and not gatekeepers.
The multicultural model we often practice here in the UK is not really a social policy approach to social cohesions. Indeed, over the last decade most resources dedicated to providing support for cohesion-based models of community integration have been stripped away. Community cohesion has become something of a zero-sum-game, where competing groups are now expected to seek social advancement in a marketplace of identities. There is little political will or desire to challenge the limits of cultural identity, in an inclusive and progressive way, so we end up with the grotesque ‘culture wars’ against so-called ‘woke’ liberalism.
However, the pressures and contradictions that are inherent in the passive multicultural approach are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. They satisfy no one. There is very little provision in the UK for life-long Adult Education, for example, whereby people across different communities can come together for the purpose of learning and developing the knowledge and skills that we will need for the future. Multiculturalism has become an empty container for ill thought through intentions.
Let’s project forward, then, and ask what skills our children and grandchildren might need in, say 2040. What mental attitude will someone need who is born today, and will become a fully functioning adult in quarter of a century? Not just skills for work and employment, though they are important, but skills for living a thriving cultural and creative life, in which they are able to navigate and incorporate the many threads of cultural heritage that will form the tapestry of common life in times ahead?
The danger is that we attempt only seek security in the comfort of the past, as we drive forward with our view only of the rear-view mirror. If we don’t learn the lessons of the present and past, we won’t be able to form an understanding that will enable our common culture to grow. We are going to need multidimensional skills for sure. We can’t keep looking at the surface and fail to pay any attention to the layers of nuanced human experience that civic society is composed of. There are many tributaries feeding the river of our common culture, and we need them to grasp and understand the flow of our common life.
This is not to suggest that the wounds, divisions, triumphs and achievements of the past should be papered over and forgotten. The challenges we have faced individually and collectively make us who we are. The question in my mind, however, is what will transcend these differences and enable us to move forward with open eyes and open hearts. There is a tendency, often, to want to ignore and side-line the differences that many people feel about other people and other social groups. But differences are important. All cultures are not the same, and do not imply a standard symbolic framework. We have a common root of humanity, which is expressed in different way, and in accordance with different values and judgements. Turning everything into a beige and undifferentiated blob is not the answer either.
After more than a decade of social and economic austerity, it is clear that we have become a society that is polarised and antagonistic to one another, with little common ground between us. Urban versus metropolitan; old versus young, rich versus poor. With the exception of consumerism, there is little that meaningfully unites the ‘tribes’ of England. In other parts of the United Kingdom, Scotland and Wales for example, there is a growing sense that what unites people is disdain for the English. So, there is a growing sense that we live in an disassociated culture. People keep to themselves and live in their separate bubbles. Business thrives on these divisions, as marketing and communication no longer has to suggest a sense of common identity and purpose. As individuals we can each be sold a unique social experience based on our own unique preferences and expectations. This is the age of the un-common culture.
This is why I believe that a focus on inter-cultural communications is going to be essential and necessary for the future. It won’t help us now, but it is necessary that we start laying the foundations for future generations who will form this new common culture. We need to think about how our common culture will be at ease with itself. This will take a generation to start. I expect that community media should be able to play an essential role in supporting and enhancing this process of coming together. It should be based, not on multiculturalism, but on inter-culturalism instead.
Community media has the potential to be a public, civic and social space where we can all speak our truths, and all expertly describe our experiences. We need to do this without fear of manipulation by intermediaries acting in their own interests – so we are not subject to Facbook or Google’s algorithms. We’ve also had enough, to recycle a phrase, of the professional media ‘elite’ telling us what to think and say. Our media is far from democratic, but with the changes in technology that we’ve embraced, we can more easily establish alternative platforms that allow more people to take part in the common conversations of citizenship, culture and identity.
This is not, however, an unconscious process that can be activated simply by meaning well. We have to be able to listen and hear each other’s uncomfortable truths, but to do this we also have to be able to challenge one another’s assumptions. Forget ‘unconscious-biases’, it is more important that we attend to dogmatism and myopic fixations in our cultural assumptions. These assumptions assure us that the world only works as we suppose it does based on our own singular experience. What we’ve been taught, and who we’ve listened to previously, gives us some solid ground, but tomorrow is quicksand. There is nothing less helpful than a closed mind, because we’ve assumed, or accepted nostalgic assurances, which comfort us with the thought that we’ve got our thinking entirely correct for both today and tomorrow. However, what works today is not necessarily going to work tomorrow.
We have a duty, then, to articulate and focus on the responsibilities that the next generations will face, and we have to prepare them to take on the mantle of stewardship and care, not just for ourselves and our families, but for our communities, our society, our economy, and the whole world ecology. Intra-cultural ideas will cut across and through established and cherished social identities. They can’t be recurrently controlled. Indeed, the generation that embodies these recurrent values, at some point has to be prepared to ceded control to the next generation.
Older generations should not recoil from this challenge, though, as if they are losing their status. Instead older generations might consider that they are gaining something extra, and that this is a chance to enact a function we are all destined to play at some point, when we become elders, not just older, and we act as guardians who are able to facilitate and nurture the next generation of stewards and custodians of our collective wellbeing.
To move forward, then we need to foster a more specific sense of purpose for community media. We can’t leave people to the caprice of the flow and market of ideas, as has driven the new tech platforms, and is leading us to the edge of the precipice. Destructive game playing of ideas, like those practiced in the technology sector, are equally as damaging as when we leave people to the whims of the free market economy. We have to make strategic decisions and choices. We have to prevent and deny some things becoming and being socially acceptable. The eradication of toxic waste, pollution, anti-social behaviour, ignorance, hate, intolerance, prejudice, all are long-term goals for a functional and socially democratic society. We must invest heavily in the culture that we are part of, the things and places where people can come together to build sustainable, caring, integrated and creative communities that are fulfilling and supportive for all, not just a few.
This approach calls for an intensive programme of media literacy support and training across all age groups. We need to get people making their own media in responsible and accountable ways. Community media has to be able to stand as an equal with commercial and Public Service Media. Without investment in accessible and participative, civic and accountable community media, however, it will be impossible to broaden the scope of thinking and engagement that are needed to meet the challenges of the Great Disruption. Who is going to take on the responsibility of educating fellow citizens and facilitating discussion that helps us understand and deal with climate collapse, rampant inequality, global division, cultural xenophobia, and so on. It’s untrue that innovation can only come from the so-called free market. We need to build civic and community institutions that are capable of harnessing the power of new innovative technologies to communicate in socially beneficial ways.
The market needs reform. All we have got so far is a one-sided and mono-dimensional world that has brought us to our present incomprehensible predicament. We need to open our media to many more alternative spaces, so that thousands of imaginative conversations can take place. It is through open discussion that civic identity flourishes. This will manifest itself in many difficult, challenging and emotionally wrought forms, but we need to have these conversations as citizens, and not as consumers, or antagonistic groups protecting and fighting for our own interests. We simply can’t follow what has already been done, we need to create and invent new ways of being together.
To achieve a functioning civitas, then, we have to accept that our media must be pluralistic, inclusive, diverse, creative, and adds to the common wellspring of our identity and sense of common being. The extreme and divisive forms of marketisation of media we have here in the UK have resulted in extreme divisions that blind us to who we really are and how we can harmoniously interact with one another. We need a fundamental alternative space where people can invest in the creative and cultural life of our communities – not in the singular, but in the plural.