Community Media Discussion - Equality and Parallel Lives

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This week in our community media discussion, we are continuing our conversation about community cohesion, and the role that an intercultural model of community development can play in promoting harmonious and shared social experience. We will be talking about what role community media plays in promoting greater social understanding of minority communities and people who are identified with protected characteristics, who face discrimination and are marginalised because of their inherited social identity. Should community media practitioners and advocates promote difference, or should we promote equality, and what is the implication of each?

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We’ve been following the work of Ted Cantle, who has written about Interculturalism and Community Cohesion, and has helped to develop a framework of social engagement that focusses on the possibility of a socially inclusive and harmonious society. Ted asks if we should continue to focus on multiculturalism, whereby we are recognised for our differences and our associations with communities of identity. Or should we seek to encourage greater social mixing and interaction on an intercultural basis because this provides greater opportunities for the healthy development of common bonds and a united sense of belonging between people. Ted asks, do we really want people to be living parallel lives?

According to Ted, “community cohesion emerged as a response to weaknesses in the multicultural model,” which was itself established in relation to a framework of rights that were supported by equalities programmes that maintained provision for the recognition of different social and cultural identities. Ted’s argument is that we need to develop a more “ambitious approach” to social cohesion, in which we attempt to “change attitudes and behaviours by promoting interaction and developing a sense of belonging, especially on a local basis, and by creating a more positive picture of the nature and value of diversity.” This intercultural approach, according to Ted, would “recognise that the era of super diversity and globalisation can no longer be considered on a simple national or local basis,” and that we need the state to get involved with the way we adjust our forms of interaction and understanding mediates between the many different groups that now define towns and cities in the UK. As Ted explains,

“Interculturalism therefore values – and actively develops – dynamic identities through the encouragement of broader networks, the learning about others and collaborative styles of open leadership, which transcend insular patterns of understanding and behaviour” (Cantle, 2012, p. 90).

In thinking about how community media faces the challenges of our changing social situation, there are a number of questions that need to be understood and grappled with. For example, what happens when the practice of community media, in the way that they are inclusive and representative, are not suitably inclusive, and fail to meet the needs of people who are underrepresented elsewhere in the media and across society? What efforts and actions do we need to take to ensure there is equality of access to opportunities for expression and self-representation in community media? Should we focus on diversity and difference, or is it better to focus on inclusivity and equality? Each have their own characteristics of practice, and each is guided by principles that lead to different ways of working and ways of producing media content.

Alternatively, how should we respond when there is a push-back against inclusivity and diversity? How do we define, and who gets to decide what a homogenous community is? Can people operating in homogenous communities understand the pressures on people who live in diverse communities? Can people who live in diverse communities understand the pressures on people who live in homogenous communities? Rather than supporting and making provision for differences, what if we shift our lens to one that looks at needs? In what way can we define common needs that transcend our social and cultural differences?

Ted outlines how different counties across Europe have developed legal and social policy frameworks that are based on different approaches to the increased diversity of their societies, usually as a result of globalisation. Some counties promote integration while others allow limited separation from the main interaction of society, allowing people to maintain distinct traditions, cultures and faith practices from their place of origin. Many people regard assimilation of migrants, for example, to be wrong because it places to much emphasis on the need to change by those individuals and social groups. But can it be appropriate to have groups within society who do not integrate, and who are left to live separate and segregated lives?

If this debate is left to political groups on the right, as we’ve witnessed in many places, there is a tendency to blame people who are noted for their obvious and different identities. Racism and extremism is often never far away, and can be amplified through the process of ‘othering’, whereby any differences are magnified and blamed for the failure of all people who are different. The question we might wish to ask, however, is if we expect that there is no assimilation and no integration, to what extent will this foster greater misunderstanding and resentment, especially from those settled communities that are having to make way for newcomers to their communities, who have no previous record of contribution, nor ability to demonstrate their commitment to uphold the values of the new host community. Ted suggests that by adopting and intercultural viewpoint we will be able to the needs of people first, while respecting cultural heritage and identity, thus ensuring that people can engage in the widest opportunities that society offers.

For community media makers, we are charged with an essential purpose, which is to ask to what extent an appreciation and understanding of diversity might fit with any potential capacity for of either improved social tolerance, or to deny any potential exploitation and misuse by minority groups against people from other social groups? Because we might belong to a recognised minority group, it does not mean that we automatically respect other people from other minority groups.

The fundamental question that Ted asks, then, is what does it mean to recognise and accommodate difference, as opposed to seeking equality between different groups in society? Recognising ethnic diversity in itself, for example, may not accord with the dynamic of class and economic deprivation. Heritage cultural celebrations are all very well and good, one might assert, but what about access to good jobs, education and healthcare? If society is defined by structural racism that keeps some people out of key positions in society, then any celebration of cultural heritage and identity would be moot. The point raises an essential concern about how we enable and develop a cohesive society if there are marked differences in access to social capital? Can communities trade sufficiently in cultural capital, Ted asks, or do they need a stronger redistributive provision? What’s the point in papering over the cracks in the wall when what we actually need is a structural engineer to rebuild the wall and make it fit for purpose.

The community cohesion approach, according to Ted, argues that we shouldn’t expect that integration and assimilation will happen if we don’t provide resources and mechanisms to support cohesion structures for significant social capacity building. The question, then, is who has to change? Does inclusion or assimilation place requirements on the host culture to change, or is this responsibility entirely placed on the members of the minority community? The relevance of this question is essential for community media provision because part of the role is to support and provide platforms for ‘single identity’ content, but we might find that this approach is limited when it comes to our ability to nurturing a cohesive society?

If a cohesive society is our aim, Ted argues, then emphasis might be better placed on establishing an equality of need, rather than an equality of identity. As Ted states, if we fail to “recognise that what society understands as ‘difference’ is part of a dynamic process,” then we may not appreciate that in each era “the present boundaries of difference” that are seen as “permanent and fixed conceptions,” will not remain unchanged. Ted proposes that an intercultural view of social cohesion would offer greater benefits for the recognition for “all aspects of diversity as a dynamic process,” that can “respond to the changing components of ‘difference’ and the wider impacts of globalisation” (Cantle, 2012, p. 78). As ever, the question is what role must our media play in this reconfigured appreciation of difference and equality?

Cantle T. (2012) Interculturalism – The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity (Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke).