Community Media Discussion – The Paradox of Identity

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This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be reflecting on the podcast I recorded with Ted Cantle, and the ‘paradox of identity’ that he described. This is when a community group becomes largely identified with their social characteristic, forming a powerful and robust purpose which doesn’t foster greater social interaction with other social groups. What is our aim, Ted Cantle asks? Are we content with segregated but independent social groups, or do we want fluid and interactive social engagement? This week, we’ll continue our discussion of the purpose of community media as a platform for enhanced social cohesion rather than segregation.

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Talking with Ted Cantle in the latest episode of the Decentered Media Podcast, I was struck by how many concerns and ideas I associate with participative forms of community media that are deeply rooted in Ted’s work on community cohesion. In our conversation, Ted explained how community cohesion should be understood as a purpose-driven form of community and social development, which tries to achieve the objective of having more interconnected communities. We need, according to Ted, multiple forms of ongoing social investment which are capable of bringing people together, rather than holding them apart according to their differences, if we are to bring about a more cohesive society.

Ted argues that given the pressures of globalisation, climate crisis and changing technology – to name a few pressing challenges – we need to rethink how we can better address our collective problems with a more purposeful sense of investment in our social infrastructure. According to Ted, this means giving serious thought to how we foster a shared and meaningful culture of experience, ensuring we have the collective capacity to manifest a more unified and less dysfunctional quality of life, which can be articulated both within and through different forms of community.

Ted has spent some time asking what makes a community cohesive, and cautions against the pervasive sense of fatalism that is in danger of taking hold in many contemporary Western societies. This fatalism, Ted suggests, make it feel inevitable that we are bound to live ‘parallel lives’, in which the social experience of many people becomes completely alien to others. This fatalism, many have pointed out, is associated with the common feeling of ongoing social breakdown. A response to which we shrug our shoulders and say ‘but it is the same everywhere’! A lack of social cohesion leads to increased crime, a surge in poor mental and physical health, increased incidents of anti-social behaviour, and is manifested in an increasingly decrepit social realm that is poorly maintained. While our basic costs are continually rising – which is high on the political and media agenda presently – there is less trust and belief that governments and our politicians can do anything about this decline.  As Ted points out,

“Little or nothing had been done to break down the barriers between the communities, to promote interaction and mutual trust and understanding – prejudices were allowed to fester with little leadership at either local or national level to promote a positive view of diversity. In these circumstances, it was relatively easy for the far right and other extremists to develop myths and misinformation and stir up race and religious hatred – and to maintain the conditions under which disadvantage and inequalities would persist.”

Ted believes, however, that a cohesive society is possible, as long as we reject the parallel lives hypothesis. To ensure we have a cohesive sense of purpose, Ted argues, we need to be able to take on board the different histories, heritages, identities and stories that people embody in our neighbourhoods and communities. And rather than seeing these as isolated workings with a multicultural society, in which peoples’ identities and experiences are held separately, Ted suggests that we ought to be looking at community interactions as part of a dynamic set of shared relations expressed in an intercultural society in which people are brought together for a common purpose.

For Ted, a cohesive community is one that can articulate a common vision of what a good life for all might be like. Such a society would be founded on a shared sense of belonging, which, according to Ted, is recognised and accessible across all communities. While this used to be manifested in the role of the nation, changes brought with globalisation and new communications technologies, mean that we have to rethink where our sense of shared identity comes from. For Ted, this would be a society that recognises the variety of people’s backgrounds and circumstances, while ensuring that each respective group of people are appreciated and positively valued for their contribution. This sense of appreciation can’t be simply well-meaning, however, but must also be able to provide similar practical life opportunities for people who come from different backgrounds and live in different places.

One possible example of a situation where we might recognise how purposeful changes in society come about was described by Colin Prescod, the outgoing chair of the Institute of Race Relations. As reported in The Guardian, Prescod is said to be concerned that the way we tackle racial injustice needs to be reworked to take account of two factor. First, the institutional and structural forms of racism that remain a significant part of British society, which need to be addressed directly in public policy, legislation and institutional reform. While, the second, Prescod points to progress that has been made in fostering a positive sense of contribution by people who might otherwise be excluded from taking part in society because of their race. Prescod suggest this offers hope that things can change, and points out that:

“We now have populations here who are not thinking of themselves from some other place or going to some other place, but here, and are aware of their history of struggle. When Sons of Kemet says something like ‘we want to take our country forward’, notice all the words in the phrase.” He believes it shows a significant cultural shift of “new generations [of black Britons] born here, belonging here, speaking with a different kind of authority”.

In relation to bringing about social change, I asked Ted what he thinks of the Levelling-Up policy agenda? Ted told me that he isn’t impressed that successive governments have failed to maintain a consistent focus on the objectives of social cohesion, and that we have started to see reversals in progress that was made earlier. Government in Westminster as has now conceded that we need to think through the social purpose of social investment once my, simply by the fact that there is a Levelling-Up agenda at all. Many share Ted’s concern that it has been a mistake to stop and start the community cohesion engine at different times in response to sporadic outburst of discontent. Each time the engine stops, we fall further behind, and it then takes longer to catch-up again. It’s vital, according to Ted, that we keep the process of community cohesion heading in a purposeful direction so that all communities can have faith that we have a shared future sense of belonging, and that we will be dealing with challenges like climate change together.

Ted told me that he regards as the driving principle for community cohesion to be based on evidence informed policy, whereby changes in society are reflected in both the principles and the practices of social policy. There must be a purpose to social policy, Ted argues, which seeks to improve the quality of interactions between people who are defined by different experiences, and who live in different places, while having shared goals that include people from different cultural traditions and heritages. This doesn’t mean ignoring our differences and treating people who do not identify with the majority as ‘other’, but instead means finding ways to bring people together based on common understanding.

I asked Ted what he felt are the most significant challenges in achieving a cohesive sense of community looking forward, and what difference we can see that have been embedded over the last two decades. The most obvious, Ted remarked, has been the shift in the way we communicate and share information. Back in the late 1990s the internet was expanding, smartphones had not become widely available, and information was still dominated by mass media, such as television, radio and newspapers. Society had fewer options for independent and alternative media engagement, which was why the legislation for community radio in the UK was so important, with its recognition of the need to foster community cohesion.

Ownership and control of media was itself more varied, though there was still little that local communities could do to develop independent platforms for information distribution and representation. The shift in technology and skills for producing media over the last twenty years has therefore been remarkable. The democratisation of media production tools, for example, has thrown-open the communications process in ways that few would have imagined possible in the mid-1990s. So, rather than waiting for commercial media business or public service institutions to catch up with our expectations of identity and cultural expression, the main shift, in my mind, is that we can now take responsibility for our own media without waiting for government to give us permission or approve of what we create.

I was pleased that Ted also believes that community cohesion is more likely to be achieved by people working together locally, across self-defined networks, in ways that are trusted and accountable. This is something that Ted aims to foster when he set up the Belong Network. The network aims to “support and develop all those who are delivering cohesion, integration and intercultural work,” by giving people the “resources, skills, inspiration and confidence to lead and champion this vital work.” In my mind, then, there is a clear correlation between the work of advocates and activists in community media, who recognise that we can’t have a cohesive society if we don’t also invest in the tools and skills to use media with this purpose in mind.