People like us: media representation & social cohesion
As promised, an ever so slightly more cerebral post than the last two.
I have an interest in diversity in the media because I think there is something powerful and terribly underestimated about social inclusion.
Recently I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two young men, about the existence of media networks and television programs set up specifically for and by minorities (sexual, ethnic, disabled, et cetera), both in Australia and throughout the rest of the world. Citing an American example, one of the men deemed it a “double-standard” that a network could be named Black Entertainment Television (BET, a U.S cable network that supposedly provides Black-American “cultural” and entertainment-based programming). His argument was essentially that you would never see a network called “White Entertainment Television”, hence, the double standard. There are numerous problems with that line of reasoning that I wont go into here. Moreover there are plenty of better reasons that I can think of to have issues with BET… but I digress.
Hearing their conversation, I was reminded of comments made by Waleed Aly, spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria, journalist, and rock musician (well…according to Wiki). He made them in an interview with Andrew Denton for an episode of the program Enough Rope that screened on ABC TV in 2008. The interview came a year after the release of his book, People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West.
Andrew asked Waleed about the impact of positive Muslim representation in the media on the way Muslims saw themselves. As many in the Muslim community attested to, the noughties was a difficult time to be a Muslim. In the year 2000, the much publicised and appalling ‘Sydney gang rapes’, reinforced in the minds of many a negative stereotype of Middle Eastern men. After the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Australia sent some 2000 troops to support US and British forces in the subsequent and controversial invasion of Iraq. Back home, an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat (many of whom came from Muslim nations) was met with a surge of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment through ‘middle Australia’ that persists today. The growing Muslim population in some suburbs and consequent plans to build mosques drew fierce condemnation and opposition from some residents. And throughout, some of the middle-aged Aussie kings of talkback radio used their considerable media influence to stir the pot of suspicion and resentment. The cauldron eventually overflowed in 2005 when a mob of drunk dumbasses (who happened to be of Anglo-Celtic descent) turned what actually started out as a civil demonstration about a spate of ugly attacks on locals on the beaches of Cronulla into an even uglier race riot. Which, predictably, sparked a wave of nasty retaliatory attacks by (apparently non-practicing Muslim) dumbasses.
And the karmic mayhem went on.
At the same time though, in 2007, we saw the emergence of the first out and proud practicing Muslim AFL player to debut in the top grade – Bashar Haoli (Essendon FC). And Waleed’s own starring role on Muslim comedy panel show Salaam Café, which screened on Australia’s multicultural and multilingual broadcaster SBS in 2008.
**“I think we like to see reflections of ourselves in the public space and Muslims have been really short on role models in the public space in Australia or even in the western world. We’ve had some very successful Muslims. John Ilhan, the late John Ilhan’s a very good example of that. But at the same time his real name was Mustafa and he had to become John to become a success.”
Waleed went on to comment on the impact Bashar, and his reputation as being both an exceptional athlete and a man of good character and integrity, was having on young Muslims:
**“And when you see him out there, and you see him do that, you suddenly for a moment have this belief, this realisation that I could do that, if I had the talent. But the thing that’s stopping me is that I’m no good, not that I happen to be a Muslim or that I come from a Middle Eastern background, and that’s incredibly powerful. It’s so powerful, I don’t think people who don’t have that problem who have never encountered not being represented in the public space in some way understand how debilitating that can be.”
Not seeing positive reflections of oneself and community – or at least neutral reflections – in the mass media that we are bombarded with everyday can have a profound effect on the psyche of an individual, particularly if they are a part of a minority group that has considerable stigma attached to it, is oppressed or is disadvantaged in some way. If many individuals within a community feel alienated in this way, what do you think that does to the morale in that community? The way their families function? How does it affect the way their youths behave? And how they feel towards the larger, dominant culture?
As a firm believer in individual liberty I favour empowering people – and encouraging self-empowerment and self-responsibility – on an individual level. However, we are all to some degree also affected by a complex mix of external influences that include the ethnic communities we are affiliated with (I include Anglo-Celtic here as an ethnic community). Just as belonging to or fitting into the dominant culture is going to imbue an individual with certain attitudes and a level of tacit confidence and comfort they are likely to take for granted, belonging to a community that is stigmatise, not represented and marginalised is most likely going to affect the psyche of an individual within it and, in turn, the way they see themselves and interact with the wider community.
And that is where positive media representation can help. I’m not talking about whitewashing PR campaigns, or racial quotas for networks. And I am definitely not talking about censorship – the right to offend and be offended is necessary in a free, open society (and something I personally could not live without).
What I am talking about is diversity in the stories and opinions we tell and see through our media… and how that in turn enables us to SEE and HEAR people who might be different from us, who we might never otherwise come into contact with, or know how to engage with, in the “real world”. Stories and media that help create understanding and encourage our better natures. Minority representation can help dispel flawed and dangerous stereotypes, and tells minorities that their stories are valid too, that they do have a voice within the broader community… which, I suspect, would help instill a sense of belonging to that broader community (if you feel welcome and a part of it all, you’re less likely to feel hostile!).
Furthermore, minority representation can help chip away at one of the most dangerous wedges between minorities and the broader society:
But, I’ll save that discussion for the next post.
** from the transcript of Episode 180, Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, available here.