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Diversity Series: Cultural interdependence and the media

As part of Dialogue Magazine's Diversity Series, John Sweetman discusses the positive and negative impact of contemporary mass media as it relates to influencing group ideals, a child's true sense of individuality and identity, imagination of a culture, and how it can be challenged in the classroom.

Cultural Interdependence

Illustration by Dave Cutler

A Critical Reflection on Edward Said's essay Overlapping Territories, Intertwined Histories

There is no doubt that Imperialism and Colonialism are inherently bound up in ideological and philosophical notions about a cultural (or as Said suggests, even moral) superiority. Because we in the "developed West" tend to assume this dominance, or superiority, it is not unusual for discussions regarding Imperialism and Colonialism to focus solely on economic and developmental issues. We are, as Said quotes from Rushdie using an example from Orwell, "inside the whale".

Issues of wealth and resource procurement were of course motivating factors in historical cases of imperial domination. However, it is misleading (even dangerous) to ignore the more fundamental beliefs that allow one nation or cultural group to feel justified in dominating some other group of people, or nation, or culture. How are these ideologies and beliefs formed and put forward for acceptance and adherence? Does this continue today?

How Contemporary Mass Media Influences Adolescents

Because I am dealing with young people in my work everyday I've been considering the role of contemporary mass media in shaping adolescent attitudes and understanding of cultural values. There have been many studies conducted that investigate the attributed correspondence between a happy, "well-adjusted", involved adolescent, and a strong influence from family life, or some other "moral" support system. The reality in our contemporary world is that even when these benevolent influences are present there is another seemingly ubiquitous presence–one which cannot be ignored in terms of its influence on our youth and their conception, which I surmise they possess, of an international mass culture.

Contemporary media is a pervasive, and at times invasive, fact of life in the late twentieth century. As family and traditional institutions like religion, school community, and neighbourhood communities are increasingly absent from the lives of youth in the "West", media is always at hand to fill that vacuum. How might this increasingly secular position affect attitudes and beliefs of youth in the "East"?

It is an unexceptionable fact that media in its many varied forms has a profound effect on our society. It has an especially powerful influence on the adolescent component of our society, and this has only recently begun to be examined and measured in a complete and dedicated way. Unfortunately, often those who are the best at monitoring its effect are those who stand to profit from it. Who, other than its creators, have the methods and means to investigate how successfully the Western media perspective (by far the most influential contributor to a construction of a Mass Culture) penetrates international borders and foreign conceptions of 21st century life on earth? Of course there can be no complete and satisfying answer to this question, but it nonetheless remains a useful point of departure for critical thinking regarding the colonizing of minds.

Group Ideals vs. True Individualism

In Coleman & Hendry's 1990, 'The Nature of Adolescence'chapter four on self-concept development contained the following quote: "According to Erikson (1968), when an individual possesses an identity, the self will include 'a conscious sense of individual uniqueness' and a sense of 'solidarity with a group's ideals'". I submit that these "group ideals" are progressively being defined by Western media which expertly blend material/commercial attractions with overarching, unspoken, cultural inventions/attitudes concerning consumerism, immediate gratification, the glorification of the contemporary and the original, and ideas regarding freedom and speed.

Equally interesting is how the 'conscious sense of individual uniqueness' is being defined more and more by what's "in-the-mix"; as ethnicity, belief systems, and even language is increasingly hybridized. In my own investigation into "Teen" fashion magazines it was hard to ignore the fact that the great majority of models in any photo were Caucasian (often, believe it or not, "blonde-haired-and-blue-eyed"). It was noted that the setting for most of the ads was an urban setting and there is no doubt that there are many more people of colour represented in the pages than ever before.

There seemed to be a particular interest in "mixed-race" models. This can be seen from a positive perspective as a step toward inclusive or equitable representation. The skeptic however, might ask if these beautiful people are being included more because of their exotic (and therefore unique) appearance which, like everything else in advertising media, may be used to gain some "attention-getting" edge over the competition. The last, most cynical question is: Are these models considered beautiful (by the main stream/dominant culture) because they have a more Caucasian aspect to their appearance than a 'non-mixed', non-Caucasian model? This is highly emotional territory and should only be carefully discussed with sensitive language and great thoughtfulness. It would take a masterful teacher to productively engage her students in this dialogue.

Questioning Culture Through Understanding Many Cultures

Initially I was interested in Said's essay because after living and teaching abroad for 13 years I have become much more aware of the assumptions and values that I carry with me wherever I go. Before moving to Oman, I was quite ignorant of Arab culture, and of Islam. During the six years that I lived there, a tiny seed of understanding was planted and my education into the Arab world view had begun. What I appreciate about Said (aside from his rather unique position as an Arab American scholar) was his focus on the contribution of Culture and the Arts in defining a people, their traditions, and the dissemination of their values and beliefs. His notions about an imagined or invented tradition are very compelling–for this is the realm of education. While Said uses comparative literary theory as his main device for critique, in my mind I continually juxtaposed this with a view to contemporary media and a question regarding the possibility of a mass culture which transcends borders and specific cultures.

When I talk to people about my time in the Middle East I am usually met with a look of concern or bewilderment. The unspoken message seems to be, "Why would you go there?" or, "Better you than me." I am not defensive because I know that (just as I was) many of these friends are uninterested in the countries of that region, and the knowledge they do have is for the most part dominated by western news images and selective reports (usually regarding conflict).

In the same way that I knew little about Chinese culture and imagination before I lived in Hong Kong for two years, I never had a real interest in the Arab world beyond a cursory knowledge of their artistic traditions and artifacts. With time, proximity, and personal interaction comes some understanding. Then we are in a better position to question the construction of any culture that has been passed on to us exclusively through Western media.

How Imagination Can Define A Culture

A favourite quotation of mine is the oft-quoted statement by Albert Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

I have always thought of this as an argument for a less scientific, more subjective and associative, alternative to problem solving in the realm of art & design. After reading Said's article I see it in another light. Imagination can define a cultural identity. Imagination directs the use of facts and knowledge in constructing a tradition or value. Is it because of Said's "Oriental" background that he is free to imagine imagination in this way? Would this occur to a Western writer so preoccupied with knowledge and convention?

Of course the other side of this media coin is how are we seen, and "[mis]understood", in light of Western media that has preceded us across the globe. What are the Arab constructions of the "West"', or more specifically American culture. I'm quite sure a Canadian is not entirely distinct from an American in the minds of the "common man" in the Gulf.

Said argues that, "Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings." As this struggle intensifies due to mass media's current proliferation, and particular cultures seek to secure their particularity we are confronted with another late 20th century phenomenon which has been called "Balkanization" in light of modern conflict and division in the former Yugoslavia. It is a dangerous imagination for a culture to hold–to believe that it is uniquely independent of all other influence. This has often led to radical orthodoxy which easily breeds hatred and violence.

Challenging Mass Media in the Classroom

There is never any clear line between whether media simply reflects the cultural milieu that produces it, or whether it creates the culture itself. It is reasonable to assume it does both. There is however nothing natural about it (save its commercial genesis). It is pure artifice. Said's argument is that perhaps all Culture is.

In the classroom we need to make opportunities to develop our students awareness of the media's guiltless artificiality; and to question the invention, the imagination, the position being offered. While the subjects and scenarios contained in the media may stem from "real" life they are always to some degree removed from any "real" context. Often they are repositioned to such a degree so as to become fantastical. Contemporary media (especially advertising media that continually grows in its proportion to the overall body of the media chimera) exaggerates, de-contextualizes, glosses over, "scrubs-up", and offers a regurgitated morsel of reality which is often consumed with little or no consideration regarding its "nutritional" value– or whether we were even hungry in the first place.

Media is not passive. It actively reinforces stereotypes and "sells" ideas, usually in the service of a stark, minimalist version of capitalist commercialism (read Imperialism). If today's youth are to have any capacity for contemplation and reflection, they should have structured opportunities to challenge the ambient media that so effectively conditions their lives. As educators attempting to cultivate an international perspective and a global concern we need to be self-conscious of our position in relation to (Imperialist) Western imaginations, and continue to learn to negotiate the overlapping, intertwined nature of the contemporary, urbanized, educational environment that we participate in today.

Dialogue diversity series

—John Sweetman
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