In between drinking tea, browsing Which? for camcorders, and packing for my holidays I’ve been thinking about how we perceive ourselves in relation to society… or more specifically – how uninspiring and lacking in appeal the notion of ‘citizenship’ is…. As Barbara Ehrenreich put it when talking of the public sector:
“Everything enticing and appealing is located in the (thoroughly private) consumer spectacle. In contrast, the public sector looms as a realm devoid of erotic promise.”
This made me go back to the “Citizens or Consumers” study (Lewis, Inthorn, Wahl-Jorgensen, 2005) which looked into portrayals of the public by US and UK news media over a set period of time in 2001-2002. Two insights that were supported by this report and study of over 8000 news media portrayals of members of the public were that:
1) “Instead of beginning with public opinion or the action of citizens and using this to address the politicians,the news media begin with the politician’s agenda and then invoke the actions, thoughts or feelings of citizens in response to this agenda.” (ie. the public is cast in a role of respondent, rather than activist – news is generally produced in a top-down, expert-led way.)
2) “The great majority of references to citizens or public opinion in the news- over 95% – are not based on any identifieable sources of evidence.” (ie. there are alot of ‘the public believe this, most people think that’ type of claims being made in the press which are largely unfounded… again, the public is pushed into the backseat, with no active role.)
If the public is consistently portrayed as being passive and responsive rather than active and agenda-setting, and if centrally controlled news media still has a profound influence on our self-perception as a society (whether accessed online or off); then what does this mean for individuals’ attitudes to the worth of individual behaviour change and the future of consumerism in an environmental context?
‘Consumer’ or ‘citizen’ – each are likely to have quite different personal responses to the challenge of climate change. So how far does the media impact on our self-perception in taking up either one of these roles, and therefore our willingness to act altruistically for the good of society?
Rather than think about this myself any further (as I do have quite alot of packing left to do) I’ll leave you with another couple of quotes on this relationship between how we perceive ourselves as being active or passive and the relatively short term thinking that underpins our value system.
First quote is from Victor Lebow, a retail analyst working post WW2 (1955):
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and selling of good into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in commodoties… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”
This seems more relevant than ever to me, but I still want to buy that camcorder.
The second quote is from the environmentalist Donella Meadows (2001):
“The Earth says: money measures nothing more than the relative power of some humans over other humans, and that power is puny compared with the powers of the climate, the oceans, the uncounted multitudes of one-celled organisms that created the atmosphere, that recycle the waste, that have lasted for three billion years. The fact that the economy, which has lasted for maybe 200 years, puts zero value on these things means only that the economy knows nothing about value – or about lasting.”
This seems to put things into context, though not sure about the ‘Earth says’ bit…
Anyway, the authors of “Citizens or Consumers” make some interesting suggestions as to how the portrayal of publics by news media could be altered in order to encourage a more lively and active citizenship. They say for example, that by using polling data in a more bottom-up and active way; “we might begin with what people want and then ask the politicians to respond to those demands.” I think this has great potential for a more meaningful and useful interaction between media, publics and politicians and seems particularly relevant to the climate change debate in terms of releasing deadlock on tough policy decisions.
Also, trends towards a more networked journalism have been on the increase (possibly) since the publication of the ‘citizens or consumers?’ study … so when might we start to see more user-generated policies where citizens are enabled to play an active role rather than to respond by ‘buying’ or ‘not buying’ through the ballot box?
Howver, in the spirit of a long term planning approach I’m going to spend a bit more time mulling over what a sexy/cool/remotely appealing ‘citizenship’ might look like while I roam around the lowlands of Scotland. Must go and finish that packing….!