I remember the vague and brief puzzlement when my mother told me there were no words, in our mother tongue (which is Tiv, a Nigerian language, of which, incidentally, there are several hundred), for ‘he’ or ‘she’.
It was hard for me then – kind of still is – to get that to sit right. I mean, how do you manage to get along without a way of distinguishing between so fundamental a part of someone’s personhood as their gender? How can it not come up often enough to bother with having pronouns that mark the difference?
That’s the thing with languages. I mean, they’re all different, obviously, but what makes those differences interesting is when you come across things – terms, words, idioms – that are truly foreign to you, and by that I mean things for which you can find no cognate, no equivalent word, no quick, simple fix amongst your lifelong-learned kit of vocab waiting to match and handily fit itself as known version to that new and alien phrase.
When a Frenchman says, “Bonjour”, we know that means ‘good day,’ or ‘hello’.
“Á bientôt”? Well obviously that’s, ‘see you soon’. Or something.
But when we (as English speakers) learn of the absence of gender-specific pronouns, or for that matter a word as fundamental to us as ‘family’ (in Classical Greek the closest they had was ‘house’, which doesn’t bother to differentiate between blood relative and servant, for example), we find ourselves bumping up against a sort of glass wall, able to peek through and see people on the other side living happily, but unable to reconcile our notion of the world with theirs.
Now language is just one example of this, and perhaps, with how visceral a part it plays in how we relate with the world and one another, the best example, but there are many others. Like humour, upbringing, cultural custom, dress or even, yes, race – things that remind us, as Rudyard Kipling once satirically wrote, of the heavy distinctions between ‘we’ and ‘they’ and highlight just how varying our worlds and experiences on this planet we all hold common can be – they show us how different we are.
In 1975, John Turner, then studying for a PhD at Bristol University, began to investigate these differences. Born to working class parents in south London, his father a window fitter, he became involved as a young man with workplace trade unions, helping with the family business between bouts of study, an experience that began to pique his interest in the way the groups we are all part of – ethnic, socio-economic etc. – influence the ways we think and behave.
It was an interest he and others would later formalise into an idea called social identity theory. A theory that reveals how prone human beings are to certain cognitive habits, one of which is to divide the world into a known community (i.e. an ‘us’ – the social group with which we most identify, based on whatever we find psychologically meaningful – race, religion, culture, gender etc.), and what psychologists call the ‘out-group’ (i.e. ‘them’ – the rest of humanity, those we regard as different or other).
Turner discovered, amongst other things, that we tend to gravitate toward those of our ‘known community’ and regard as sort of homogenous and alien those we see as different.
Think statements like “politicians are all the same.” (Or if you like you can substitute the word ‘politicians’ for ‘professional football players’, or ‘Hollywood A-listers’ or… well, you get the idea.)
Or, if you’ve ever had trouble distinguishing between people of a race other than your own, or feel all people of a certain age group – teenagers? The elderly? – to be both similar to one another and very different to you, it’ll be down to this same cognitive bias.
It’s the kind of thinking that can, at its worst, lead to someone habitually thinking of Africa, a continent of over a billion people, more than 50 nations and over 3000 cultures and languages, as more or less a single country, whilst the average Nigerian, my mother say, would remain able to glance at another Nigerian and tell you what part of the country they are from and to which culture (tribe) they belong.
It’s this same habit that also leads people to think that anyone in a Hijab is suspicious, anyone with the (apparently) toxic combination of brown skin and a thick beard has something to hide, and anyone who is male, dark-skinned and under the age of, say, forty, is a potentially fatal threat, or drug dealer.
In short, not one of ‘us’.
I was reminded of this again when observing the response to the news of three schoolgirls running away to join the conflict in Syria.
You had Ron Liddle suggesting the teenagers should never be allowed back in the country.
Emma Barnett insisting we ‘should not pity’ these three minors.
Grace Dent explaining how it’s ‘hard to believe the Bethnal Green Trio (a moniker that makes you think of an East London street gang, no?) don’t know what they’re doing.’
Because apparently no one is susceptible to being manipulated or deceived at the age of fifteen and sixteen, and besides, how could any impressionable youngster of Asian or Middle Eastern descent come to question whether they should feel entirely a part of these good ol’ British Isles anyway?
All this comes on the back of an ongoing attempt to introduce a Counter-Terrorism and Security (CTS) bill which will allow the home office powers to confiscate passports and ban UK citizens from returning to the country on the basis of ‘reasonable suspicion,’ whilst at the same time legally obliging civil servants at schools, colleges, universities, GP surgeries, councils and just about any and all other public service providers to monitor and report persons on the basis of, yes, you guessed it, ‘reasonable suspicion’. In short, creating a situation so scarily similar to the narrative set-up of George Orwell’s 1984 that if he was still alive he’d have a decent chance of claiming copyright infringement.
And don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting nothing should be done to address the threat of terrorism. We all know 9/11 and 7/7 happened, we get that the threat is real. However the problem with granting extreme legislated powers on the basis of such vague terms as ‘reasonable suspicion,’ rather than, oh, I don’t know, evidence (?), is that suspicion is subjective, open to interpretation, and, as we’ve found with the disproportionate way the stop and search laws are applied in this country, that kind of thing is often skewed by those pesky cognitive biases Professor John Turner was trying to warn us about. Biases we cannot claim the authorities are always immune to. And biases too often eagerly stoked by those parts of the media unable to recognise Muslims as anything more than a mere abstraction, more a thing, to them, than a community of actual people.
As Suzanne Moore of the Guardian recently put it
‘Islamophobia and Islamofascism are two sides of the same coin. Both envisage Muslims as a kind of homogenous block. There is no nuance, no difference, no accounting for lived experience or the generational divide.’
Which inevitably raises the question; how can we better account for those lived experiences? How can we provide ourselves the opportunity as a country to develop informed – rather than reductive, caricatured or reactionary – views of the many people-groups that make up what is one of the most culturally diverse nations on the planet?
The simple answer? The media.
The reality is that along with the arts and entertainment industries the media is the most powerful means we possess for portraying and conveying our cultural narrative.
It is, as the late thinker and theorist, Stuart Hall, put it “central to the way power and ideology are mediated in societies like ours.”
And so how strange then that this hugely influential industry remains one of the most mono-cultural and unrepresentative out there?
I mean, how is it that in a country where 1 in 6 of the population aren’t white, that 94% of the journalists who serve it are? And why is it that the overwhelming majority of that 94% are middle-class and male?
As Sir Trevor McDonald said last year
“I am not sure how long a profession can go on if it does not constantly represent the mix of the community. I don’t see how you can have a kind of almost apartheid sort of division if people who represent the bulk of the population are not represented in the media… How are you going to represent people nationally if the people who do your work are not exactly representative of the national picture?”
Which, I think, is a fair question.
Because a national picture minus the perspectives and experiences of people of colour, or for that matter even the white working class, isn’t exactly representative or entirely accurate, is it. Not unless you believe one group’s perspective somehow equals the whole.
Is it any wonder then that a report published by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford in 2012 found that the word most commonly used by UK newspapers – both tabloids and broadsheets – to describe immigrants is, ‘illegal’?
Or that we are routinely treated to headlines like
And is it really so hard to see why the rhetoric surrounding multiculturalism seems to be growing increasingly polarised and combative. Why perceptions of the economic and cultural impacts of immigration seem to disagree so widely with the reality. And why a party like UKIP continues to gain increasing currency with the public despite the xenophobic/jingoistic/racist slips of the tongue that routinely issue from its members.
Could it be that having the nation’s collective worldview shaped by only a small part of it is harming our capacity, as a society, to understand who and what we are?
I mean, how can we become part of one another’s narratives, understand one another’s perspectives (you know, all that good we’re-in-this-together stuff the politicians like to talk about) if the only perspective we’re ever offered issues primarily from the experience of a single part of the population.
As Nigerian author and academic, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said during a TED talk in 2009.
‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they’re untrue, but that they’re incomplete, they make one story become the only story. And it’s impossible to engage with a place or a person without engaging with all the stories of that place or person.’
So what are the stories the mono-cultural mainstream media tell us?
Well, according to a 2012 report the story most frequently (i.e., almost exclusively) told by our papers and news broadcasts about immigrants is that they are ‘illegal’.
According to a 2011 study the only story told about Muslims is that they are ‘extremists, terrorists and radicals.’ Whilst the story told about Christianity is that it’s ‘anti-egalitarian and out of date.’
Another report found 7 out of every 10 stories told about young black men in this country are to do with ‘violent crime, murders, and gun and knife crime’.
Whilst a report by the Runnymede Trust last year found ‘4 out of 5 British people (of all ethnic backgrounds) believe that the media’s portrayal of minorities promotes racism,’ with 76% of white respondents saying these portrayals were ‘fuelling racism.’
And this, I think, is where it gets interesting.
Because it suggests the mono-cultural perspective we’re used to being fed isn’t something only people of colour are concerned about, it’s an issue the British population as a whole want to see change.
According to Rob Berkeley (director of the Runnymede Trust)
‘The vast majority of the British public questions the ability of the media to portray ethnic minorities in a fair and reasonable light.’
Now if this is the case, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests it is, then this is about more than fairness. It’s about how these representations are impacting on integration and cohesion in a society whose make up is becoming increasingly diverse. As Berkeley says, the concern is ‘about the challenge this poses for improving relations between people of different ethnic groups. Our media must do more to respond to the real views and concerns of readers rather than promote stereotypes about Black and Asian people or immigrants.’
And how do you do that?
Well, how about making the media as diverse as its consumers are? How about arming it with perspectives capable of rendering authentically the society it claims to portray?
See, it’s not just about equality, as nice an ideal as equality is, this is about expedience. Because a diversified media isn’t only a fairer media, it’s a better, more nuanced and more accurate one too.
And if, as Adichie says
‘Power is the ability to tell the story of another person.’
Then in a democracy like ours that power should be distributed in a way that at least vaguely resembles the nation’s demographic make-up.
That’s the kind of media the British public are asking for. And that’s why our mainstream media, for the sake of its own credibility, needs to diversify.