Home Sociology Media and Social Justice
Others will have other stories, but my first real understanding of these issues started with reading the American sociologist Richard Sennett’s book The Hidden Injuries of Class.8 Countless books have been written before and since on the economic and status injustices linked to class in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere, but until then few if any writers had focused on how class differences “feel”: the psychic pain they cause and the difficult routes people take in dealing with that pain. Sennett had done interviews with working-class people in Boston, and his book brings out how people internalized their low position in the society, as a way of coping with it, until they came to feel in subtle ways that they deserved it—that those who were better off or had higher status deserved those greater rewards because they had qualities those “below” them did not. An unequal class system, in other words, in addition to inflicting material injuries through poor housing, poor wages, and long working hours also inflicted “hidden injuries” on its victims, injuries to self-esteem and self-recognition. In this way, the justice of the class system seemed natural even to those who had most to gain from challenging it; as a result, it was almost immune to change, until at least those hidden injuries were grasped more clearly.
Over the next three decades, similar and just as powerful studies of “hidden injuries” were told by writers investigating other dimensions of inequality. So Carol Gilligan and many other feminist writers wrote about the damage to women’s self-esteem caused by the internationalization of gender hierarchies in the education system; Stuart Hall, David Theo Goldberg, and others, drawing on the classic early work of W. E. B. DuBois and Frantz Fanon, wrote of the psychic damage done by racism and race-based social systems; and more recently, Michael Warner, Judith Butler, and others have written about the hidden injuries inflicted by societies where one norm, and one norm only, of sexuality—heterosexuality—is imposed as a grid to regulate men and women’s much greater range of sexual orientations and practices.
In all those different ways, we have come to see how so-called “material” inequalities—in money, physical assets, legal rights—are matched by “symbolic inequalities.” These symbolic inequalities amount to more than being represented unfairly by others, crucially important though that is. These hidden injuries eat away also at individuals’ own symbolic resources, their ability to represent themselves, to tell their stories effectively and with confidence. In the controversial context of the current “war on terror,” new forms of hidden injury and symbolic inequality are emerging, linked with intercultural differences; some replay older forms of racism and others are directly linked to the unequal treatment of, and respect for, different religions. The problem of “hidden injuries” is, in other words, a large and ever-changing one.
Correcting these symbolic inequalities might seem to be a matter simply of giving greater respect to individuals in our interactions with them. But in mediated societies—societies where media institutions have a dominant role and most, if not all, of our information about what’s going on beyond our immediate locality comes from media—it is impossible to separate the recognition individuals get from each other and the way that media resources are distributed. Another American sociologist, Todd Gitlin, expressed this beautifully when he wrote, “What makes the world beyond direct experience look natural is a media frame.”9 Yet not everyone has access to the resources of media institutions that build that frame. This means that who has access to media resources affects whether my experience can make sense or seem interesting and important to you. Media, Raymond Williams once wrote, provide “images of what living is now like”—or not, as the case may be.10 If your life is the type of life that is not regularly represented in media, it is liable to be cast into the shadows, making it harder for you to get others to listen to your story of what life is like for you. This is where we can see the hidden injuries of media power working, shaping our expectations of whether others would even be interested if we were to tell them our story.11
It is not surprising, then, that just getting your hands on media resources—a digital camcorder, for example—can be a “hook” to get people involved in a community project. That this is such a hook is part of the wider problem, since it is the flipside of people not normally having such access to media tools. The “glamour” of media—useful attraction though it is—i s the other side of an injustice. So projects that try to correct that injustice by giving effective access to media tools are of enormous importance: I’ll come back to what counts as effective access later.
Often those projects involve technical training: media skills are now inseparable from web skills because the dispersed nature of the web makes it a colossal resource for telling stories and sharing information. However technical the issues of digital technology skills become, it is vital not to lose sight of the basic point, and the basic injustice being addressed, which always comes down to our ability to exchange with others our accounts of what we feel, remember, think, and propose. Storytelling feeds back to the ways in which we recognize and respect each other as individuals, as the founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling, Joe Lambert, explains: “We all pre-judge, and label, and disregard folks before we know that much about them. Story sharing and listening creates compassion, and offer a huge does of humility. While opinions may not change, certainly a deeper civility can be engendered, a kind of civility that is rapidly disappearing from our culture.”12 Or as the leader of another much less well- known collective storytelling project in Chile has put it, “It is necessary that all voices are heard in the concert of life.”13
There are of course many forms of injustice: fundamental are failure to sustain a fair distribution of food, housing, basic amenities, health, and education. Among these huge lacks “civility” and mutual respect might seem rather incidental, but as the development economist Amartya Sen points out, being able to participate in how things that affect you are decided is part of living a life that is worthwhile and worthy of a human being, and democracy in this broad sense contributes both to development and to freedom.14 We are gradually coming to realize that there is no rigid boundary between “hard” questions of economic resources and “soft” questions of recognition. As the American political philosopher Nancy Fraser has pointed out, each of us needs resources—not just a basic standard of living, but the tools to make ourselves heard—if we are to be recognized: injustice of “resources” and injustice of recognition are part of the same larger story.15 Which means, to recap, that in mediated societies, the fair distribution of media’s narrative resources—remember, we call them “media” resources because, for so long, they have been concentrated in media institutions, but it could be otherwise—is part of a wider social justice.
The implications of this insight continue to grow as more and more people cross national borders looking for work or fleeing war, yet often fail to get recognition—politically or socially—in their new host countries and as growing economic inequalities within nations are forgotten by affluent elites beneath a story of economic success and market flexibility. This is why the social justice projects have much wider implications than for the particular communities they directly affect. They are challenges to a wider and usually hidden injustice: the injustice of access to the “medium” through which we see the social world around us.
General principles, however, only take us so far. In the rest of my chapter, I want to think more specifically about how such projects can work, drawing first on a few insights from the Public Connection project mentioned earlier.
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