Thursday, November 28, 2013

Conflicts and other problems

Attitudes towards confessional and sexual minorities in the discourse of the media in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland from a historical perspective 

In previous posts, I discussed the distinction between cultures, communities, groups, as well as their common grounds, ideologies, beliefs and attitudes. I tried to look at all these concepts from the point of view of discourse, which is the platform where various groupings and their ways of seeing and understanding the world around them meet, interact and clash.
Behaviour is another term in social sciences and social psychology that has some relevance here, although I haven’t discussed it in any length. Behaviour is usually mentioned in relation to attitude – for example, in research on cognitive dissonance, where one’s attitudes and behaviour do not match. Behaviour is a social act and a public act, potentially observable by other people. So is discourse. Language use is a social act and a public act as well. In this sense, the expression of attitude through language IS behaviour.
Now we have a fuller (but not necessarily full) picture of the potential points of conflict. Conflicts between individuals’ norms within a group, conflicts between ideologies within a culture, conflicts between cultures… An individual’s behaviour may be in conflict with his/her values – e.g. when he/she acts just to conform to his/her group. An individual’s attitudes may be in conflict with his/her beliefs. And so on, and so forth:
“Ideological contents are admitted to the mind by virtue of their social meaning. Within both society and the individual there are conflicting normative pressures from different sources. (…) Therefore, almost all cultural concepts and reflective beliefs are potential sites of social conflict” (Downes 2011: 235).
“There is a tension here between ‘identity’, understood as what gives groups a sense of being all ‘the same’, and ‘ideology’, beliefs that underpin that sense of unity. Both of these are in tension with ‘practice’, the set of engagements by many people facing different problems in a complex and contradictory world” (Hodge 2012: 2).

We often write and talk about values or attitudes as if they were tangible, observable objects, but of course it is not so. There are some groups (organizations, religious communities etc.) that actually do write their norms of behaviour and values down, but in most cases they remain unsaid. As members of groups, we make guesses about beliefs underlying other members’ behaviour: sometimes we are right, sometimes we are wrong. We also discuss them, but are rarely aware of their situational, context-dependent nature.
This may give rise to such issues as:
- pluralistic ignorance – when virtually all members of a group privately reject a norm yet believe that virtually all other members of the group accept it (Miller, Monin & Prentice 2000: 103). It accounts for widespread public support for social norms that have no widespread private acceptance (p. 104). This happens because people tend to adjust their own attitudes to match their estimates of peer attitudes (p. 105);
- conservative lags – when attitude change is not accompanied by behaviour change, leaving social practice in place long after it has long widespread private support. This may happen because people fail to recognize that their attitude change has been shared by others (p. 107);
- liberal leaps – when behaviour change accelerates without the corresponding attitude change (p. 108).

It is not difficult to imagine that the multiple, fragmented and fluid nature of our individual assortments of personal and social identities may also lead to conflicts. Blackledge distinguishes imposed identities (that are not negotiable), assumed identities (accepted and not negotiated) and negotiable identities (contested by groups and individuals). He also adds: “assumed identity options that are not negotiated by one group of individuals, may become a battleground for another group that approaches them as negotiable” (2005: 36). [A case in point is homosexual identity: within the community of LGBT people, such an identity is uncontested, but becomes negotiable in other groups and communities, such as families, teams of colleagues, church congregations, etc. What is interesting, bisexual identity may be problematized and contested both by “straights” and “gays”, cf. Borgos 2007).]
Nowadays, with the rise of globalized commercial culture, national identities that promote homogeneous cultures and nationality as a core aspect of people’s very being have to compete with new identities, “no longer connected to a specific nation or place of origin” (Machin & van Leeuwen 2007: 41) – ‘lifestyle’ identities. Machin & van Leeuwen consider them two top-down models of identity construction. “One is imposed by nation states, reinforced in national news media, education systems and other national institutions, and defines people primarily as citizens. The other serves the interests of global corporations, is disseminated through marketing practices and global media, and defines people primarily as consumers” (2007: 44). We usually choose certain elements from both models, which may result in significant tensions. Also Sparks notices the potential for conflict along the lines of citizen/consumer identity (2000: 43). He adds to the list: conflicts between values represented by one’s self-identities and represented by one’s attitudes/expressions of attitudes (Sparks 2000: 42); between people’s roles as citizens/as consumers; between people’s moral codes/social roles/personal tastes; between someone’s personal/moral preferences; between pleasure/moral values (p. 43).

I would like to discuss one last issue that is bound to come up in research on religious and, especially, sexual minorities – distinction between the private and the public domain. The private sphere is “the domain in which one can only be witnessed by intimate observers” (Coleman & Ross 2010: 5); it is “closed off, invisible to outsiders, and governed by internally specific rules” (p. 22). In contrast, the public space is open to everyone, visible to everyone, universal rather than particular, impersonal rather than personal (p. 24).
In the era of reality shows, call-in radio programmes, computer-mediated communication, Skype, facebook, blogs, Internet discussion groups, etc., the boundaries between the private and the public zones are increasingly blurred. The private sphere is becoming more visible (of course, these technologies make the public even more visible too).
The public is not only a space (public zone), but also a social actor (society); it is, however, unable to represent itself, and “doomed to be represented” (Coleman & Ross 2010: 9). In a democracy, those who represent the public – the political class – “can only claim legitimacy by speaking in its name and acting in its interests” (p. 8). But who decides what is in its interest?
We may consider the following statement an answer: “the public agenda is largely framed by the media agenda, and the media agenda by the institutional elites. The battle for public opinion is not so much about what one wants the public to think, but about what one wants the public to think about. Whoever has a decisive influence over that has already half won the battle” (van Ginneken 2003: 13).
(A somewhat more extreme formulation of the same claim is Chomsky’s “spectator democracy”, which manufactures consent with the means of propaganda; cf. Chomsky 1997.)
The media create the world for us, or rather they create a specific version of the world for us. “Certain views of what is true, real and important” are selectively articulated by the global media discourse. We internalize those views, they become our beliefs and opinions, they lead our lives.
The question is: in this context, does the distinction between the private and the public really hold?

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