Control of Self Representation

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
315
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Problem: 

How people are represented — in speech, story, or image — will influence to some degree how they are preceived — by themselves and others — and, hence, are treated. Africa, for example, is typically presented to the rest of the world — and to Africans as well — by CNN and other western media — not by Africans or African media. This problem, of couse, is not confined to Africa. Poor people everywhere are portrayed — if they're portrayed at all — as nameless and voiceless, rarely as people with ideas, aspirations, creativity, culture or values.

Context: 

This pattern is applicable in any setting where information about one group of people is being developed and distributed by another group of people.

Discussion: 

"More recently, in later modernity the theme of the everyday has been considerably more prominent. But this does not mean that questions about who is representing for whom and why and how have been resolved. Issues about legitimacy of representation remain crucial, and indeed I shall argue that how to articulate and represent the everyday is the main issue in the politics of culture." - David Chaney (2002)

Non-whites, convicts, the poor, sick, starving people, flood victims, uneducated, aged, rural as well as intellectuals, dissidents, gender, ethnic and other marginalized groups are often the victim of mis-representation. Their presentations are often paper-thin, stereotypical at best. (While mention of other people are simply omitted; they don't exist.) The net result is a compelling, free-floating image of "normalcy" that serves as a model to be emulated.

This pattern represents a concept that gets very little notice. After all, there is really no way to fully control your representation or what people do with it. Ultimately itÂ’s an expression of power: Who is creating the representations, under what conditions, and how can they be maintained, changed, or challenged? When somebody else is determining how you will be represented you have been robbed of your right to defend yourself, to make your own case for who you are. On some level, it's a type of identity theft. Who you are has been determined elsewhere and stamped on you.

Why bother with representations? Is there really anything to worry about? Are there any negative implications? Yes. For one thing, there seems to be substantial evidence that people start believeing their own representations — and act according to them. Representations, unfortunately, can have exceedingly long life spans since culture tends to replicate itself. Also people individually see little reason to change the way they view the world unless there is a compelling reason to rethink themselves.

This pattern on the one hand depicts the need for people everywhere to grab hold of their own representation and challenge the mechanisms (generally of media production) that perpetuates the stereotypes. At this level of analysis the pattern recommends a more accurate and bi-directional approach to "representation" — often of entire countries, ethnic and other marginalized populations. At a deeper level this pattern seeks to remedy a problem much more insidious -- that of a steady colonization from "within."

The importance of this pattern is obvious. It's why people may be suspicious when others are talking about them. It's why big corporations and political parties spend enormous sums on public relations and "spinning" news and other information to their advantage. Corporations and government agencies have elaborate and professional strategies for ensuring that their public portrait is painted according to their specifications. Movies stars, writers, etc. have their own publicists whose job it is to bring (or push) certain information to certain people. On the other hand, powerful people and institutions also go to great lengths to keep some information submerged and hidden forever.

There are several tools for addressing these problems. People in the group who may be perpetrating the stereotypes — white males (like me) for example — have the responsibility to acknowledge these transgressions and strive to overcome them. Media literacy and media critique are two skills worth developing and media monitoring is a worthwhile way to develop a fact base that can be used to confront the mis-representers. Much of this work should be done at a community level: the analyses should be shared, for example, with the community because it's often the community that is being mis-represented. Also, as was alluded to earlier, it may even be possible that members of the mis-represented community may be unconsciously living down to the stereotypes of their community.

Media is essentially a one-way street, a mute, wall-to-wall hallucinatory enclosure. (Although people do interpret according to their own rules that the media doesn't necessarily control.) The "message" of this medium is rarely acknowledged — it is truly the fabled 800-pound gorilla. Like a voice in your head, its message is compelling and persistent. It won't go away! It sows indecision while removing individual autonomy and opportunities for authentic social learning. Yet media producers aren't necessarily evil. Often laziness, lack of imagination (cloning the popular movie), and financial decisions factor in.

Solution: 

The first step to addressing this problem is to acknowledge that it exists. Since the media (and cultural representations generally) are so ubiquitous that it's hard to believe that there is a bias, however implicit. The second obstacle is thinking that nothing can be done about this. As you dig deeper in this you may simultaneously be amazed at the extent of the problem and your desire to help overcome it.

Pattern status: 
Released