“We need a public life in common, some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves.” – Michael Ignatieff, from his book True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada
Is the gulf too wide between the citizens who came before and the young adults rising up to take our place in media and public life? According to Michael Valpy’s recent opinion piece in the Globe & Mail, indeed, this is so.
Valpy speaks of the ‘indecently’ deep cleavages in Canadian society that he feels are undermining social cohesion and national identity – everything from level of education to age to the urban/rural divide. He concludes that these schisms in our society, coupled with a drying up of the well of shared public knowledge (a.k.a., mass media), is dissolving our social cohesion. We have no shared mind-map, no “soul-map” of Canada, Valpy writes.
I don’t agree with everything Valpy’s got to say in his piece, but it’s beautifully written and full of food for thought. While Valpy is writing about Canada, I would say that these demographic and behavioural shifts are evident here too in New Westminster. Our condo boom over the last few years has been a magnet for young professionals and their families to move to New West, and although the old guard seems to welcome this influx as a sign of revitalization, in my opinion not enough is being done to integrate these newcomers into the social fabric of our city.
The backbone of New West community life is a powerful network of retirees and seniors. While, in my experience, these passionate organizers are quite welcoming to younger folk who bring enthusiasm and a willing pair of hands to pitch in, the first step in becoming involved is to become aware of who does what in the city and how you can help. To a newcomer, it’s a forbidding wall of plaid and green jackets, seemingly quite foreign and impenetrable.
So what is the solution? I believe, like Valpy, that a shared well of knowledge held in common is essential to empowering citizens to become more deeply integrated in their communities, and aware of their power to shape the social culture in which we live. Unlike Valpy, I don’t think this is a role the mass media plays well.
Mass media certainly is effective at reaching a large number of people. But the message is limited by the constraints of the medium. Heavy overhead costs mean publishers are more beholden to advertisers. Advertisers also require eyeballs – which is why a mass audience is targeted. A mass audience brings its own limitations in depth of coverage and attention to niche issues. And, ultimately what unites strangers into citizens isn’t reading coverage of crime, council meetings, rewritten press releases and staged news events. It’s seeing their own passions and concerns woven into a shared narrative about the life of a place. The mass media definitely has a role to play here, but this is a story that is too large to fit into a single 500-word feature, or even a lengthier tryptych of 1000-word articles. This is a story best shared online.
When it comes to the establishment of a shared resource of information held in common, it’s hard to beat the Web. Its distributed nature allows for many smaller publishers, each as niche or as mass as they want to be. This is what scares Valpy and many other journalists – that many competing voices will lead to a plurality of disconnected narratives about our country and our role as citizens. Yet the second great quality of the Internet is often overlooked in this argument: that these distributed sources are also highly interconnected. There is no greater fount of serendipity than the Web. Valpy argues the opposite in his Globe & Mail piece, but I find it hard to see how anyone can take seriously the argument that reading a single newspaper will expose you to a greater range of points of view than the smorgasbord of web publications and socially driven link-sharing in the online news reader’s diet.
One of the motivations for us in launching this website was frustration at how little the life of New Westminster was reflected online. We have so many great events, organizations and resources – but if Google can’t find it, it may as well not exist. Newcomers and most young adults are not hooked into the word-of-mouth network that seems to power most New West organizations. Young adults are also far less likely to read our community newspapers. When they do, they are more likely to do so online – and the print advertising that most local organizations use to communicate their event information doesn’t appear online.
This is not intended to pit young against old or online against offline media. My point is that all must play a role in creating the public life in common that Ignatieff wrote about in the quote at the beginning of this article. The supposed apathy of young adults related to politics and community is a symptom of alienation, not a widespread generational character fault. The solution is bridge-building, not finger-pointing or doom-saying.
Coming up on September 10, we’re co-sponsoring an initiative that hopes to do exactly that. It’s a mixer for New Westminster’s young professionals to get to know each other and hopefully make some connections that will help support better integration into the life of the city. We are looking forward to meeting and mixing with some of our readers there – and meeting new friends as well! If you’d like to go, please RSVP on Facebook.