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Diversity Act I
by Malcolm Evans| Brighton, UK
Sunday, 2 February 2014
tags: consumer culture, culture, europe, fuzzy sets, global/local, making sense, semiotics
Act I: Diversity Meets the Semiotic Monkey
When I’m training people in commercial semiotics I use as an imaginary prop a character called the Semiotic Monkey, who sits on your shoulder and lets you be the virtual consumer or sample cultural superbeing to whom he has total telepathic access. So while you walk around being your normal self – interacting, working, playing, falling in love, getting cross, running your culture’s cognitive, communicational, behavioural and prejudicial software – the Monkey looks on dispassionately gathering data, doing pattern recognition, thinking about theory, being relatively objective about the things you tend to get worked up about, and scratching her/his fleas.
I say ‘her/his’ because your own Semiotic Monkey can be configured as you will in terms of gender, ethnicity, cultural orientation etc. and in essence is inherently and ineradicably diverse, defined by inbuilt difference in motion rather than static unitary identity – in all things, as in its defining sexual preferences, Bonobo-like by virtue of an enthused (not to say crazed) plurality of tastes and practices.
As an expert in meaning, connotation, context (Hamsini Shivakumar, citing conceptual sources deep in Hindu culture, calls context “the meaning behind the meaning”) and in culture itself, the Semiotic Monkey is naturally drawn to the word ‘diversity’ today. Diversity, like sustainability, is one of those resonant abstractions that capture the flavour of our times. Rarely heard in everyday usage 10 years ago it’s a word, in polite company, we all now have to at least pretend we understand.
It is a term with wide-ranging connotations which tend, on most occasions, to be emotionally charged because diversity sits on an ideological fault line (or, across cultures, a variety of them). For an instinctive conservative, an aficionado of tradition and clear-cut identities, talk of diversity can trigger anti-liberal and anti-PC warning lights. These in turn prompt a girding of the loins to combat perceived social evils such as out of control immigration, people being encouraged to say ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’, or the spread of same sex marriage. As I write an anti-EC UKIP (Independence Party) politician has been holding the spread of gay marriage responsible for the divine retribution visited on the British in the floods and storms that ravaged the land like a plague at the end of 2013. While others, of course, are more inclined to attribute this to climate change or the notorious vagaries of the weather in this part of the world.
Conversely the d-word becomes a rallying call for tolerance, openness, equality, community and collaboration – for a warm liberal construction of humanity. An anthropologist from planet Zog would need only to search ‘diversity’ on Google Images to download that chunk of our global cultural software instantly. Try it, but don’t OD on benevolence and goodwill – and may the exercise help you on your personal journey towards effective cliché management.
Locally that visual and verbal language of positive diversity will have, at any point in time, its own rash of bugbears. In UK as I write media are engaging variously with: a need for affirmative action to recruit black and minority ethnic (BME) officers to restore balance to a police force increasingly seen to be out of tune with the communities it serves; the Liberal Democrats’ apologies to female party workers alleging sexual harassment over a number of years by a senior organization figure, Lord Rennard; a premiership football’s team’s sponsor withdrawing its financial support because of a supposedly anti-Semitic celebratory gesture by French striker Nicolas Anelka; and President Putin’s assurances, ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics, that it’s not gay people themselves the Russian authorities object to (in English ‘gay’ is semantically a fascinating signifier to unpack) but the activity of promoting homosexuality among young people.
It’s a sign of how times change that this ‘promoting homosexuality’ argument, now decoded by UK media as a sign of a culturally neanderthal homophobia in Russia, was itself deployed by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the late 1980s in Section 28 of the Local Government Act designed to combat the activities of teachers intent on upholding diversity (or whatever they called it in those days) as an alternative to institutional heterosexism in schools. I felt at the time that the Thatcher regime may have been secretly getting a little warm under the collar about school teachers and polytechnic lecturers in places like Camden and Islington having plans to try to make homosexuality compulsory. They had to be crushed by any means, as did the miners. One great Margaret Thatcher myth was that of the greengrocer’s daughter, with all the sentimental petit bourgeois ideological baggage that entailed. If we perpetuate that unitary myth in any form today we overlook a great diversity opportunity to also acknowledge that Mrs Thatcher was the property developer’s wife and the arms dealer’s mother.
All this is just in the last few days, a fraction of the corpus that would need to be looked at for a current semiotic and cultural analysis of the diversity theme in UK media alone – with Nelson Mandela’s funeral and its reprise of history still recent news, trials in progress in the background of once loved TV and radio personalities for sexual abuse committed many years ago when standards were evidently perceived less stringently than they are today (is a future time imaginable when paedophilia will be normalized again, perhaps as part of positive diversity, as it was in classical Greek culture?). And the arrival of blockbusting Hollywood movie 12 Years a Slave directed by black Briton Steve McQueen. Why do black British actors have to go to America to succeed? Why aren’t they being spotted by the BBC. for example? Are their parents sending them to the wrong schools by any chance? Could they perhaps be exercising their freedom of choice in education a little more responsibly?
Meanwhile still in the background there rumble on in the Anglican Church, that relic of an earlier imperial phase of globalization, corrosive debates around the ordination of female or gay priests and bishops that stretch to near breaking point the ideological bonds that can link places as diverse as the West coasts of Africa and the United States through the historical mediation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To say nothing of Islamophobia or what’s coming out of the Roman Catholic woodwork, the discussion around holding the Church and its sexually predatory priests accountable, and compensating their victims.. Who knows ultimately the truth behind any of this diverse traffic of culture and semiosis? Not the Semiotic Monkey, that’s for sure. He observes, reports, keeps an open mind.
Act II will follow shortly
© Malcolm Evans 2014