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Diversity Act III
by Malcolm Evans| Brighton, UK
Wednesday, 5 February 2014
tags: clients & brands, consumer culture, culture, europe, fuzzy sets, global vectors, global/local, making sense, semiotics
Act III. Egalité, Fraternité, Diversité
A Google search for a definition of ‘diversity’ first produces the following, from the University of Oregon, a liberal mission statement verging on a spiritual affirmation – where mere tolerance gives way to an embracing and celebration of an abundance of positive human differences: “The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. It means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences. These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies. It is the exploration of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. It is about understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual”.
‘Diversity’ like ‘sustainability’, I wrote in the first part of this sequence, is a buzz word of today which was rarely heard in its contemporary sense a decade ago. In the context of commercial cultural work I first heard the term earlier, at the end of the 1990s, at a semiotics inspired workshop – as part of a Rainbow Nation related positioning opportunity for a South African drinks brand (symbolically a long way on from the still chronologically recent era of Apartheid) where a reassuring underpinning to this new pluralism and tolerance was provided by the notion of the natural gene pool’s unparalleled diversity in that part of the world.
This rhetorical rooting of the historical and ideological in the eternal givenness of nature is a central ploy of commercial messaging and popular culture, as identified in Mythologies by Roland Barthes, the pioneer semiologist operating in these areas. As I write a TV advertisement for Sanex Bio Response deodorant illustrates wonderfully how far this discourse of natural diversity has come in the meantime, combining with that of ecological sustainability. The visual of this TV execution is, in 2014, accompanied in UK by a different v/o script to the one in the film online: “Your underarm skin contains a diversity of natural bacteria essential for keeping skin healthy. If that diversity is disrupted it can affect your skin’s health. New Sanex antiperspirants fight odour-causing bacteria and leave a beneficial mix of bacteria keeping skin healthy”. This latter point is illustrated by a microscopic close-up revealing an underarm biosphere and hosts of beautiful naked women and men doing a Leni Riefenstahl style routine albeit more ethnically diverse, no longer in the cause of Herrenvolk or Kraft durch Freude but now, resoundingly, for personal freshness and diversity.
The prescience of semiological (or semiotic) analysis is heralded in a text by Roland Barthes from as early as 1955, in which he speaks in support of cultural diversity and specificity in a language which would chime happily with the ways in which we have learned to speak of diversity today. In his essay, reprinted in Mythologies, on a high profile photo exhibition brought from the US to Paris, where it was entitled ‘The Great Family of Man’, Barthes critiqued the whole tonality of the event for falsely universalizing a Western middle-class construction of life (received wisdom and imagery around birth, death, love, work etc.) and lacking sensitivity to the true diversity of experience and culture in these areas, notably those differences reflecting injustice and inequalities between rich and poor countries.
The myth of the exhibition, Barthes writes, functions in two ways. First the exoticism of superficial differences – the diversity (diversité in the original French) “in skins, skulls and customs” evoking a Babel-like heterogeneity. But then, beneath the surface, the essences and universality of the human condition are sentimentally and misleadingly projected – asserting a shared ‘nature’ at the cost of losing the diversity which is the true stuff of history and the differences on which an authentic rather an exploitative and sentimentalised humanism would be focusing. Barthes’s example of birth here can illustrate the general principle: “True, children are always born, but in the whole mass of the human problem, what does the ‘essence’ of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historical? Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother, whether or not he is threatened by a high mortality rate, whether or not such and such a type of future is open to him: this is what your Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of an eternal lyricism of birth”. ‘Diversité’ is a word Barthes deploys in this piece three times in all, at key points in the argument.
It’s a safe bet today to assume that brands are commissioning semiotic and cultural reports on how diversity is being communicated in different global markets and cross-culturally (these three Semionaut pieces have presented a mosaic of diversity stimulus currently operating in UK culture specifically, but much carries over to or from other places of course). This kind of cultural and brand intelligence into meanings and modes of communicating diversity would be a no-brainer for some obvious candidates (Nike, Dove, HSBC, Virgin, the great metropolitan hubs like London or New York, yoghurt or beauty brands looking at the diversity of ‘good bacteria’ and categories looking to exploit other areas of scientific research in the microbiome). To some degree, as a mainstay of cultural and corporate thinking in an increasingly global market and increasing internal heterogeneity within local cultures, diversity semiotics must be, however, a topic of serious interest for all brands going forward wherever they are – impacting not only on the external consumer projection and interaction but also on internal corporate cultures. It goes without saying that digitalization and social networks, displacing the old media pillars of cultural unity and relative univocality, communicate and feed back into all the pulsing life of diversity and mindfulness around difference that we have been exploring here. And social networking tools like Facebook or Twitter are well advised to adapt semiotic methods to make sense of their own big data sets in understanding and harnessing opportunities around the same set of cultural phenomena.
Even a cursory analysis of the Residual, Dominant and Emergent codes of diversity and the main trajectories they follow would reveal one major theme, pretty much eclipsed from the late 1980s through to the 2008 financial crisis, which brings us around in some ways full circle to the values of justice, equality and myth disclosure informing the work of Roland Barthes in Mythologies. The biggest emergent theme in diversity, one which Roland Barthes would have appreciated and which is now moving into the dominant mainstream of thinking, is is about equality and fraternity, the values that seem to have been left behind when liberty was reframed (and fetishized to the exclusion of the other two) as economic and regulatory liberalization – with what appears, given the wisdom of hindsight after the economic crash of 2008, to have been a charter for the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer with social mobility, in countries such as UK and US (Brazil and some other emerging markets being honourable exceptions in this respect), virtually grinding to a halt.
On that Oregon list of diversity dimensions (above) some are familiar and in the comfort zone, especially in Western societies although globally things move in this area at different speeds, even in different directions. This liberal comfort zone embraces diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, sexual orientation, age and religious beliefs (barring a somewhat hasty default populist connotation of ‘terror’ that goes with ‘Muslim’, in which the Islam/Islamist verbal connection is no doubt a factor).
Less familiar, perhaps, therefore retaining an emergent edge, is the notion that socio-economic status, political beliefs, or other ideologies (all on the Oregon list) are also dimensions to be taken into account in embracing diversity. But in the wake of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, with an increasing emphasis now on inclusion, the detrimental social impact of a widening rich-poor gap, and the evolution of ‘sustainability’ meanings from an exclusive ecological focus in the past to the emerging emphasis on social sustainability (where the discourses coincide with emergent diversity concerns, as maintaining natural diversity overlaps with ecological sustainability). And this is no longer just about small groups of radical activists or semiologists sniping from the sidelines about bourgeois popular culture. These are concerns reflected in big corporations such Unilever signaling a major shift in philosophy and global activity from a bygone unmindful focus on consumerism and growth at any cost, in the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Davos 2014 agenda for “Reshaping the World” and in Obama’s January 2014 State of the Union speech touching on fairer distribution and closing the wealth gap.
As I drafted this, on the morning of 28th January 2014 the voice of Pete Seeger, who died the previous night, was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m convinced that sooner or later the people of the whole world will have to do something about the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, while middle class people like me have to be concerned about the consequences of speaking up and rocking the boat”. After a long time in the wilderness for this discourse it felt again exacty of the moment. The programme played out with a snatch of Pete Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn adapting the words of the preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season/ And a time to every purpose under heaven”.
© Malcolm Evans 2014
CONVERSATIONS WITH THE SEMIOTIC MONKEY
I’m arguing the virtues of 12 Years a Slave, with the Semiotic Monkey, who is mischievously taking the side of Django Unchained and pretending to be a fan of Tarantino’s triviality, condescension, aestheticised violence and general semio-perversion. Comparisons like that are odious of course (we share a distaste for loaded binaries preferring on principle Saussure’s differences without positive terms or a Jungian discipline of owning one’s own shadow) but we’re having fun. Long live: realism however harrowing; Steve McQueen’s lingering moments of visual beauty (perfectly timed – slightly too long for commercial cinema, too short for art house self-indulgence); suffering and endurance; the human capacity for corruption – those Southerners are the great granddaddies of the people who won’t let Obama close Guantanamo; Enlightenment values and commitment to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; an integrity and authenticity that leaves in 12 Years a Slave plenty of room for odd chiaroscuro moments of mawkish musicality and a Brad Pitt career-low performance dispatching in one bravura gesture suspicions of any disempowered embedding of the film in Clooney Brangelina relatively cosy Hollywood liberalism.
The Semiotic Monkey switches the chatter to the Rainbow Nation and produces a battered copy of Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s What If Latin America Ruled the World from his rucksack. He shows me the passages around page 390 showing the 2010 analysis of race and income in South Africa, and the same old same old underlying the rainbow myth: “The numbers tell us who in fact run the country. They also reveal what did not change: political liberation from apartheid in 1994 coincided with economic liberalization in 1995, meaning the wealth accumulated during or as a result of apartheid remained in the same hands. […] Those who benefited from the spoils of racism kept their profits, and continue to benefit from them even though apartheid is officially over”.
The Monkey then offers the opinion that redistribution of wealth would undo some of the socioeconomic, political and ideological diversity the Oregon definition is so keen for us to celebrate. Embracing the human riches implicit in socioeconomic diversity is what that old English Hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ is about – “The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them high and lowly/ And ordered their estate”. Share the wealth fairly and you bugger the whole diversity beanery. End of escapade. Ultimately ‘diverse’, he says, is just a code word for ethnic, gay, disabled – a liberal positive sounding sop to the marginalized. Like ‘community’ it’s a piece of pastoral and exoticism, a word you never hear applied to bankers or the Old Etonians who run UK Gov and local government in London. Thomas Pynchon, Proverbs for Paranoids: “If they get you asking the wrong questions they don’t have to worry about the answers”. But we are getting closer to the nub of the right question now, and the whole diversity shadow play has, believe it or not, done a lot to help us get there. Never either/or. Always both/and.