There is an emerging stream of discourse on the impact of new media on the civil society movement.
It evokes cartoonistic images of an alliance of two powerful global forces for good - the media, and civil society - coming together, to defeat the evil of governments across the universe.
The concept of a growing mass global movement of an entity called civil society, facilitated by new media, functioning as a virtual big brother watchdog over the misdemeanours of governments, businesses and others (who are these others?) is a notion I find to be increasingly problematic.
Those who have watched the concept of civil society develop breath and flesh, and now even have offices, staff and equipment, constitutions and statutes, and defined roles and responsibilities and networks, may recall the period of civil society adolescence when there was resistance by some groups, particularly those defined as academia and the media, of being labeled as civil society in the loose definition that civil society comprised all those who were not government.
I understand, in some academic programmes for journalists, one of the persistent examination brain teasers was whether it was possible to be a journalist and an advocate at the same time. Academia and media joined forces against this perceived new threat to their supremacy embodied in civil society. For media, or academia, to consider self-absorption into a mammoth plebiscite agency that labeled itself civil society, often positioned at the bottom of the social hierarchy, may have seemed an affront to its independence, identity and to the status quo.
That was, of course, before the funding agencies got involved and pressured governments and academia and media to incorporate ‘civil society’, or they would be denied access to the wallets. They attempted to give the chaotic mass conceived of civil society, the garb of governance - form, structure, functions, department offices and nameplates, and offered to help it build networks. Civil society has therefore gained currency and, as such, credence as an all-embracing term, and a now not offensive one, too, so entities such as media and academia may now easily consider themselves its ally.
Loosely, civil society is now understood as those who are not the government. During a discussion about civil society in the context of the Summit of the Americas and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting both held in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, I was required to rethink that concept, when an interviewer on a local television talk show flippantly rebutted my citing that definition, remarking he thought that we were all the government.
In the classical concept of politics, governments are those chosen from among civil society to represent them. In effect, governments then, are the arms and legs and voices of the people - that is, civil society -and then rightly so, as civil society, we, are all the government.
Indeed, and by the same token, we are all civil society.
I have often proposed that civil society, which in a previous reincarnation was called non-governmental organisations, would not exist, and there would be no need for their existence, if governments did what they were meant to do - that is to fulfill the mandate given by the people they serve to make decisions in the collective interest.
The media, in my early textbook understanding of journalism, was the voice of the people – a conduit of messages from those who are to be served, town criers of the modern era. Have those basic principles changed with new media in an era of greater global connectivity?
It is something we may wish to keep in mind in discussions about the impact of new media and civil society on global governance, and especially when we try to clad civil society in the garb of officialdom, and contain their multifarious voices within networks and like structures.
Formulation and perpetuation of notions and concepts and constructs, and development of theories and projections of visions of civil society, and of media, as entities outside of, or diametrically opposed to the construct, notions and functions of government, are indications of how far we have moved from the central focus of what governments are, and the notion of what governance ought to be.
Such an off centre focus strike at the heart of why development goals cannot be achieved – largely because the basic premises themselves on which actions and programmes are being built are skewed . In setting up and continuously reinforcing such dialectic roles, we are still failing to recognise and act on the fact that development and progress, as much as they are collective responsibilities, are also personal ones.
Certainly the discussions emerging around the possibilities and potentials of new media to mobilise civil society now give cause to pause and examine the assumptions that surround this, among them, that civil society is a homogeneous collective constituency waiting to be mobilised, and that media, matured and evolved into new media, is the conduit, tool and agency to effect this.
It requires us to reflect on some of the assumptions, presumptions and misconceptions we have unquestionably accepted, in buying into this idea, without consideration of how the directions being proposed may, perhaps, in fact be reducing and diminishing the potential value of the asset we have in new media: to represent and celebrate the individuality of the many voices, and not have them subsumed and contained within notions of networks and niches.
And this, to me, seems to be the challenge of the new era: How can new media, even as it networks and facilitate the creation of networks of like interests, not neutralise the representations of the multiplicity of people voices in the process, and in fact present them as parts of, not separate from, the collective conscience of governance.
Dr Kris Rampersad