Veranstaltungen: Dokumentation

17.9.2003 | Von:
Andrea Ernst

The Role of the Media in Building European Identity and Public Debate

It is a truism that owing to the dissolution of traditional contexts – be it work, neigborhood, housing or family – individuals are faced with a much greater challenge when it comes to building his or her identity, as compared to fifty or sixty years ago.

I gladly accepted the invitation to this Conference although I admit that the topic I am to discuss made me ponder. For the title contains several questions that can only be debated contradictorily. To begin with please note that my paper will be limited to television only; I shall not consider other media such as printed media, internet and radio. The first question I raise is: Can television contribute towards building a person´s identity in the first place – and if so how? My second question asks if the specificity of a European identity can be conveyed by the mass media. At this point I shall make a few remarks about ARTE.

But let us approach the first question first: Can television contribute towards building an identity?

It is a truism that owing to the dissolution of traditional contexts – be it work, neigborhood, housing or family – individuals are faced with a much greater challenge when it comes to building his or her identity, as compared to fifty or sixty years ago. Today, people (in Europe and in North America) are "free" to shed formerly well-established values and forms of social interaction without incurring major problems. This freedom, however, also challenges people to take care of themselves; it is up to them as individuals to create for themselves human bonds and a meaningful life. Very little – compared to olden times – is pre-determined. It is at this point that television develops its extraordinary ability of identity building.

New communities evolve around common media and consumption experiences. The music channels for youngsters are an ideal example, their fan clubs, concerts, clothing habits and club events provide a uniform social context and help answering the question: To whom do I belong?

Television provides a feeling of belonging and something like "roots". Hence viewers are highly attached to certain channels and programs, especially family series and talk shows. They help them to answer the question: Where is my place in society?

Television offers the viewers a source of identification and helps answering the important question: Who do I wish to be like? Who is my role example?

Television also provides orientation and useful information in programs offering guidance, advice and legal counselling; in talk shows it provides gossip. This helps to answer the question: How do other people solve their problems? How do I cope with this complex world?

Owing to its generalised and permanent availablity television also provides a certain degree of security: as long as the television set is switched on one´s own daily life somehow seems okay. We may safely assume that television plays a decisive role in structuring identity. While identity once primarily developed through social interaction within a person´s environment, doubtlessly media interaction, today, is an integral part of this process. Even though the reception of feature films, news items, talk shows, commercials, sport broadcasts and thrillers appears to be a passive process on the sitting room couch – activity does take place as an emotional identity building process.

Hence, we might come to believe that television is particularly suited to prepare, build and establish a European identity. This takes us to my second question: Can the specificity of a European identity be conveyed by the mass media? In searching for the "identity" of a European continent so frequently invoked as a "common historical and cultural space whose homogeneity is defined by multiplicity" we face a fundamental contradiction: the European states encompassing more than sixty languages and ethnic groups are extremely varied, even within nations and regions. Innumerable life stiles, social milieus and subcultures shape identity building side by side with the respective regional and national cultures. Who does not want to drown in the great variety of options is bent to search for commonness. It is this very complex and multifold character of Europe that evokes the call for uniformity. A feeling of belonging can only develop in agreement with a certain milieu and by discovering things in common within a certain (sub)culture – what counts is to mark the limits between my group and others.

Television – especially in Germany with its more than thirty channels – supports this process of standardising and establishing homogeneity, it encourages viewers to join the greatest common denominator. At present, the greatest common denominator and the clearest point of reference are provided by the "American way of life". No matter whether it is defined by sit-coms, Americanised stories or American movies and series – we always feel "at home" in a homogenous referential system. The feeling of security is also underlined by the Old Testamentarian principle of "good" and "evil". We are immersed in a uniform value system in which the "good" prevails and globally understandable (love) stories create a feeling of togetherness. We, in Germany, also have the regional broadcasting stations that equally provide a sentiment of cultural belonging. This explains the great success of the so-called "Third Programs" in German television which leave no doubts as to the question: Where and to whom do I belong to? (Bavarian Television, North German Television, Central German Television.) There is no such thing as the one identity in a society, there are always a number of concomitant identities.

Essentially, individual identity building calls for uniformity, unequivocal patterns and clarity - and Europe is the very contrary: cultural multiplicity. This takes me to the third aspect of my paper: Can ARTE contribute towards creating a European identity?

To make a long story short: Yes, I believe so. But only if we learn to accept – and bear - the contradictions described above. Italians laugh about other things than Germans, the German Carneval bores Poles, but French author films, on the other hand, are better understood in Poland than in Germany. The authors of our respective neighboring countries get excited about different subjects than we are used to in our regional and national sphere of reference. And on top of all of this we have the language problem – the list of understandings and misunderstandings could be continued endlessly.

So far ARTE is the only trans-national broadcaster that is prepared to face this multiplicity – at the expense that it can neither provide a system of safe orientation nor standardised pictures and contents.

In the very sense of the word ARTE is "European":

- Because of the many different languages: frequently the original language is not dubbed but only sub-titled; and, anyway, each program is broadcasted in two languages – German and French.

- Because of the many different partners: ARTE has long overcome its original partnership Germany/France and is cooperating with Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Poland, Austria, Italy and Finland.

- Because of the great variety of contributors: authors and producers from all of Europe work for ARTE.

- Because of the many different stories: Films and documentaries from European countries are rarely produced by correspondents, but rather by authors from the "country of origin" – thus providing a more authentic view on the subject matter.

This multiplicity implies that ARTE will maintain its character of a special interest program – at least for the time being. Other than the United States Europe is no "melting pot" whose language and culture allow for developing an unequivocal identity.

In the meantime a relatively large group of viewers manage to bear the contradiction between multiplicity and uniformity and show a big amount of curiosity. Also, polls among ARTE-viewers have revealed that the "ARTE-community" is defined by different behavior and different ideas than the average German or French viewer.

- ARTE-viewers often have a very good command of foreign languages - ARTE-viewers often travel abroad - ARTE-viewers in general are more open-minded with respect to the idea of Europe

Social class and education are less important for these poll results than one might expect on first sight. Much more important is the existence of well-developed and stable personalities and identities that do not fear to confront themselves with what is foreign and different and unknown – for their own personal development.

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