By Snjezana Milivojevic*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
When I accepted a position I was unexpectedly offered from Bayan College in Muscat, the capital of Oman, I knew little more about the country than where it was on the map. Oman is a Sultanate, an absolute monarchy with very limited political representation. It is also a fast-developing, high-income country. Both the academic and media cultures there were equally unknown to me. Comparative indexes of media freedom rated it very low, in line with the country’s record on political and civil liberties. But the college is affiliated with the US Purdue University Northwest, and it offers the country’s only BA and MA communication programs in English. I was assured that my international experience was welcome. Nonetheless, I suspected I was in for an epistemological challenge.
A few months after my arrival, some Omani colleagues asked me to briefly describe the country. Off the top of my head, I answered that it was “hot, friendly and slow”. When asked to elaborate, I added a bit more to the picture.
Here, “hot” means more than the climate. The bright, sun-baked environment combines three large ecosystems: the desert, the mountain range and the ocean. The powerful meeting point of the three forms the background of the country’s geography, history and identity. The heat dictates that many people must live in an air-conditioned world most of the year. Villages are pleasant if hidden in the mountains, but cities are hot and mostly oriented to life indoors. Even along the beautiful coastal areas, beaches are less widely used for swimming and more often for family outings in the evening under the stars. The country is in the northern hemisphere but due to the proximity of the equator winter is heavenly and summer is the ‘bad season’.
“Friendly” refers to the people, who are welcoming, open and proud of their heritage. The majority of the population is young, with 44% 17 years or younger, and less than 4% 65 and older. Older people really seem to be a rare species. Students are very respectful of authority, rarely critical and often quite naïve. Women have only had the right to vote and participate in political life since 1994. Yet women make up 50% of all students, around 17% of the workforce, the ministers for both education and higher education are women. A policy of universal education was introduced in the 1970s, but men and women are still schooled separately. Only at university do young people attend mixed classrooms and learn in inclusive teaching environments. Almost half of the population are non-citizens, expatriates from around the world. A constant visual, cultural and linguistic blend is the standard here. So, “friendly” also means tolerance and accepting of differences.
And “slow”. Everything always takes more time and does not move in a linear fashion. There are twists and turns and setbacks that proceed in a slow and circular manner. After my repeated efforts to have something done, the HR officer told me: “You want everything fast, doctor. Here is slow”. This slow pace helps changes seem natural and renders them more easily acceptable. But sometimes abrupt events intersect with those long, slow cycles, producing unexpected cultural outcomes.
Last December, long-overdue municipal elections, which were postponed during the Covid pandemic, took place across the country. These were only the third municipal elections in the country’s history – the first such voting took place in 2012 – but the entire population now had access to e-voting. Unlike in many other areas of the world, the development of some social or political skills connected with lately introduced processes is now happening almost simultaneously with the learning of digital skills. Due to a very rapid digital transformation, the very young population is mostly unaware of the time gap between the centuries of election history worldwide and the newness of the digital. Quite often this mismatch resembles what Manuel Castells, a famous sociologist and interpreter of the Information Age, called the timeless time – time without socially meaningful ordered sequencing. Mixing different temporalities feels like living where the Middle Ages meets the cyber-future.
This fractured postcard corresponds to my fragmented experience of the country. It also reflects what differs from my usual environment and reveals how I discovered new dimensions of diversity. Soon after my arrival, I realized that I was not facing only particular new differences but a whole new environment of diversity. Environments are not passive wrappings. They are natural worlds which shape our perceptions, experiences and behaviors. But the environment, even when it refers to nature, is always socially constructed and is never just a background against which cultures develop. And it is from understanding the Omani environment that I slowly began understanding how it relates to diversity.
As one of the major crossroads of the world, this whole region has had a long experience with diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions. Networks of maritime and continental routes that connected the Mediterranean region with the Middle East, Arabia, Far East and China originated around the overlapping of the Silk Road with routes for trading spices and incense. For centuries, these areas were also venues of intensive knowledge development and cultural exchange. But the present-day diversity results from migratory waves connected to the development of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and the modern world’s dependence on oil and natural gas from the region. The influx of experts and workers from both East and West over the past 30 to 40 years has entirely transformed society.
These migratory trajectories also shaped the social response to diversity, in effect producing multiculturalism of a specific kind, where many cultures coexist around a politically and culturally privileged local culture. All societies are diverse. What distinguishes them is how these differences are treated and managed. An acknowledgment of the fundamental right to be different and to maintain individual and cultural identities is a recent development in pluralistic societies. It has transformed social acceptance into a political philosophy and a corresponding politics of difference in contemporary western democracies. Respect for differences means that recognition, inclusion and acceptance do not depend on the benevolence of individuals but are now social norms that serve as a cornerstone of late 20th century liberal multiculturalism.
The cultural landscape within which differences do not merge into a multicultural western liberal, secular core but into a religious, Arabic, fast-developing yet conservative and patriarchal culture presents another context for social diversity. This landscape impacts both the sense of what it means to be different and how these differences are treated.
Language and the Media
In her innovative work, American political scientist and feminist scholar Iris Marion Young connected social justice with the politics of difference. She argued that the liberal concept of human rights based upon the notion of a ‘universal person’ neglects differences among social groups and is in effect blind to gender, ethnic, national or other differences between them. Claiming that diversity is a resource, she argued for the equality of culturally and politically distinctive group experiences. Around that time, the media picked up the meme of ‘diversity’ and began explaining how the representation of race, ethnicity, gender, and identity in general relates to structural inequalities and not only to personal differences. The awareness that the visibility of diverse voices depends on the media positioned the media as one of the major battlegrounds of identity formation as well as part of the quest for more socially just societies.
This global momentum reached me during the wars in Yugoslavia, where diversity was weaponized in the propaganda of war. Throughout the Balkans, ethnic identity became a key identifier of social fragmentation and a source of conflict. In the midst of it all, the Media Diversity Institute initiated journalistic and civic educational initiatives paving the way for a more sensitive understanding of diversity. Later, in the spirit of post-conflict reconciliation, MDI started a media monitoring project focusing on the representation of ethnic minorities in major media across countries emerging from bloody wars and in some countries in their neighborhood. My motivation for becoming involved with the project was to help develop a methodology and a set of analytical skills that could be used outside academia by various professionals and activists.
I found that comparative research was the best strategy for documenting how ethnic differences became stereotypes and for explaining how they were politicized and misused to label some actors as social outcasts, some as political enemies and some as respected ‘others’, across communities. Therefore, the main purpose of the research was not to identify particular differences and how adequately or not they were presented in public life but to critically read media representations, hoping to raise public consciousness and promote tolerance throughout the war-scarred region. In a broader sense, the monitoring also aimed to document how media get instrumentalized and what they do and do not do to construct the social and political context in which identity and diversity gain meaning.
Critical reading of the media and their portrayal of differences was particularly important in a region where media images often essentialize identity. These images suggest that identity is characterized by some fixed, coherent, essential core; they ignore the fact that there are fractured, hybrid, mixed and even more complex forms of identities, and that nobody comes in one piece. Those various fragments are transformed into meaningful wholes labeled ‘identity’ only though the persistent work of representation. The message that identities, both personal and collective, need to be formed, constructed, negotiated and acquired discursively was and is crucial for a region in which wars were fought in the name of ethnic purity. Arguing that identities are human constructs does not mean that they are artificial or not real but underlines the importance of the sense-making practices through the use of media and language.
Living in different language communities offers the most obvious encounters with differences. I still remember my graduate studies in the Netherlands during the late 1980s, when I was studying in English and thinking in Serbian while being surrounded by Dutch and other languages at our international school. For all of us, English, the language of instruction and our lingua franca, was never just a medium of learning and communication. It was a conceptual tool and a major instrument for translating experiences across cultural contexts. A world that converged around language while diverging in many things was a reminder that discursive resources to comprehend and represent reality are the same as those used in constructing it. In the much simpler media landscape of the time, my daily media diet of reading The Guardian and watching the BBC grounded that frame of reference for understanding the world out there deeply within ‘western culture’. Fluency in English was actually instrumental in domesticating cultural differences within the common linguistic space.
Now, almost 40 years later, technology has completely altered the linguistic experience. I am again living surrounded by different languages, in an Arabic-speaking country. This time the majority language is so remote from my Slavonic-originating Serbian that I cannot guess what anything means from listening to other people’s conversations. But unlike before, it is much easier for me to navigate this linguistic environment. I have several translating apps on my phone to instantly scan and display the text or vocally translate messages into any language. Leaving aside the quality of the translation, which is always a major challenge, the sheer possibility of communicating through a local language without being able to speak it is a major novelty. In fact, the ability to communicate among people who find each other’s languages equally distant, while they listen or read translations of messages on their phones as they receive them, redefines the meaning of the phrase ‘language community’.
For me the benefits of this possibility went beyond causal everyday encounters. As dean of the college, I had to officially communicate in Arabic with the Ministry of Higher Education and had to rely on translating apps even when the discussion involved very sensitive issues. Of course, in addition to basic reading and writing, these communications required specific forms guided by cultural semantics, a fact I was not unaware of as a non-speaker of Arabic. The official correspondence would always feature paragraphs of standardized greetings adhering to a formal etiquette not easily translatable into other languages. The same phrases had to be added to my English sentences when they were adopted for institutional correspondence. And this whole apps supported communication worked smoothly.
I was born in Bosnia, the most ethnically mixed part of Yugoslavia, to parents who were from different parts of the country but spoke the same language. We then lived in Macedonia, where I was exposed to linguistic variety. I attended a ‘Serbian school’ in which we were taught in what was a minority language in Macedonia but also the majority language throughout the country of Yugoslavia. I have moved many times since then and have lived in countries where my name was difficult to pronounce. But the languages I encountered in that period were always sorted into families, with similarities among them even when they differed. Living in the Arabic-speaking world, a common linguistic territory of more than 400 million people spread across continents, I experienced a very distinct sense of being surrounded by difference. In addition to Arabic, common foreign languages there were Malalayam, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Urdu, Malay, Thai and many more with alphabets far more complicated and difficult to learn than the Cyrillic and Roman letters which I was used to. Without speaking any of the languages, I was daily reminded how these other tongues conceptualized the world differently and helped those speaking them to experience and represent it in diverse ways.
Since the emergence of newspapers, the major challenge for the media has been to represent complex reality and different points of view as a meaningful whole. From 1605, the year which marks the birth of newspapers, when publisher Johann Carolus started publishing regular news bulletins in the city of Strasburg, news media and journalism were giving voice and visibility to social plurality while acting on behalf of the public.
The first newspapers in Oman were published in the 1970s, although beginnings of Omani journalism date back to the early 20th century when several papers were initiated outside the country at the island of Zanzibar. With such a short history, media quickly jumped into the digital transformation. When social media shook the media world, the general population did not have a long-established pattern of media consumption. In the current global media landscape, the digital revolution is carried out by new generations of media users who are digital-native, digital-literate and almost disconnected from legacy media use. Younger media users hardly remember the old media anywhere, but here there is no rich collective memory to rely on either. Almost everybody starts using new media as an absolute beginner.
Now social media are almost universally accessible and are used by everybody all the time. Restaurants operate only with QR codes; when you ask for a paper menu, the most you can expect is that waiters will bring you a tablet. In the fast-growing cities, nobody knows street names or addresses, and everybody moves around with the help of navigation apps and according to online geo-location. Many products, even traditional crafts, can only be bought through Instagram. State institutions and services used widely by everyone include everything from e-banking to applications for the Hajj to Mecca, with some of the pilgrims even being selected by digital lottery. WhatsApp is the preferred channel of communication for every purpose and among all age groups.
Media not involving journalism are also major sources of information and most people receive ‘news’ through friends, PR agencies or directly involved actors. New media habits and practices are being developed by generations of young people who are watching Netflix and don’t even know that movies were once made for theaters. They are unfamiliar with the global history of film or popular culture and enjoy cultural geography organized around centers like Korean pop, Bollywood film or Dubai digital culture. All around the Gulf countries, the future is turning the region into a digital creativity hub as the oil economy loses importance and an immersive digital and virtual art scene is blossoming.
Concepts of media literacy and media competencies are being thoroughly reorganized. Generations of digital natives create new habits that represent a break from traditional cultural patterns. In some respects, digital networks resemble traditional family or tribal ties but are also establishing new patterns of communication. So young women and men who did not go to mixed schools are hesitant when they meet in person but socialize easily on Instagram and WhatsApp. This digital transformation has rearranged social relations and society is discovering its internal differences as much as what makes it distinct from others as a whole.
As Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist who was among the first to recognize the importance of media as technology, once famously said, the effect of each new medium is not in what it says but how it reshapes our symbolic environment and our entire social life.
The City, Public and Private Spaces
I love the city. According to Richard Sennett, an American academic who studied various aspects of urban life, the city is an urban settlement in which strangers are likely to meet and therefore a place where we tolerate those who are different. The city is a necessary environment for diversity, a stage to present and represent differences, to interact with others without fear of confrontation. It is the foundation of democratic life, the place where citizens learn to see and accept others regardless of their looks or behavior. Its streets, coffee shops, parks, squares and piazzas are open to all for spontaneous and non-hierarchical public communication. As public spaces, they are by definition inclusive and allow for equality of movement and the right to gather. It is where citizens are exposed to a variety of views and attitudes different from their own, where they learn that these differences are not threatening and therefore should be approached in a co-operative and non-combative manner.
The ability to negotiate differences without violence is one of the most important achievements of democracy, ensuring that when strangers or dissimilar people meet they do not fight over scarce resources or divergent opinions but interact with acceptance and respect. Tolerance is possible only when meeting strangers, passersby, accidental visitors, fellow citizens, neighbors, opponents and foes are all regular and ordinary experiences. This micropolitics of everyday life is partly based on indifference and partly on acceptance. The essence of it has not changed much from the ancient city of Athens to the metropolis in contemporary democracies.
Outside the cultural and political West, visibility and voice are differently entangled with publicness. Modern Muscat as a city developed mostly along large roads parallel to the coastline. The city is not structured around public squares or places for easy, everyday encounters, and its large distances limit the possibility of walking. The climate also dictates that activities mostly take place indoors, and spontaneous encounters occur mainly in big shopping malls. And traditional Muslim culture defines what is private and what is acceptable in public. I have often seen in the Gulf Arab countries how easily secrecy is mistakenly defended as privacy. This conception of privacy hampers public insight into gender relations and domestic practices and habits, which change more slowly than public mores, and stay under the discretion of the household or the traditions governing family relationships.
But things happen differently in the digital environment. Online content is externally monitored and the concept of privacy does not protect online data and behavior. Even shops and restaurants expect everybody to voluntarily reveal private data – such as a phone number, email or other contact details – after each purchase. I was surprised when I was asked to leave my phone number during my first time shopping in one of the Muscat malls. I even asked to see the manager to discuss it. The cashier was surprised that I made an issue over it and tried to explain that this was a standard practice. This discussion continued until the line behind me became quite long and I realized that everybody there was puzzled by my concerns and was looking at me.
This was one of my first “things-are-different-here” experiences. There were many more examples of striking differences in the treatment of virtual and actual privacy. While physical protection from actual visibility persists, online behavior is much more open. For instance, it is illegal to feature even an accidentally taken photograph of a women in the street without her explicit consent, many private villas still have high wall, and both white male dishdasha and black female abaya are forms of dressing that shield people from the gaze of others. But personal data is much more transparent online.
According to the famous German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, its most vigorous advocate, the public sphere stands and falls with the question of universal access. Because of this open to all principle, privileged form of public speaking is rational, critical, consensus-oriented expression. Because of that the most vocal critiques of the public sphere concept object to the absence of those forms of expressions which are more pertinent to the structurally de-favored such as women or non-western citizens. The same issue echoes in the context of global communication with the conclusion that the globalized and de-westernized public sphere needs a broader perspective on diversity, including on various forms of public expression.
The recently initiated and ongoing debate about the end of multiculturalism also touches upon this problem. Those who proclaim the death of multiculturalism propose that a new encompassing idea of public life should simultaneously negotiate the right to be different and apply it both contextually and globally. They say the issue is not any more how to enlarge the public sphere globally, but the problem is how to find its new common normative center. They question whether such a global public sphere is at all possible. And if not, if the global public communication is only possible as multi-centered, will that also mean that various traditional forms of exclusionary and discriminatory practices will be tolerated in the name of cultural sensitivity?
During the past decade contradictory developments complicated this dilemma even further. More freedom and opportunities were accompanied by a strong backlash from anti-liberal, conservative and right-wing forces globally. Defenders of “traditional values”, “national heritage” and “cultural exceptionalism” easily connected with right-wing extremists to undermine science, secularism and liberal values in many countries. The media became increasingly polarized and weaponized in the ongoing cultural wars against the gains of the emancipatory movements and inclusive policies of the late 20th century.
Also, increased visibility did not bring about the fundamental changes expected by those who argued that more and better media coverage would directly lead to more power on the part of the represented. Media representation alone is not enough to empower people or to correct previous injustices. The recent global democratic decline inevitably reduces the spaces available for expressing and respecting differences. The spread of authoritarianism, populism, hate speech and conspiracy theories helps right-wing forces to use the right to be different argument to completely twist the diversity narrative into a defence of their lost privileges. This conservative backlash is like no other before as it utilizes language representing liberal approaches to promote antidemocratic policies and make non-democratic claims. Using the language of difference, proponents of the backlash in fact only advocate freedom of expression to justify attacks on marginalized and oppressed groups.
Digital, mobile and social media that are transforming audience habits and user choices bring new challenges to diversity. Diversity defenders therefore face a new situation in the virtual space beyond traditional borders: differences are visible and articulated but people are still being marginalized and repressed. It seems that inclusion on its own is not enough and the case for diversity needs to be reinforced globally.
*Snježana Milivojević (PhD Sociology/Communication) is Professor of public opinion and media studies. She served as dean of Bayan College, Purdue University Northwest USA affiliate in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, during the 2022-2023 academic year. Prior to that, Milivojevic was a professor at the University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Sciences where she chaired the Doctoral program in Culture and Media, MA program in Communication and was the founding chair of the Center for Media Research. She was international guarantor and visiting professor at the University of New York in Prague (2014-2018), co-director of the international post-graduate course Comparative Media Systems at the Inter University Centre in Dubrovnik (2011-2022), Fulbright visiting scholar at Columbia University (2012-2013), Chevening scholar at St. Antony’s College Oxford University (2000-2001), and visiting lecturer at several European and American universities. Milivojevic has participated in many international research projects and has published extensively in the fields of communication theory, political communication, cultural and gender studies, and media and public memory.