By Peter Bajomi-Lazar, March 2020. Being a proud member of a nation is now widely seen as a natural affinity. Media scholars, however, are more skeptic, and many of them would suggest that the ‘nation’ is just a social construction, or cultural convention, that has to a large degree been created and advanced by the media, often in association with the political elites who see it as a means to mobilise supporters.
Benedict Anderson calls the nation an “imagined community.” He argues that “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” What exactly is the role media have played in the establishment of this communion?
Language is, of course, a main vehicle of national identity. But, as Asa Briggs and Peter Burke observe, hand-copied religious codices were still written in Latin, the lingua franca of the early Middle Ages, that allowed the peoples of the different geographic areas of Europe to communicate. It was not until the invention of the printed book in the middle of the 15th century that publishers began to use the local dialect in an attempt to sell their products. Later on, these local dialects served as the basis for the emerging national languages. For example, as Daniel J. Boorstin notes, most of the printing houses were based in the Paris region, which explains why the Paris dialect has come to lay the ground for what came to be known as the French language.
In a similar vein, the advance of broadcast radio in the early 20th century established norms of pronunciation that were widely shared across the land of reception. In Italy for example, over a thousand dialects were spoken in most of the 20th century, yet the whole population could understand the messages of the national broadcasters.
In the age of ‘natural monopolies,’ legacy media—and particularly public service broadcasters—offered the same knowledge, values and experience to all citizens; these outlets were not only rooted in, but also reinforced, national identity. Likewise, newspapers promoted on a daily basis what is often described as ‘banal nationalism,’ when referring to the people of the land as ‘we’ (“We have won the Football Championship”), drawing culturally different individuals from vast territories in one common symbolic space of shared meanings. Also, and this may be needless to add, some of the political elites, desperate to mobilise voters, often relied on a national rhetoric—one that members of the public were highly responsive to.
Paradoxically, even the new, digital, media, diverse as they are, may fuel national identities. The proliferation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries of new channels of communication with highly different content profiles and target audiences has, more than ever, exposed people to the ‘other.’ Online media makes the existence of different cultures more manifest, as they deepen and expand our perceptions of the world. As Manuel Castells observes, fears from other cultures may trigger a sense of insecurity in many, as other cultures may be perceived as a threat to one’s established moral order. In the seemingly hostile context of the cacophony of digital media, many might seek comfort in re-asserting their traditionally established identities, including their national belonging.
Comment communication is certainly a case in point, as many of the comments shared on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are poor in new information but rich in ritualistic self-assertion. Online communication often falls short of the standards of the rational-critical public sphere advocated by the famous theory of Jürgen Habermas. Instead of creating a forum for meaningful dialogue, it offers a fertile ground for the confrontation of identities, including the nation-based approach.
Belonging to a community is, of course, a psychological need inherent in human nature, which explains while advocating a national identity is so popular with the general public. Community means friends, not foes, and belonging to it is, in an evolutionary perspective, a necessary condition for survival. Yet a critical approach to the concept of nation is more than warranted. Most, if not all, identities are defined vis-à-vis ‘the other,’ and hence have a potential of turning radical and even hostile to people advocating different views. Nation-based discourses in the media and in politics are no exception.