The media, as part of influential social institutions, should focus on individual rights and responsibilities to affirm that individuals are independent beings with capabilities that can transcend the power of their respective groups; and to indicate that individuals are the baseline for the existence of groups and group rights, writes Kibrom Berhane.
Our media framing usually focuses on groups either as enemies or allies to the government, other groups, and the constitution. Most of the media reports accentuate on group rights and questions. Our obsession with labeling people as members of certain groups seems to disarray media portrayal of individuals as independent and rational beings who can claim roles and responsibilities transcending their ascribed statuses. Thus, an individual in our media narration, directly or indirectly, is constructed primarily as a dependent unit to his/her group.
In some way, this issue may, of course, not be attributable only to the media. It might rather be the outcome of the highest law of the country for the fact that it pronounces ethnic/group identity over individual citizenry as independent actors. And, I think this will be one of the contributing factors to the pervasiveness of ‘us versus them’ grouping in our political, social and cultural arguments.
One may, of course, not argue that individual rights should always overtake group rights in all situations. Advocating the media’s adherence to individual rights should also not be conceived as advocating snubbing group rights. It is to mean that, if the media give the necessary emphasis to individual rights, it is possible to safeguard individual capabilities from the tyranny of the group and groupthink. If we address individuals as independent beings first and as members of a certain group second, we can enhance responsible participation of citizens in their country’s socio-political, economic, and cultural activities. A group, after all, is a collection of a bunch of individuals. Hence, according to John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice, “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.”
We may not be able to form a modern society if we fail to see people as individuals with their own ambitions, capabilities and independent thinking; (in addition to considering them as social animals who identify themselves to different groups to fulfill their social needs). To create harmony among different groups, I believe, we should acknowledge individuals’ capacity to re-group themselves in self-sufficient associations of individuals regardless of their ascribed statuses.
Hence, the media, as part of influential social institutions, should focus on individual rights and responsibilities to affirm that individuals are independent beings with capabilities that can transcend the power of their respective groups; and to indicate that individuals are the baseline for the existence of groups and group rights. Underscoring only the rights and workings of a group – i.e. glossing over roles and capabilities of individuals within the group – would create citizens who are subordinate to their respective groups at the cost of their individual morality. This, I think, is a disaster for a democratic way of life (because individuals will lose their decision-making abilities).
Once again, when one argues that media must focus on individual efficacy, it is not to mean that the individual should be the ultimate point of discussion in every aspect of a society. It is to imply that individuals should be regarded as cherished members in their respective groups, not as number values.
Therefore, when the media focus on the values of groups, they should highlight the interdependence and cooperation – or symbiotic relationships – among their members within and across different groups. Praising our social cohesion simply because citizens are obedient to their respective groups might be a characteristic of pre-modern societies. This might, thus, be an example, in Emile Durkheim’s terms, of mechanical solidarity.
Giving the necessary respect for groups is one thing; and ripping away the power of the individual as independent and rational being in a group is another thing. If media portray a group as an end in itself, this would mean that they favor mechanical solidarity. Nevertheless, if we want to create reliable and productive interconnections of people, as opposed to mechanical solidarity, the media should emphasize on organic solidarity –embedded-ness and interdependence of individuals in large networks of specialization. In other words, if individuals are empowered, it is possible to form functional networks of people. Conversely, when we focus only on group rights and power, we stifle individual abilities. We, directly or indirectly, solidify interests of groups at the cost of independence of individuals. This eventually will lead us, as mentioned above, to the pre-modern social cohesion – a mechanical solidarity which does not recognize an individual as an end in him or herself.
Media are important means to solidify the roles of individuals as rational beings who can contribute to a peaceful coexistence of different groups. If the media in our country amplify that individuals in different contexts are in symbiotic relationships, people from different backgrounds will cooperate. Our media framing, therefore, should focus on the interdependence of individuals. If there is reliable trust among individuals from different socio-cultural, political and economic backgrounds, it will be easy to bring cohesiveness among different communities.
Therefore, the ‘us versus them’ blame-game and the political fracture would, in some ways, be the outcome of our framing of issues mainly from a group perspective. Our emphasis on the roles and responsibilities of groups (rather than individuals) appear to put us in confusions in determining where to begin and end the obligations and rights of the individual in the human rights continuum.
It is true that a group can give its members rights which may not be justified by the interest of a single individual in the group. Simultaneously, it is the aggregate interest of the group members that guarantee the existence of group rights.
In sum, respecting individuals’ autonomy can be viewed as steps forward in respecting the inherent human dignity. This might also bring merit-based evaluations of human actions. Favoritism to one’s group will diminish. Our relationships will rely on rationality rather than blood-ties and tribalism. Hence, I believe that the reference point of the media narration in our country should adhere to individual abilities. Group rights must be seen as expansion (not as a substitution) of individual rights – because, according to Peter Jones, individuals can have rights as individuals and as groups. We better epitomize groups as composites of independent individuals for substantial merits of communities, not as collections of individuals for the matter of mere tribalism.
Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]