The Unbearable Lightness of Class in the Media: Can Class Crit Sound Bites help?

This posting is a meditation on how class is discussed in the media. It seems that every reality of the disadvantages and obstacles to well-being that is presented by class (and race) somehow gets vilified, shouted down or, worse, ignored in the public discourse. For example, the pressing need for prudent regulation to balance out the ruinous form of capitalism (publicly-subsidized, privately-retained profits) that we are practicing in the United States today has been drowned out by unsupportable, fantastical claims about the self-regulating mechanism of the free market. Concerns expressed about the need for employment in the United States with a living wage, labor unions and health-care and the perniciousness of corporate subsidies, over-criminalization, income inequality, lack of social mobility are effectively silenced by strategic sloganeering. For example, an critique that mentions the benefits to elites at the expense of non-elites are met with accusations that the speaker is fomenting class warfare or worse, the ephithet of “socialism”. In fact, it’s daunting to examine media discourse on class because the discourse is so often cartoonish –inane or nonsensical with the highest value being placed on the most outrageous behavior as well as relying on irresponsibly misleading slogans. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera mused: “Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?” While a troublingly dark question, it helps crystallize the realization that we have no choice but to look at the current media discourse and try to figure out ways to effectively present “class” as an important topic of discussion.
I think a good starting place to get a foothold on the discussion are class crit “sound bites.” Consider for a moment, what a conversation on a popular radio or TV talk show about “income inequality” or “social mobility” or “racial subordination” or “economic subordination” would be like. First of all, the discussion of these topics requires lots of detail, context and nuance to present the case fairly and accurately that class is a category that is the basis of subordination. The scholarly world demands such nuance and complexity but in the world of popular media you lose your audience immediately. The Bill Moyers Show on PBS was a great place for sustained learned conversations about the truth and consequences of a society’s whose government has been co-opted away from serving the interests of ordinary people. But in the popular media world of the “sound bite”, typically lasting approx. 10-15 seconds or no more than 2 to 3 short sentences, such discussions cannot, and do not happen.
One could argue that the sound bite, which limits communication to simple, easily digestible concepts (consider Twitter’s worsening of this with its limit of 140 characters) is part of maintaining subordination. Nothing of import or significance can be meaningfully discussed. The general populace cannot be effectively educated because the explanation is too long. One wonders, what effect the sound bite has had on the average person’s ability to comprehend complexity and subtlety. In fact the sound bite makes it seem that any explanation that takes longer than a sound bite is not worth the effort to listen to. Therefore, the daunting challenge to those who are wish to raise the profile of class (and race) as a way to understand institutionalized disadvantage is to decide how to maintain the high ground of scholarly depth and acuity while also being able to get down and dirty and come up with some sound bites to aid those suffering from the ill effects of a society increasingly premised on economic marginalization and subordination.
As proponents of a critical perspective on class, we must acknowledge that a topic like ncome inequality is so abstract that it is difficult to grasp why exactly it is a problem. This is exacerbated by the fact that so many of us have been seduced by the media into falling in love with admiring our economic unequals – the fabulously wealthy.: The media is dominated by the cult of celebrity – – Robin Leach could not imagine that his 1980s era program Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous would have morphed into the dominant American social vision and internalized symbolism of worth and transcendence. The media is also otherwise dominated by stories of murder, criminality and disaster. News is really bad news. This reinforces the cult of celebrity because the public performance of their falsely-perfect lives prove that the only way to escape or transcend the problems of life are through money and consumption of luxury goods. The story of the 1930s Depression was that the movies of that era also presented wealth and glamour as a way to transport people away from their impoverished reality. So today’s cult of celebrity may be unprecedented only in scope. As the ranks of the unemployed and under-employed reach crisis levels, income inequality, social mobility, subordination, poverty and the form of publicly subsidized, free market capitalism we seem to be practicing are very real and important, life and death topics, perhaps the TV talk show or talk radio will never be the proper medium. I still believe, however, there is room to give voice to people’s lived reality by taking the abstractness of the class critique and giving it salience through sound bites. But let’s not give up before we try to come up with some sound bites. Instead of a term like “income inequality” we might want to focus on characterizing what are the manifestations of income inequality or the secondary effects that accompany income inequality such as “Tax inequality”, or “tax inequity” or “the taxless”. OK. Not great at all but, certainly, it’s a start.

Audrey McFarlane

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