How can traditional national or ethnic communities contribute to the identity of places – cities, territories, regions and countries – in the 21st century? How can they rejuvenate themselves, and what social forms can they actually take? Has the physical closeness of community members become obsolete? What are the relevant identification points of a minority community – and a community overall – today? How do minorities cope with and contribute to some of the key societal challenges: integration, diversity, tolerance and cohesion?
These and other questions pervaded my head the morning after the day when the election of Donald Trump for the next President of the US became a fact. I was chatting with the other organisers and speakers, in Egység Palace in Novi Sad, while we were waiting for the opening of the annual conference dedicated to minority and local media. I was supposed to moderate a panel in which I would explore the phenomenon of identification and belonging to a community, and the role of minority and local media, together with Istvan Bodzsoni, Managing Director of Pannon RTV, a minority television broadcaster from Vojvodina; Stefano Lusa, a journalist from Radio Capodistria, broadcasting in Italian mainly to the Italian minority in Slovenia; and the Momčilo Bajac, Programme Director of the ambitious project Novi Sad - Cultural Capital of Europe 2021, that had just won the selection contest a few days before the conference.
There was a feeling of a more divisive world than it would have been only a few days before. I kept asking myself the same question: Do we live in a world of fake tolerance, when, at times, digital connectedness only increases the level of individualism between participants and segregation between communities?
Perhaps the most challenging issue really is, how can minority communities thrive on immigration flows and contribute to the integration of immigrants? Can they be an active and progressive social component contributing to cultural diversity and social cohesion? And if so, how? I asked these questions to all the participants, admitting that I did not know the answers, though I found them focal for the evolution of identities in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and otherwise diverse Europe.
Mobility changes everything
The overall progress of society is accompanied by increasing mobility. People travel more, particularly for business and tourism. Young people increasingly move for educational reasons. The effects of globalisation have blurred the line between education and work, and have allowed many more people to participate in the global mobility. New job opportunities arise in old and new destinations, from Silicon Valley to Tel Aviv, from old and new global financial hubs to research and innovation centres and the soaring cities of emerging economic powers. The pursuit of education and employment opportunities has become a regular part of the career itinerary of most young people in the 21st century, contributing to the urban agglomeration of the world population at unprecedented scale.
While the concept of free movement of people within the EU – and particularly the Schengen area – facilitated migrations across the continent, this phenomenon brought new cultural interactions and frictions. While the "Erasmus" programme has become synonymous with a united Europe for generations of students across the EU, the "Polish plumber" has evidently contributed to some of the fears that drove the British towards Brexit. Moreover, an uninterrupted series of severing security crises – wars, hunger, lack of water and other natural calamities – striking some of the poorest and most unsettled areas such as the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa, has meant the refugee crisis has become a burning global issue not only in reshaping the political discourse in many countries, but also in reshaping European societies themselves.
A digital divide widens the generation gap
The aging population adds its part to the picture: traditional communities have a harder time resisting the challenges of time. It seems as if the identification points within a minority community have been seriously challenged by the generational transition. Hence the question of identification and belonging in a minority community: in a strange way this has become a focal point of European identities, for we all have become nothing else but members of minority communities, in the context of a free movement of people within the EU and the global and massive migration flows that seem to have become an omnipresent factor of the dynamics of our societies.
What is the overall role of minority and community media in this picture?
While the media overall find themselves amid the turmoil of the technological discontinuity, minority media typically face trends of increased mobility, migrations, an aging population and cultural fusion in urban centres as a threat or even a clear danger, with apparently limited possibilities for reaction. The real challenge, however, is how can minority media contribute to the revival of minority communities by seizing new opportunities arising from both increased mobility and other social trends and from digitalisation? Can minority media play an integrated role in facilitating the integration of newcomers into minority communities? Can they evolve into the preferred "social media" for their community members? How can they be an active part in the process of re-integration of European societies overall? Can they play their role as mediators between old and new "majorities", living physically ever closer, but, in the 21st century, becoming ever more segregated?
An interesting synthesis evolved in the discussion with a very enthusiastic audience. Young people are definitely much more mobile, and not only as students or travellers; they transit across different professions, digital and analogue communication platforms, languages, places and other interests. They are the creators of a world of multiple identities, in which we can make shared spaces of encounter and co-creation. In this way diversity actually becomes an asset, allowing participants to ‘be’ together and recognise the value of shared emotions.
Perhaps it is really about holding space for the diversities to blend. Interactions in an open space, such as social media, do not lead to the melting of identities; they rather allow them to emerge. So, yes, minority media can be the protagonists of such encounters and dialogue between identities. We may have been overlooking this phenomenon – and once again, underestimating the power of the young.