Mind Your Language

by .

I think we stand at a moment in time where the narrative of our society needs fundamental change.  As I’ve written elsewhere, in a globalised world with globalised problems, the idea that the role of the individual is to participate merely as a Consumer is fundamentally flawed.  We need to be allowed the freedom to see ourselves as Citizens, able and encouraged to take part in deciding the terms of our society, not just choosing what to buy at the end of the chain.

Some might think this is mere irrelevant wordplay.  It’s not.

Language matters.  Priming experiments in the field of social psychology have shown that as little as a single word can significantly shift our behaviour.  When a thousand people answered a social and environmental attitudes survey, five hundred were told it was a ‘Consumer Study’, five hundred it was a ‘Citizen Study’.  Those answering as Consumers exhibited significantly higher self-interest and lower social and environmental motivation.  What impact, then, the thousands of times a day the average person is exposed to Consumer messaging?

What we need, I propose, is to put the Consumer back in his place, as one important – but far from exclusive – role of the Citizen.  At present the situation is the reverse.  The public story of our society today is that people are Consumers.  Even voting, the most basic act of the Citizen, has become more an act of the Consumer, with political parties competing to sell packages they claim will be better for us as individuals than the alternatives on the table.

In this context, to reclaim and reinvent the idea of the Citizen is essential, but difficult.  It is also eminently possible.  The very idea of the Consumer has only existed for the last century at most, and the ill-defined concept of Consumerism arguably emerged only in the aftermath of World War II.   It is not who we are in our private lives.  We are and always have been parents, lovers, friends.  Human nature is not as selfish as we tell ourselves when we belittle ourselves with the label of Consumer, and herein lies the hope.  For this is simply a matter of allowing our better nature to assert itself.

Of course, this will not just happen.  It will require some major changes.  I am no more qualified than anyone else to say how this will work, but in the spirit of thinking aloud and starting the debate, here are the three areas for work that I have come up with so far:

First, we must create the space for us to think of ourselves as something other than Consumers.  If Consumerism were a religion, advertising would be our call to prayer; various studies put the number of times a day we hear it at anywhere between 1500 and 5000.  It is not just advertising – in media editorial too we refer to ourselves routinely as Consumers – and implementation would be fraught with difficulty, but even symbolic restrictions on where advertising can be in our lives would send a clear signal as to the society we want.  I also happen to believe such restrictions, for example on advertising to children, would be in the direct self-interest of the industry.  The mandate to operate where the frame of Consumer is appropriate would be far clearer, the eternal suspicion of the industry’s role much decreased.

Second, we need the public service institutions that should not treat us and think of us as Consumers to stop doing so.  This counts for the political parties, who need to respect our judgement, intelligence, and capacity for broader than blinkered self interest; but also for such organisations as the BBC, the NHS, and even the National Trust.  These organisations have an incredible opportunity to treat us as Citizens, as members and participants in shared projects rather than passive recipients of their output.  They will gain respect, loyalty and financial viability for doing so.

Third, we need businesses to find their role in this new world.  Business has become used to being dominant in the Consumer society, its interests key in all public decision-making.  Humility will be required.  Business is not the be-all-and-end-all, and even ‘good’ business will need to embrace a lowering of its status.

But that is not to say business does not have a role in the Citizen society.  It most certainly does.

The best businesses will embrace the shift, delving back into their original reasons for existence (most of which were originally, after all, for public rather than shareholder benefit) and engaging with Citizens to help them figure out how best to fulfil that purpose.  This is a shift that says ‘yes, and…’ to businesses that want to do the right thing, not ‘no, but…’

It might see supermarkets actively engaging with us as Citizens to decide whether extending the growing season of fruit and veg is really worth the energy implications, rather than simply taking the market logic that Consumer sales would rise as reason enough to push on.  It might see sustainability leaders engage openly with and publicly endorse the role of ‘protest’ NGOs in holding them to account, endorsing the role of civil society rather than lampooning it as the Rainforest Alliance did recently.

Above all, in every organisation of every sort, the creative minds will have a more interesting question to ask:  not just how can we sell more to Consumers, but how can we engage with Citizens in order to fulfil our purpose?

Jon Alexander exploring these questions further at www.newcitizenshipproject.wordpress.com – all thoughts and contributions much appreciated.

Sign up to be kept up to date