*or any cultural form
There’s been a bit of a fuss about this Spectator piece by Lionel Shriver about Penguin Random House’s new goal to reflect UK society (by 2025!) in both writers and staff. There’s been some subsequent back and forth, Shriver says some of her words have been taken out of context in the arguments that have eventuated, Mslexia dropped her from a judging panel, and then it got to be an item on the Today programme at that pre-9am moment where they like to have a bit of an argument.
And in a way this is such a storm in a teacup. The publishing industry really isn’t that huge. What some writers and publishers think about this or that in The Spectator and The Guardian and on Radio 4’s Today programme isn’t that big a deal, it simply doesn’t reach the bulk of the population.
But extrapolate that thinking – the suggestion that we can have diversity and inclusion OR excellence and high quality culture – to the wider media, to TV, to commercial radio, to film, to online content, and yes, it really does matter. A hell of a lot.
The culture we live with now, the work that is lauded as ‘excellent’ and ‘high art’ and ‘high quality’, the work often funded by public money, may well be all of those things. By certain standards. But those standards were decided decades if not centuries ago, by white people, by mostly male white people, by mostly middle and upper class white male people. And that’s not who we are now, our understanding of who we are is different – which means our culture, if it is to represent us adequately, must also be different.
We live in a mixed society with many different views on what is ‘excellent’ in culture, what is ‘high quality’ in the arts, in writing, in all the forms we use to interact, the forms we use to share who and what we are, the forms that are OUR culture.
None of us who work for diversity and inclusion in our daily work are saying let’s get rid of what has gone before – but we are saying that it’s time (way past time!) to look at the inequalities in what we have now. When we make it possible for culture to be created by more people we get a richer, broader, deeper culture that reaches more people because it is of more people. I know this through our work with Fun Palaces – local people, across the UK, creating by, for and with their own local communities. Our 2017 evaluation shows how incredibly inclusive and brilliant this can be.
(And btw, if your immediate reaction to work created by ‘diverse’ people is to think it won’t be as good as the ‘standard’, then you might want to ask yourself just how racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist you actually are. Seriously. Because the standard we have now is white, male, straight, able-bodied. That’s it. That’s the frame through which we’ve been judging ‘quality’ in culture for decades, and it leaves out a whole lot of incredible people and fantastic work.)
I love what PRH are doing. I love that many of the publishers I respect and have worked with are also working to be more inclusive, more representative of who we are in Britain today. MORE FAIR. I welcome every cultural organisation in the UK – especially the publicly funded ones – doing the same.
We can continue to wring our hands about inequality or we can risk doing something about it – something bold, something brave, something that will no doubt have the odd mistake in it along the way – but acknowledging inequality, acknowledging that the frame through which we currently view and judge culture is skewed against inclusion and doing something about it is the only way change will come. Nice liberal people thinking nice liberal thoughts has never created equality. It has become very obvious to me in the five years of running Fun Palaces that unless we are actively working towards inclusion then we are supporting exclusion.
Deeds not words.