The Real World

July 2011 The Psychologist, 25 (7), 489.

The whole country went wild for the jubilee. Union flags waving everywhere. As Boris Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph after the river parade, "I don't know if there are any republicans left in this country after yesterday's aquatic triumph".  And it will be the same for the Olympics. Despite all the naysayers, when the moment comes, everyone will be cheering, flags will wave at every British gold. To adapt another Johnson phrase, the people will bunt for Britain.

Well, perhaps. Certainly a lot of people did celebrate the jubilee. It has been estimated that there were some 10,000 street parties in England and Wales and 100 to 200 in Scotland. Many have used that to suggest that monarchists might be in slightly less triumphant north of the border. But surely, the more interesting implication is that, even to the South no more than 1 or 2 million people were partying — a mere 2 to 4% of the population.

This hardly suggests that everyone went wild or that this is no country for old republicans.  So perhaps the picture in the papers wasn't quite the picture on the ground. Of course, that isn't surprising. While active demonstrations against the jubilee might be newsworthy, a street without a party will never make as good a picture as a street with a party. In the media, presence will always trump absence.  In the media, all we see is a country going wild.

But that doesn't mean that we can simply dismiss the reporting. Far from it. For even if what we read doesn't represent our own actions or opinions, it certainly informs how we imagine what others are doing and thinking. And that is crucial for many reasons. Indeed there is growing evidence that how we act is often influenced more by what we think others think than what we think ourselves. Before the Gulf War, for instance, most Americans were against invasion, most Americans thought that other Americans were for the war, and the latter rather than the former led them to accept the invasion without overt dissent. To adapt this finding to the Jubilee, republicans might not have gone away, but they might well have been silenced by coverage of the 'aquatic triumph'.

Our beliefs about the beliefs of others are equally important when it comes to the very existence of nations. Long ago, Benedict Anderson made the point that the large groups that matter so much to us, notably nations, can never physically assemble together. He coined the term 'imagined community' to describe the sense that we all share something in common. And he describes the role of the media in helping us to imagine that commonality. His image is of people all round the country reading their newspapers and having a sense of others reading the same stories at the same time and reacting in the same way.

By now, of course, that is a charmingly old-fashioned image. The media today is more fragmented than ever before. People look at screens more than at papers, they rarely read the same stories and, if they do, those stories are treated so differently that we are unlikely to imagine others reacting in common.

But nonetheless, there are moments where the focus converges, where we can imagine everyone attending to the same event and where we can imagine  a common reaction — so that even if we personally dissent from it, we consider ourselves to be atypical or even abnormal. Great national celebrations are one case in point. Great sporting events are another.

The moment our athlete crosses the line to claim gold, we imagine yells of triumph across the land.  Media play a critical role in sustaining that imagination, often by concentrating as much on reactions to victory as to victory itself. Whether they are selective or not is irrelevant to their role in making the idea of a nation possible.

So we might well ask how the Jubilee and the Olympics reflect our identity. But the more interesting questions concern the part that they — and broadcast images of them — play in creating and consolidating identities. We are what we come to believe we are.