As Christopher Kelty shows us, participation is no easy concept to come to terms with, partly because it’s hard to talk about and discover what comprises fair and equal participation. We might attribute this difficulty to the “schizoid” nature of the concept:
“On the one hand, it wants to signal the concerns with agency, autonomy, decision making, and involvement that are most central to the second sense. . .voice, agenda setting, democracy, deliberation, action. On the other hand, it also wants to signal the primary meaning of the term: to become-collective, to become an instance of a collective, not just one individual among others. . . .” (236)
With this push-and-pull of belonging/standing aside in individuality, both a system and its members are in a constant state of flux, giving power dynamics an instability that makes foundation-needing notions, including fairness and equality, difficult to handle.
We can see this even in systems that appear simple on the surface. Take the case of one of TLC’s popular reality programs, My Big Fat Fabulous Life (MBFFL). The creator of the show, Whitney Way Thore, encourages participation from her fans, engaging them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, giving them a glimpse of her life outside of the show and allowing them to feel a greater sense of connection through interaction. What’s interesting*, though, is how tightly controlled are the ideas that can find expression.
In fact, the ability to assert either individual agency or belonging comes down to whether the dominant narrative/controlling idea is being upheld; everyone comes together to maintain approved ideas but must break away before making points that run counter to those that are dominant. In this way, participation as “belonging” is a way to legitimize a personal experience or view by first okaying it through the group and then, only secondarily, letting the experience have its own arena. The individual experience, the personal agency, can then be used to entrench the group dynamic and sense of belonging.
In the case of MBFFL, new group dynamics are strictly disallowed, because they disrupt the dominant ideas that Thore wishes to uphold. Anyone who wants to express belonging by participating in common beliefs may do so; those who forward anything counter are, ironically, shamed, having their participation framed as an attack on the show, Thore, or her viewers.
Participation, then, is power, when you control who is allowed to participate, what they’re allowed to say, and how others are allowed to or should react to counter-ideas. In the case of the MBFFL community, you gain participatory power by conforming, which is equated with belonging. If you wish to speak against the dominant ideas, you’re a non-comformist and denied participation. Kelty notes that “Participation is not always open to everyone—because not everyone belongs; participation is not inclusion” (237). When speaking about a reality television show, the stakes are probably fairly low. Yes, the fat acceptance movement has consequences and the potential to change minds and norms; however, what happens when this type of participation moves beyond media or fandom and into deeper realms of the political? Again, as Kelty notes, this is a thorny issue and one that is beleaguered with opposites and blind spots. We must consider, though, the reasons for making participation fair and equal, no matter how difficult this may be.
*I could not care less what people look like, whom they date, what pronouns they prefer, etc., etc. I am, however, interested in the way battles are fought.
Kelty, Christopher. “Participation.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 227-241.