Using Critical Media Literacy to Empower Inclusive and Active Voices in Daily Civic Life

Curator's Note

In 2008, scholar Lance W. Bennett posited a new dichotomy for thinking about citizenship and civic learning in an increasingly digital age. Bennett theorized the difference between the dutiful citizen—who engages with society through taxes, military duty, and voting—and the actualizing citizen, who engages with society through voicing opinion, volunteering, protesting, sharing, expressing, concern for community and others, in addition to the dutiful acts that must be performed.

I believe that critical media literacy is positioned to be the pedagogical and political movement to bridge the dichotomy Bennett identified by developing inclusive, active, and engaged civic lifestyles. In today’s digital media landscape, citizens must be made to understand the relationship between personal and social identity, and media as a sense of place, community, and democracy.

I chose this video as an example of the potential that citizens have to be informed, engaged, and active in helping shape public debates in online spaces. In my media literacy courses, this brings up some very interesting dialog about what the right approach to advocating for change is, and what information people need to know, what questions they need to ask, and where/how they express their feelings about any community or civic issue. What’s also interesting about this clip is that this campaign idea was strongly resisted by the library staff and directors. Notions of book burning are always contentious, but citizens know this. It’s no longer up to a few people to decide what’s best for everyone, but more about findings ways to facilitate diverse and vibrant dialog, that is largely driven by the community.

Diverse networks of individuals can share opinions, advocate for causes, and advance ideas in unique and collaborative ways. This newfound avenue for engaged citizenship is predicated on critical, participatory, informed, and aware citizens. To maximize the civic value and purpose of social platforms, critical media literacy needs to teach about individual and social agency in the context of daily civic life, which is increasingly mediated, empowering, and community-driven.

Comments

Jeff Share's picture

Culture Jamming at its best

I love the video and story about how people were able to use media & irony to push back against the dominant framing of the Tea Party. This is an excellent example of how critical media literacy can be a tool for unveiling the absurdity of a dominant discourse (all taxes are bad) and provide alternative avenues for people to take action to challenge those myths and improve society. This type of actualizing citizenship is more critically aware and empowered than the dutiful citizenship, it is culture jamming at its best.

Renee Hobbs's picture

Library Activism? Or Political Theater?

I’m not so sure this is an example of critical media literacy as much as it is a depiction of our culture’s inevitable focus on reacting to knee-jerk emotions and fear.

Make no mistake about it: the local community’s effort to support the library was unsuccessful. It was Leo Burnett Worldwide, an advertising agency, that developed this initiative, not Troy librarians or their community supporters. The video reflects the brilliant strategic thinking of PR professionals, not amateurs. Is it really an example of community empowerment? I think it can be seen as an example of how crafty message-makers can exploit people’s emotions (in this case, at least for a good cause).

For me, it was the classic media literacy question: “Who created this message?” that opened the door to the inquiry process and made me curious about WHY the ad agency got involved. To get another perspective, read Laura Miller’s great piece in Salon.com”

This quote, from that piece, represents another example of media literacy, as the author asserts: “In truth, the stunt’s greatest audacity lies in its cynicism. It’s founded on the assumption that Troy’s voters aren’t using the library enough to be alarmed at the simple prospect of its closing. Instead, the library had to be transformed in their minds from a real-world resource into a symbol, a token in a bitter culture war in which whoever casts his opponent as the biggest barbarian wins.”

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. But if critical media literacy wants to explore power relationships in how people use messages to maintain or challenge the status quo, then we must cast a cold eye on “what works and why” and wonder about what kind of democracy we have when this kind of political theater is required to manipulate the public into taking action.

Benjamin Thevenin's picture

Great discussion to start the week!

The example Paul has chosen is particularly interesting and definitely substantiates the idea that as media consumers and democratic citizens in contemporary society, we need to be able to critically read and respond to media messages and the social issues they attempt to address.

While Renee correctly identifies the book-burning campaign as a public relations ploy and not a spontaneous community effort, it still demonstrates the potential to use digital media to advocate for and enact change in political matters, for good or for bad (or in this case, for both?).

But more importantly this example reveals that critical media literacy is not just about effectively utilizing media technologies to forward political perspectives—even if it means saving libraries from closure. As Paul notes, critical media literacy involves collaborative efforts of citizens to critically engage with the issues their communities face—and the role of media in those issues. And like Renee mentions, this particular example also prompts us as critical readers to consider the sources and motivations behind and the implications of such an effort. For example, how do institutionally-coordinated—but still progressive and kind of radically performative—civic engagement efforts like this fit into Bennet’s discussion of contemporary citizenship? I’m thinking of Kony 2012 and any number of trending-today-gone-tomorrow Astroturf efforts. And what does the ironic appropriation of the book-burning discourse say about contemporary political discourse, and particularly the tenuous relationship between cynicism and critical citizenship (as Paul’s research has explored at length)?

How can we be best prepared to critically engage with these political issues and media representations in ways that don’t reproduce regressive ideas (like de-funding libraries) OR perpetuate regressive discourse (like relying on irony) OR hand precious political battles over to PR agencies (like Leo Burnett Worldwide)? Good questions. And this is just Day 1!

David Cooper Moore's picture

“While Renee correctly

While Renee correctly identifies the book-burning campaign as a public relations ploy and not a spontaneous community effort, it still demonstrates the potential to use digital media to advocate for and enact change in political matters, for good or for bad (or in this case, for both?).”

This seems like a strange thing to say. The “for good or for bad” matters — is in fact the most important question to be asking here. Otherwise the question is just, “does digital media have any impact on our policy or politics?” Well, sure — but critical thinking requires us to ask the how and the why questions. This example pretty obviously does NOT engage with genuine community activism — not because digital tools “can or can’t” engage communities in political or policy change (there are thousands of examples of successful or unsuccessful online community efforts) but because this particular example is not a good example of it.

To that end, I think it’s ironic that in promoting a vision of media literacy that is supposedly “critical” to (in part) foster democratic participation, we’re using a text that, when analyzed in any meaningfully critical way, reveals that “community engagement” and “democratic participation” are NOT the clear outcomes. The claim that “diverse networks of individuals can share opinions, advocate for causes, and advance ideas in unique and collaborative ways” is not supported by how this piece was actually created and used.

I worry that too often we let “critical thinking” become a stand-in for sets of (often ad hoc, occasionally more formal or ideological) attitudes and beliefs that we think will make the world a better place, rather than a more process-oriented view of critical thinking that demands asking hard questions *especially* of things that we are most instinctively sympathetic to. It’s part of why I recoil at slick media designed to simplify and exploit emotionally toward a political goal, even when I’m an activist for the cause. It’s more mystification, and in this case it causes us to miss the fundamental disconnect between media and political reality on the ground.

Benjamin Thevenin's picture

Thanks for joining the

Thanks for joining the conversation David. I think you misunderstand the point that I’m making in my comment.

As I state in the sentence following the one you cite: “But more importantly this example reveals that critical media literacy is not just about effectively utilizing media technologies to forward political perspectives—even if it means saving libraries from closure.” Like you, I’m very much interested in the “how and why questions” that are key to practicing critical media literacy.

For example, I ask the questions: “…how do institutionally-coordinated—but still progressive and kind of radically performative—civic engagement efforts like this fit into Bennet’s discussion of contemporary citizenship?”

And “…what does the ironic appropriation of the book-burning discourse say about contemporary political discourse, and particularly the tenuous relationship between cynicism and critical citizenship (as Paul’s research has explored at length)?”

And “How can we be best prepared to critically engage with these political issues and media representations in ways that don’t reproduce regressive ideas (like de-funding libraries) OR perpetuate regressive discourse (like relying on irony) OR hand precious political battles over to PR agencies (like Leo Burnett Worldwide)?”

As I mentioned, the video—on the most basic level—demonstrates the power of social media in contemporary politics. But the most important readings of the video start (not end) there.

So, I agree—practicing critical media literacy requires us to question even the political perspectives we identify with when they’re voiced in ways that are contrived or limiting or undemocratic or exploitative. You’re right to say “It’s more mystification, and in this case it causes us to miss the fundamental disconnect between media and political reality on the ground.”

David Cooper Moore's picture

I do want to acknowledge the

I do want to acknowledge the questions you raise in your comment, but it seems to me (this being a starting point) we need to actually answer them! And I actually don’t understand a few of your claims — that irony is “regressive,” or that there is a “tenuous” relationship between cynicism and civic engagement. I’m not familiar with Bennet’s discussion of contemporary citizenship.

My question is about the seemingly promising framework for democratic participation that is being presented in the post, when this particular example seems fairly unambiguously to be a *failure* of meaningful civic engagement (to the extent that this PR campaign merely created a smokescreen for a pertinent local issue rather than clarify or help the cause). So can we just call these things unambiguously problematic and a general threat to democratic participation, when that seems to be the case? Or do we have to keep invoking “potential” when reality doesn’t merely not reflect but actively refutes that potential? (I don’t see how KONY 2012 is categorically different in this regard.)

I’m not sure whether that’s being argued in the original post, and I wonder why it took a further comment to reveal some crucial context around the creation of this video and campaign that seem to be crucial to understanding this example. The campaign honestly seems to have very little connection to an “increasingly mediated, empowering, and community-driven” civic life. This feels like an actively disempowering, privately-driven example of activism that actually undermined the pertinent political action.

David Cooper Moore's picture

(I mean, I’m familiar with

(I mean, I’m familiar with Bennett from this post, but I don’t see how either distinction of citizen has any relation to the artifact or impact of artifact that’s being discussed here.)

Lynn Schofield Clark's picture

Actualizing vs. dutiful citizenship

Our comments so far have focused on the “astroturfing” part of the example. Astroturfing refers to the fact that the campaign was created by an advertising agency and was presented (to us, and probably also to the citizens of Troy) as if it were part of a grassroots effort at creating social change.

But I think that in the original post, Paul was also pointing to the fact that because of media intervention, members of the public were spurred to action. These actions came about because people felt an emotional connection to the issue, which is the heart of Bennett’s idea of the self-actualizing citizen, or the person who participates in civic action not because she’s bound by duty, but because it’s consistent with who she sees herself being and becoming in relation to others.

So yes, we have to raise the question of where this particular example came from, but I don’t think we have to assume that people are manipulated. Yes, we might ask what it means for our sense of collective identity and citizenship that emotionally charged media messages (created by all kinds of different interest groups) are now a necessary and inevitable part of our political landscape. But this example can also serve to remind us that we can’t pretend that politics are primarily about information anymore (as if they ever were), or that critical media literacy is about creating understanding that stands apart from emotion. We are emotional beings, and too many of our theories of politics and media have rested on the false idea that we act on an impartial review of information rather than in relation to our emotions. I think it matters that such efforts as the “book burning party” don’t cause people to feel manipulated. Perhaps such message creation might make people feel more capable of making informed decisions that are consistent with who they want to be in relation to one another. Whether that message comes from an ad agency or a savvy community member, that seems a worthy internal gauge for decisionmaking.

Paul Mihailidis's picture

Said it better than me!

Thanks Lynn, I think this context is exactly the point in which this example was used. We have a stigma that is self defeating in media literacy circles. PR Agency automatically equals corrupt and passive citizens. Community advocacy automatically equals valuable engagement. I think that is a false starter.

David Cooper Moore's picture

Softened reflection

We are emotional beings, and too many of our theories of politics and media have rested on the false idea that we act on an impartial review of information rather than in relation to our emotions.”

A great point. Above I’m overstating the extent to which a political goal was not met — the library was, after all, saved (for now). This piece likely functioned as a kind of direct action PSA in a situation where one distinctive action could in fact make a difference. Most political problems, especially in terms of local politics, do not function with an easy “action,” but are a part of a long — and often boring or disappointing — process of habitual civic engagement.

I guess one question that I often return to in doing media literacy work with students of all ages is the role of instinctive and emotional response in the critical thinking process — it’s not as if we can just magically separate out our emotions when it comes to receiving information about the world. Emotional responses often undergird our political motivations, and are always a factor in them. But I do think that if one goal is in understanding the complicated relationships citizens have to politics, we also need to think about the role of the often dispassionate work of understanding context, being open to ambiguity and not-knowing, and demanding fuller (or at least sufficient) understanding of our world as a lasting foundation for civic engagement. Otherwise we risk acting not just intuitively (which is inevitable) but inchoately and unpredictably. Whether we’re “dutiful” or “actualized,” we are still in some fundamental way *ignorant*.

It doesn’t seem like the effectiveness of this campaign was clearly aligned with the long-term goals of the library in this specific community. A year from now when the library goes up on the chopping block again and there is no flashy piece to “save” it, we will still need to deal with the grunt work of local politics that cannot thrive merely on getting people jazzed to take some direct action. It will not have sustained a community with a vested interest in keeping libraries open on principle, not just because they galvanized with a strong media campaign.

I see this happen constantly — flashy “media engagement” campaigns over time dissipate, and (e.g.) the same librarians who were responsible for saving their library last year will still be the same ones responsible for saving it next year. How do we actively enroll *them* in this process, and create a community that is sustainable whether or not media has much to do with it (and not is certainly an option in local politics!)? That seems to me to be the big question facing democratic participation — not our ability to achieve disparate goals through savvy, but to sustain meaningful, thoughtful communities that use their powerful emotional base for engagement to do the highly unemotional, boring, and “unsexy” work of changing the world.

Paul Mihailidis's picture

Thanks & This is why this works...

Thanks everyone for these rich comments. This just mirrored exactly what happens in my classroom. While I won’t continue on here for a long time, I want to place into context a few things quickly that I think about here.

1. The notion that this is a cheap manufactured ploy of some sort - I think we tend to be rosy-eyed sometimes when we talk about civic engagement as needing to be something that is truly grassroots and that has no affiliation with any structure organization (i.e. a PR firm in this case). I always ask what’s wrong with a firm kickstarting a vibrant discussion? And what would happen if this didn’t exist? Because it’s Leo Burnett, we assume that it causes knee-jerk reactions? And because it’s a witty campaign staged by trained professionals we equate that with weak ideas of civic engagement?

I’m not sure also why we take this leap that people are shallow here. Were they shallow with Kony? With Molly Catchpole and Bank of America?

Why do we consider these here today and gone tomorrow efforts? They have fundamentally transformed something in our culture and minds, and that in no way means they are gone.

I guess I would argue here that we are falling back on assuming cultural passivity and “dumbing down” of the public, because it was from a PR agency.

Citizens need to be pushed to re-envision things all the time, like gun control, saving libraries, saving parks, etc. etc.

I could go on for a while, I just think we need to embrace the complexity in citizens when exploring different forms of activism, and also evaluate our own high mindedness when it comes to media literacy and it’s goal to enable critical approaches to civic agency.

Paul Mihailidis's picture

One more point

Also, that in the digital age, people are and can be their own PR agencies. Was this cheap because it was Leo Burnett? If the library had thought of this, would everyone in this post be applauding there amazing and witty efforts? From reading this, I would think so….:-)

David Cooper Moore's picture

It’s not impossible for a

It’s not impossible for a private entity disconnected from a community to do goo[d]. But because it’s Leo Burnett, I simply question what motivates them to sustain the work they do, or even think about approaching their work systematically, instead of as a one-off exercise without the kind of support needed to *continue* to keep the library open. (We’ll see how the library is doing next year. I hope it’s fine; I’m certain its success will [EDIT: not] be attributable to a second viral video.)

It’s *possible* that a PR firm could do systematic change for library awareness, but realistically this was PR for Leo Burnett first and PR for the library second — in the sense that if it genuinely offered nothing for LB, LB wouldn’t pursue it. Which is as it should be! LB has, and should have, its own interests in mind even when doing charitable work.

I just think that often these kinds of campaigns more accurately reflect their authors than educate or help the issues they claim to engage with. KONY 2012 was very effective at educating the public about Invisible Children and their work, but may have done more harm than good in understanding the social and political realities in Uganda. Whether we’re talking about KONY or Live Aid, these kinds of initiatives simply are not ideal (when divorced from an active political community) for sustaining meaningful community engagement around social, political, and policy issues. They become a kind of political tourism.

This isn’t mutually exclusive with certain political goals. But it can sometimes become a sideshow or actively counter-productive. “Spreadable” media’s easy “problem/solution” structure — a key aspect of what makes it so emotionally appealing in the first place — often doesn’t map on to the work that needs to be done to change systems. That work happens in activism, in education, in community organizing, and media is often one of many tools of these communities. But I’m deeply suspicious when media that does not originate from within a particular community still tries to have an impact on it. In this case, it is not clear to me that this library could have “done it themselves.” And even if they did, it’s not a scalable model for changing library policy. At best, these kinds of PSA’s and campaigns become efficient exploitation for a progressive or desired goal. At worst, they actively hurt the standing of long-term community activists and citizens who deal with the day to day problems that need to be addressed in the first place and now on top of everything else have an extra swamp of misinformation to deal with.

David Cooper Moore's picture

That is, I’m certain its

That is, I’m certain its continued success will NOT be attributable to a second viral video. There are no such things as “second viral videos,” and until we grapple with the essentially random nature of popularity and engagement in networked environments, we’re essentially standing around wondering why lightning doesn’t just strike *everywhere* we’d like it to strike.

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