Month: October 2012

Social justice before media literacy: a case study

In a previous post I wrote about my conviction that we need to highlight social justice as primary, with media literacy as a necessary corollary, when speaking about educating the young (educating older people is a bit difficult, which is why any perceived need to change social behavior converges on young people and the process of socializing them). Not everyone will agree with me. People sometimes forget when they argue at abstract levels that context matters. So I want to make it very clear that I am only speaking about Singapore for the moment. I haven’t amassed the empirical resources to extend my argument beyond this scenario that I know firsthand and care so deeply about. Social justice means something different here in Singapore than it does say in the US. Media literacy, likewise, means something different. To try to transcend these differences is to ignore the very mechanisms that produced the inequalities.

The ‘media literacy as prime’ position comes, I think, from the perspective of duality, where the media is seen as separate from the contexts of its use.  One might argue that the ‘social justice as prime’ position that I take assumes the same duality. In fact what I am advocating is based on an assumption that the cultural logics of the media that young people engage with so deeply are inseparable from the cultural contexts of their everyday lives. This is not to say that young people are experts in using social media platforms and therefore can never get into dangerous situations online. Obviously they are not experts and do get into trouble, because the world of the technological extends beyond their screens, keyboards and smartphones. They cannot control or be aware of many parts of this extended world. But they have internalised a particular mode of engaging with the world around them, of re-presenting themselves forward to other people and backward to themselves, of developing new identity narratives and frameworks, of connecting with other people, and of encountering new forms of life. In the context of this encompassing digitality, arguing that the answer to social problems is media literacy education is somewhat counter-intuitive. Instead, we need to draw on the technosocial logics that young people have internalised to re-frame solutions to social problems. If inequality does not come from poor awareness of media literacy, then expressions of hostility that stem from inequality cannot just be a media literacy problem. Likewise, revelations online that upset social conventions based on discrimination cannot be framed as media literacy problems.

I found this post by Alex Au interesting because it provides a useful comparison to the discourse that arose around the Amy Cheong incident. Way back in 1996, the revelation made online that a boy was gay did not prompt immediate calls for media literacy education. Instead, the focus was on his sexual orientation and its social incorrectness. So having a well-documented case like this allows us to compare then and now. What was different? Among (many) other things, the political climate was different. One openly gay boy was no threat to anyone except the school that felt he was dragging them along with him down into some imagined moral abyss. But thousands of people questioning the national narratives and foundation myths on social media platforms (some with much more finesse and discretion than others, I must point out) is another situation altogether. Now media literacy education becomes very important. I cannot help thinking that this comparison highlights the fact that lack of media literacy is not the most urgent problem, although it is true that many more people are online than was previously the case, and so the number of factors to be taken into consideration has increased.

This is why I refuse to let go of the argument that social justice education must be the primary ‘operating system’ that underscores all other’educational ‘apps’. But I do accept that making this argument puts the onus on me to articulate what I mean by social justice education in the Singapore context. That’s going to take some time. I think it’s worth it.

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It’s community that builds us

There’s this song about ‘Community’ that we used to sing in school. It went something like  this:

It’s I – it’s I – it’s I who build community (x3)

It’s I who build community

Roll over the ocean roll over the sea; Find it in my heart to build community (x2)

It’s you – it’s you – it’s you who build community (x3)

It’s you who build community

Roll over the ocean roll over the sea; Find it in your heart to build community (x2)

It’s we – it’s we – it’s we who build community (x3)

It’s we who build community

Roll over the ocean roll over the sea; Find it in our hearts to build community (x2)

There’s no need to engage too many brain cells in figuring out that the philosophy underlying the song is a civic republican one based on individual effort for collective good. But lately I’ve been giving more thought to the equation in the reverse direction, and looking for specific examples of community. I make no secret of my affiliation with the position that the cultural logics of new media shape perceptions of, experiences with and contributions to community.  I also bring to my growing understanding of this position (I hope any lapses in congruence with it may be forgiven) my own experiences with having access to, feeling a lack of, and attempting to reassemble a sense of community from available resources. That is why the following example resonated with me:

On Facebook, I subscribe to a number of feminist pages. One of them is A Girl’s Guide To Taking Over The World:

Recently the admin posted the following photo of a feminine hygiene product (oh all right. It’s a MENSTRUAL CUP):

The text that accompanied  this picture read as follows:

“OK, so this a follow up to the first ‘I bought a Mooncup’ post. Many people asked that I feedback my experiences once I had tried it, so here goes. (All the gory details, so stop reading if you are squeamish). I had a mixed experience, so first the pros: It was effective, very, more so than tampons. I wore it on the first night of my period (a heavy bleed) and found it full in the morning (quiet a shock in itself) yet it had not leaked at all. Even a super tampon would not have coped. It was easy to put in, I couldn’t feel it at all, so I would say it was comfortable. It doesn’t have the dry feeling that tampons have that can also lead to thrush in some women. The Cons: It was quite hard to remove at first, I felt it had gone in too far and them worried that it might be stuck (possibly a natural reaction when you are unused to something). The biggest surprise was that I did find it a bit messy- surprised because I use a Cap as my chosen form of contraception, so I’m totally used to inserting/removing that and I’m not at all squeamish about blood but it did seem like a lot and the experience was more involved than I thought. Conclusion is I will keep trying with it. Having had a very heavy and painful period after being 7 days late I’m thinking it wasn’t the best month to test it out. But I will say much of the advice left by members of this page really helped me and the raving reviews have made me want to carry on… It is very strange telling 140,000 people about my menstrual experience but I hope it helps others thinking of trying this product out.” (Emphasis added)

Apparently it did help, but not only in the most obvious and intended way. The thread of comments, which can be accessed here (as long as they remain there – I can’t be held responsible if someone removes them) contained not only questions and responses to them, but also unsolicited experiences with the device, expressions of solidarity among women and even the odd male contribution. Almost palpable was a sense of relief that someone had made it permissible to talk about the ‘gory details’. The fact is that using the cup is a messy experience. No women likes dealing with her menstrual flow. But we do it anyway. It’s worse when we have to whisper about it to each other. Pushing the discussion underground makes it hard to normalize the suffering as well as the solutions. Everything about menstruation seems like a dark secret. I think this is made worse when we lose the resource of a household full of women to engage with. I first heard about the menstrual cup on an online discussion board. We all knew each other as fans of a particular children’s books series, and there was a sense of community built up through discussion topics that went beyond the fan fiction to deal with everyday experiences with children, cooking, worklife, relationships, hobbies, emotions etc. In that milieu, someone felt free to talk about the chafing she was experiencing from sanitary napkins and someone felt free to talk about her experience with the menstrual cup.

It was interesting to me to see the cup turn up on this feminist page, because given the page’s revolutionary motivation, it’s hard not to see the use of a discussion of menstruation as a way of holding up to the eyes of the patriarchy that which it works so hard to ignore (yet make piles of money out of with disposable feminine hygiene products). But it was also a reassembling of community resources to address an issue that needs community.

Media literacy is to social justice as seat belt is to driving…or is it?

Recent events and the responses to them have strengthened my conviction that we really need to think about introducing social justice and diversity appreciation into our citizenship education. When remarks that are construed as racist are posted on social media platforms, the most common reaction is to warn people that they must be careful about what they post. The next reaction is to reaffirm how dangerous and irrational online ‘vitriol’ is. The third is to advocate media literacy education which usually takes the form of messages about the big bad world of the Internet and the need for restraint. Certainly media literacy education is important. But in the case of Singapore, I believe that it is dangerous to place the locus of blame on online expression. What is dangerous is not that Singaporeans post racist comments. What is dangerous is that they think racist thoughts. And, as many have written very eloquently, what is most dangerous is that they are not aware of the racist logic embedded in their everyday thoughts. It does not suffice to teach people to be careful about what they say. They need to be taught how to feel for others.

We have long lacked a place for expression. People may argue that we always had the coffee shops and the taxi drivers. But what was their reach? These are caricatures of political engagement, and do not prove any point about widespread political interest. We have our newspapers of course. But perhaps there is no need to speak of them here. The point is that one cannot compare Singapore to countries that have a democratic tradition. It is not that we had other avenues to speak out and then social media came along and fragmented our public sphere. It was with social media that we had any inclusive public sphere to speak of. So we cannot do a time line analysis to show that suddenly everyone is more racist now because social media allows them to be anonymous. In the first place, none of the problematic comments so far have come from anonymous accounts. We are able to string them out because we can see who they are. Also we are a small country. It is not that hard to locate, name, and shame.

Some people are making statements that target other races. Others are calling them out on it and taking them to task. Through all this what stands out is that race as a cultural logic gets strengthened. As Mohamed Imran Mohamed Talib described (but stopped short of naming) in this article, that those who decry racism see the comments as racist when they might actually be classist, for example, shows how deep seated racialised thinking is. It has been suggested that this sort of thinking was put in place by the PAP, but I find this argument by Daniel Goh that links it back to the decolonization process credible. The point is that increasingly, public responses to displays of racism actually point to the lack of fit between the race logic in our culture and the realities of our modern life, where income inequalities point to cracks other than those along racial lines. Race as a narrative seems to be on a decline, and efforts to prop it up are increasingly appearing inauthentic and inappropriate.

So while in other countries where it can be established that social media disinhibits people and makes them more uncivil in public discourse than they ever were before, in Singapore I don’t feel that there is any basis for making the same argument. This is not to say that people should feel free to say whatever they want. But that tackling it in terms of media literacy is like the drunken Irishman searching for his keys under the lamp post simply because that’s where the light is, and not because that’s where he dropped them. The point is not that media literacy is unnecessary. Certainly if, as I argue, the only inclusive public sphere we have is online, then it makes sense to teach people how to participate in it. (I am leaving out for now the complexity of the private/public nature of social media). But in interviews I have done with young people, I have found that they are very careful about what they post. Contrary to panics in the media, most young people are extremely careful and strategic in their use of new media. Research I’ve been involved in shows that even  juvenile delinquents are hyper aware of the need to strategize. It is a different thing that their strategies may sometimes fail. The point is that they are not blindly posting online with no thought about the consequences. So if by and large young people are quite media literate (at least at a basic level), and the online space is the only inclusive one we have for political expression, how do we make sure we steer clear of discriminatory comments of any sort without censoring online comment? This is an important question to answer, because it is not just racism that can wound and potentially divide, but classism, sexism and many more.

My answer is that we begin by thinking of educating young people for social justice. One might ask- how does this help in terms of combating discrimination among the larger population? I think that of all national discussions, the ones centred on education draw in the most people. At the end of the day, what I am advocating is transforming our national narrative to one of social justice. As we discuss it, argue over it, tease out its manifestations and implications and finally introduce it to our young people, there is a chance that this will help ease out paradigms such as race that have passed their sell-by date, ease in a respect for diversity that permeates every level of the population, and hopefully even have an impact on policy. As young people take in this new logic, they will I hope examine their country, see what is good about it and affirm their sense of having something to strive for. I also hope that they will see clearly what is wrong and what is outdated, and work to change it.

It’s a deeper change in the national ethic that is needed. As I see it, education is the best way to effect the change. National education imposes a set of priorities on young people. Its new avatar as character education turns responsibility onto the individual, which has the potential to further lock people into the circumstances of their birth (as Alfie Kohn argues here). It also depoliticizes citizenship education at a time when all around them, young people see a politically charged environment. Educating for social justice does constitute a particular ideology. But I feel it’s an ideology we need now.

A friend commented that the seat belt of media literacy is needed in order to drive the truck of social justice safely. But my reply is that the analogy is not a good one after a certain point. Media literacy is important in public discourse. Teaching it is vital in a technological society. But if it is not underscored by social justice, not only will it just be seen as another form of censorship and not actually change how people think, but, more insidiously, we may end up with a situation where certain people’s voices online count more than others. Without a social justice ethic we may not even be aware that this is the case. Even for media literacy to be successful in Singapore as a means of promoting online engagement, social justice is needed as an underlying ethic. Because without it, we teach self-censorship in an already authoritarian country. With it, we have a responsibility to teach self-expression as a way to empower people to participate effectively.

This is why I think the seatbelt example is not a strong analogy. Or maybe it is – for the current policy. The seatbelt keeps the truck driver safe in case of an accident. But the truck driver has agency, and is motivated to keep himself safe on the road, to avoid the accident which justifies the seat belt. He also has the capacity to give way to fellow drivers, to stop to help someone along the road who needs it, to enjoy the smooth drive that results from reciprocity. This is why I feel that educating for social justice is primary. Media literacy is important, and interconnected in many ways, but in Singapore, if it is to be effective, it must be secondary.