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.

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