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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