Monday, October 16, 2017

Media Monsters: Harvey, Boycotts, Intersectionality and Slacktivism

I'm taking my Additional Qualification course in Media. We've had two classes so far and both have been intellectually stimulating/challenging. Media literacy, according to the slides from the first day, is the "knowledge and skills necessary to understand and use the codes and conventions of a wide variety of media forms and genres appropriately, effectively, and ethically". There are eight key concepts we'll examine in the course.

1. The media construct reality.
2. The media construct versions of reality.
3. Audiences negotiate meaning.
4. Media messages have economic implications.
5. Media texts communicate value messages.
6. Media texts communicate political and social messages.
7. Form and content are closely related in each medium.
8. Each medium has a unique esthetic form.

My observations about the media around me have sharpened as I take this course. For instance, last Tuesday (the day after Thanksgiving), I was at the University Avenue courthouse because I had been summoned to a jury duty pool. After going through a security search at the front doors and having my papers checked, one of the first things the entire group of assembled citizens did was watch a video about what an honour and privilege it was to be called to jury duty. ("Propaganda", my husband said when I returned home.) People in the captive audience chuckled in self-recognition when someone in a hard hat told the camera "I was unhappy when I got called for duty. I didn't want to go."  I sat processing a 17 page article about Marshall McLuhan's ideas about media and used my waiting time to read and comprehend McLuhan's sometimes complex and convoluted thoughts. Despite hearing how important our presence was to a democratic society and to the justice system, the entire room cheered when we learned that we were dismissed after only half a day. Typical jury duty pools take four days.

Neil, Carol, and Michelle (our course leaders) opened the second class with something they took turns calling "Old Business" and "Classroom Connections" (correct me if I used the wrong terminology, folks). We discussed some of the current events of the past week, such as Eminem's "lyrical tirade" against President Trump, the outrage over Dove's recent advertisement, the TDSB's decision to remove the term "chief" from job titles, and of course, the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal. The great thing was watching how Neil, Carol and Michelle deftly facilitated the discussion and helped the class extract media learnings from the conversation. Neil encouraged us to be careful when taking very clear positions about contentious issues in class discussions because of our power relation as the teacher - rather, by positioning it as "I've read X" or "Some say...", it gives students a chance to offer their own opinions so that students are not just agreeing or disagreeing with you because of who you are. There were some interesting points made about the Weinstein controversy. Would the condemnation be the same if he were more liked? Or more attractive? Who is to blame for the continuation of these offensive practices? What role should actors / actresses who were "in the know" have played in speaking out? Why might victims not come forward? Is the "court of public opinion" trying him too quickly?

Similar conversations about the Weinstein affair were happening on Twitter, one of my favourite social media platforms. Actor Rose McGowan, in particular, was quite vocal, and then was reportedly suspended from the microblogging site for violating standards. At some point, someone started the hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter and suggested that to protest the unfair treatment of women in general and Rose McGowan in particular, women should refrain from using Twitter on Friday, October 13, 2017. This was all happening at a pretty rapid pace, and I thought I'd join in.
I avoided Twitter all day on Friday, despite the urge to share things like an audio recording of the students choosing to practice a song in the library, or my library recess visit statistics for September and half of October, or my son's Scratch-made video game (all examples of media texts). When I returned to Twitter on Saturday, I saw people complaining about #WomenBoycottTwitter because by female absences, men who did not want to hear "feminist complaints" were happy, and that wasn't what they wanted to have happen. In this alternative opinion, women should have been louder on that day instead of absent. Then, there were these two tweets.

They had a point. Why did I choose to participate in this movement but not in issues relating to Jemele Hill from ESPN? I've made a conscientious effort to follow more educators of colour on Twitter, and I read #EduColor Twitter chats, but obviously the effect of being a better ally has not been sinking in as deeply.

Or does it actually matter? What did my absence for a single day do on Twitter? The Oxford Dictionary defines slacktivism as:
The practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.
Was I just jumping on a bandwagon? What difference did it truly make? What did I hope to accomplish?

Let me look back on those media concepts. "Media texts communicate political and social messages." "Media texts communicate value messages." Maybe I had hoped by my lack of tweets that I was communicating my values about the politico-social situation of sexual harassment. I don't want people to be preyed upon by sexual predators, especially those who wield power and appear to "get away with it". I want my world to be fair. Yet, my own point of view means I miss things. "Audiences negotiate meaning."  I'm grateful for a more diverse audience so I can hear about these different viewpoints. As an educator, I'm uniquely positioned to deal with these "scary monsters": harassment, protests, civil unrest, bias, and more.

Then there's McLuhan himself, who said that his work "is designed for the pragmatic purpose of trying to understand our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences" (page 2). We are deluded at times that "it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what is does to us and with us" (page 3). That's why my husband says he focuses more on the local news; it feels more grounded and less infuriating to him. National or international news "angers up the blood" and he feels like he is impotent about doing anything about the feelings invoked. (He also says that Huxley was more right than Orwell when it came to predicting the future, but I digress.) Celebrity news, as it is distilled on social media, does things to us and with us. We become outraged; we want to act, and act quickly. We have to think critically before we act impulsively. McLuhan says "education... should be helping youth to understand and adapt to their revolutionary new environment" (page 8) - that can be hard to do in a timely fashion when events occur and media texts are produced in response at such a rapid pace. McLuhan describes the world as "a global theater in which the entire world is a Happening. Our whole cultural container of people is being transformed by these media and by space satellites into a living organism, itself contained within a new macrocosm of a super-terrestrial nature" (page 12). It really does feel like "the media" is a many tentacled creature, not a monster per se, but alive and active. An issue or event comes to the forefront and it's approached in many different ways by many participants and spectators; how long it is at the center depends on many factors. McLuhan says "the global village makes maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable. Uniformity and tranquility are not hallmarks of the global village; far more likely are conflict and discord as well as love and harmony" (page 13). That's certainly true in the Weinstein case, especially when similar situations are examined (e.g. what about Woody Allen? Bill Cosby? Donald Trump? Bill Clinton?)  He elaborates that "electric media open up totally new means of registering popular opinion" (page 14) (now, he also says that political democracy is finished, but I won't get into that). There are definitely a plethora of popular or unpopular opinions.

So maybe staying off Twitter was a lazy or ill-advised method of registering my disapproval of sexual predators. I had my reasons, even though they missed the boat in certain ways. What should I have done instead? I hope other friends, especially those like Michelle Arbuckle, who also avoided Twitter on that day, may have some suggestions for me.

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