On literacy, in the age of misinformation

Around Christmastime, I had a small freak-out on Facebook. It was prompted by a comment left online in response to some public writing I had done elsewhere. The comment was not, strictly speaking, invalid, but it did do an impressive job of missing my point. It preferred to read my words superficially, filter them through a pre-existing axe, and then grind away, chips flying directly into my face.

Feeling misrepresented and misunderstood, I wrote the following on my FB page:

When I write for a public audience, I remember that most readers are barely literate. That is: they can read the words and understand the words. That is it.

Time for a radical humanities intervention, peeps. This is our year.

Harsh? Yes – as one of my colleagues (a totally sympathetic dude) pointed out. But, hey – it was to my friends, folks who know me. Besides, it got at what I had been feeling since early November: in a moment in which fake news = (alternative) “facts”, and pretty much everything that we encounter in the public sphere needs to be treated with exceptional care and more-than-usual levels of skepticism as a result, what exactly can be said to constitute civic literacy?


I back-pedalled on FB, of course; I hardly wanted my friends and family to think I meant THEM. But I continued to stew about this question as the holidays gave way to the mid-winter doldrums. Then I met my (lovely) group of undergraduate students in Performance Theory. Smart? Sure. Engaged? More than most, I’d wager. But quickly it became apparent to me that not all of my cultural references were landing – and peeps, I keep up to date, rest assured.

What was going on?

This is when I learned – first from a colleague with an especially savvy and tuned in twenty-something daughter, then from the kids themselves – that our friends the millennials are not on Netflix; rather, they are hanging out on Youtube. So I decided to ask the class what was up. I asked them to tell me about how Youtube figured in their daily lives. They told me:

  • YT is free, which makes it a very compelling place to get both information and entertainment regularly and consistently;
  • it’s not uncommon for the students I’m teaching to spend significant amounts of time binge-watching extremely short Youtube videos on topics that range from applying make-up to the history of the 1960s;
  • the smart kids (IE: those in my classes) prefer Youtube to social media alternatives like Snapchat; it’s thought to be more “intellectual” (no, really).

I admit this caused another existential crisis in my brain. After all, the very idea that *intellectual* is now a competition between Youtube and Snapchat would, I think, make Willow Rosenberg turn in her electroshock hands and Buffy herself declare an unbeatable apocalypse. (OK, maybe not unbeatable… but up there with Glory, no doubt about it.)


Where god, WHERE was Willow when we needed her?

OK. So I don’t actually think any of the students in my PT class would have voted for Agent Orange. But I also do not think the state of epistemological affairs they reported to me is unrelated to what happened last year in both Britain and the U.S. And note that I’m not suggesting that it’s the barrage of information we receive, across such a huge range of forums both free and paid, that’s the real problem here; I think of greatest import is the way that information is curated for us online, and the ease with which we are encouraged to accept curation as a kind of peer review by another (and less “elitist”) name.

Youtube queues up the next video it thinks I should watch, based on what I just watched, automatically; Facebook’s algorithms advertise to me in my newsfeed and encourage me to get into what my friends are into. Every website I visit links me to another website just like it. If I’m not careful about asking questions and remaining skeptical as I browse (a horrifyingly pacifying activity, btw), I can easily slide into consuming consensus tailor-made for me and my viewing habits by those who stand to benefit, monetarily and otherwise.

Youtube has something else important in common with The Donald and politicians like him (I’m glancing sidelong at both Rob Ford and Justin Trudeau, btw): it communicates a huge range of information with greater and lesser degrees of accuracy and fictional embellishment as unvarnished, as real, as just like (just for) YOU. It’s extremely easy to be seduced by its logic: that video is made by “real” people who want to share stuff that they know/that happened to them/that they do all the time; why shouldn’t we believe they know what they’re on about? Youtube as medium lends the messages of truthfulness and democratic access to every single thing posted there – that’s its power, but also the danger it poses to our ability to ask useful questions about how our infotainment is constructed, by whom and for whom, who pays, and who ultimately benefits from our willingness simply to believe in the truth of what we are seeing.

This, then, is the paradox of our social moment: perhaps more than ever before, we – the makers-cum-consumers of information, democratised – are in a position where we need to be critically tuned-in all the time, or else (we know what comes next). The problem is that now, more than ever before, we’re constantly, seamlessly, being encouraged to recognise our infotainment as real, authentic, simply “true” – and to accept the (curated) hunt for authenticity as itself an act of critical thinking.

Civic literacy resides inside this paradox – except that paradoxes are no longer considered valuable; they are complicated, so probably “fake”. The opposite of real, simple, true.

In a comment piece for the latest issue of TDR: The Drama Review, my friend and colleague at Northwestern University, Tracy C. Davis, examines this very terrain, and links it explicitly to questions about the state of public education:

I watched the Republican National Convention heartsore and with mouth agape. I felt for schoolteachers in conservative districts who, when classes resume, would have to swim upstream to explain plagiarism. I ached for the community organizers, religious leaders, and other civic-minded individuals who would try to counter the doctrine of hate, fear, and loathing that speakers urged upon the delegates and audiences at home. But more than anything, I wondered how a nation with compulsory education
in every state and where in 2015 the federal government appropriated more than $37 billion for K–12 education and $43.5 billion for post-secondary education could understand so little about logic.

(TDR is available here – note that Tracy’s article is free for download)

The problem of Trump (and of 2016) is a basic failure of education – of liberal arts education. It’s not a failure of educators in the liberal arts, please note, but rather of our ever-declining cultural investment in what that kind of an education means, should mean, and should do for us as a society.

The same voices that tell us, variously, that Hillary is crooked, that Obama wasn’t born in America, and that watching three videos on Youtube will prepare you to renovate your bathroom (or teach you all there is to know about the history of civil rights in America), are all heavily, financially as well as culturally, invested in making us think that there’s literally no “use value” in the arts, and that’s why going to university and taking a STEM degree is a smarter use of your time and money. These same voices insist loudly that universities make workers, or job candidates – not citizens – and that universities need to take in more and more students while also cutting programs and saving money (usually in the arts… because saving money is a public good, right?). Logic, as Tracy notes, fails utterly here – but the current of “common sense” is strong.

Tracy’s comment piece is, in the main, a reflection on her trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, last summer. She went because she wanted to understand how Christian, conservative Americans were being asked to think and absorb information by their cultural curators – by those who purported to share their affiliations and have their best interests at heart. This is how she ends the article:

The quaint evasion and equivocation of political doublespeak may be a thing of the past, for it has become acceptable to tackle questions head-on with fabrication, unrelated elements, and sheer flights of fancy. Instead of utilizing critical thinking to scrutinize arguments, critical thinking has become a synonym for identifying the paradox, complexity, or conundrum, and then resolving it by the least rigorous means.

What do we do about this? How do we reclaim the public, civic value of rigour, paradox, of asking questions and watching skeptically, after all we’ve just been through?

I don’t have an answer; I’ve been holding off writing this post in part because of that. But I have a hunch that if there is an answer, it has a lot to do with theatre and performance – and thus with those of us who teach performance, both as a practice and as a set of critical social tools.

Performance is not, after all, simply the means by which Mr. D. got elected… although it really is that. Performance is a means of receiving and communicating knowledge; it is a set of social codes enacted in the public sphere; it is a history of civic engagement that reaches all the way back to the Greek polis, for better and for worse. And it is, of course, at the very, very heart of what I describe above – the Youtube culture that expects all mediated entertainment to come glossed as somehow “more real”, believable, confidence-inspiring, than the stuff that goes on in the streets (inaugurations and rallies and marches on Washington).

Unpacking performance as central to what just happened, to how we live now and ever have lived, means thinking carefully about what it means to “be real”, about who counts (or does not count) as real, about who decides, and about how the paradigms of “realness” shift and change over time – and usually in the interests of the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

How can we, as theatre and performance educators, bring this message to a broader public in a world that looks, but isn’t really, culturally literate? What are the stakes of this game? If information has become “democratised” to our detriment, can we democratise the teaching of performance theory and practice to help salvage this situation?

I’d welcome your thoughts on all of the above. A number of my colleagues are doing great work in this direction already (check out the special “Views and Reviews” section of Canadian Theatre Review 161, winter 2015, for example), and I’ve just been invited to guest-edit a special issue of Research in Drama Education which will explore this stuff and more.

But, truly, I don’t have answers right now, and I’m scared – like many of us. We’re being told, more and more, that the arts deserve less and less (money, time, interest) – even as we know, just as I did back in December on Facebook, that this is THE moment when the world needs radical humanities intervention most.

How, god on earth my friends HOW, do we make such an intervention, and make it land?