Given the increased integration of media, popular culture and politics in the digital age, it’s more necessary than ever that we develop critical media literacy. And I think at the heart of becoming critically media literate is really understanding the relationship between media and society. Public discourse often centers on media’s (usually negative) effects on society, or how media functions as a ‘mirror’ of society. But maybe a more helpful way of understanding media and society is as a dialectical relationship.
The dialectic is probably too big of a concept to adequately unpack here. Ultimately though, I’m talking about understanding the relationship between media and society as characterized by productive contradictions. Contradictions—because these media representations and social practices/perspectives often conflict—but productive—because these conflicts function to promote positive social change. So for example, someone might recognize how treatments of sexual violence in news media seem to conflict with their own perspectives on (and a growing public response to) this important issue. And their recognition of this contradiction can serve as a catalyst for change—in media culture, governmental policy, public discourse and social practice.
Understanding the relationship between media and society as dialectical also allows us to realize our potential as media consumers, creators, and (perhaps most importantly) democratic citizens. Rather than vegging in front of the TV, aimlessly surfing the net, or even unintentionally reproducing hegemonic industry norms in the creation of our own content, we engage with media in informed, innovative ways. And beyond watching the Colbert Report, ‘liking’ or retweeting popular political opinions, and maybe (possibly) voting, we strive to be citizens who learn about and interact with our communities—maybe even collaborating with those around us to make art and make change.
All around us are promising examples of people flexing their media literacy muscles, collaborating on cool creative projects, critiquing mainstream media culture, and imagining a better world. Among these communities is hitRECord.org, an online, collective production company that attempts to make films, music, books, etc. outside of (and sometimes explicitly in response to) the culture industry. But efforts like this need not be limited to Joseph Gordon Levitt and his crew. Deep inside all of us is ‘a roaring fire’—fueled by our thoughtful, creative uses of media, and capable of making real, significant change in society.