Critical Citizenship and Media Literacy Futures

Stuart R. Poyntz, Assistant Professor, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University

Over the past fifteen years, I have worked with young people in various forms of creative media production, largely through Pacific Cinémathèque, Western Canada’s leading film institute, but also through other community-based media programs and courses offered at post-secondary schools. An ongoing challenge in this work has been to conceptualize notions of critical citizenship in relation to the goals and ambitions of media education. Equipping young people to be participants in public spheres has long been a key objective of media literacy. It is consonant with the moral agenda that circumscribes the field and is crucial in societies where to be a citizen means to participate critically online and in everyday life through images, sounds and written texts. Nonetheless, I think critical citizenship has less to do with the way young people learn to become certain kinds of activists or to take part in the formal mechanisms of politics (i.e., voting, membership in political parties, etc.), and more to do with the way media education fosters students’ modes of thinking and judging, including their sense of hospitality towards strangers.

I argue thus because young people are increasingly engaging in multiple forms of civic participation, including consumer activism, social movements, issue-based politics, and new forms of volunteerism that circumvent or ignore more traditional liberal democratic institutions. Moreover, it is not the job of media educators to determine the political project young people will inherit, and public life itself is not sustained by mere acts of voting once every three or four years. Rather, public life is sustained through a culture of speech and action that counteracts thoughtlessness. Democracy is fostered through a rich social, cultural and political field, an everyday lifeworld in which conformity is contested and thoughtful and vigilant resistance to the power of ideology, bureaucracy, and artificiality are enabled. Such a field is not a singular space however; it is “a space of conflicting and competing discourses, of stories, and images, and performances” that do not reveal truth as much as “the worldliness of the world” (Silverstone, 2007, p. 49). A vital social, cultural and political lifeworld is thus sustained as much by the complexity and richness of the stories and perspectives we find there, as by the way truth itself is articulated in public life.

This is really to say it is the plurality of people, stories, images, and performances that sustain ‘the worldliness of the world.’ Plurality acts as a bulwark against thoughtlessness because the presence of other people, new ideas and images, what the political theorist Hannah Arendt (1958) calls the “web of human relationships,” that ensure our mediated lives are open to change. Plurality thereby counters a kind of oblivion that can blind us to the possibility that things might be different than they are. It nurtures thoughtfulness and constitutes the ground on which democratic dreams might be born. As such, it is essential for developing a common world, a public culture in which we are all involved.

The question this raises is: how does media education foster plurality (and thereby, thoughtfulness) among children and youth? I argue it does by “preserving newness” (Arendt, 1968), by working with young people in such a way that our students gain a felt sense that new beginnings, new directions in their own and other people’s lives are possible. This happens, first, when media education enables thinking itself, the habit of examining “whatever happens to come to pass or attract attention” in our lives (Arendt, 1978, p. 5). It is through our faculty of thought, our ability to reflect on the world that we move beyond routine circumstances and routine behaviours, and begin to consider these circumstances and behaviours in relation to other problems, other people, other possible answers. A more complex (or plural) field of social, cultural and political life is thereby opened up.

Where media education enables thinking and contributes to the critical citizenry vital to public life, it does so by helping young people to de-naturalize the images and mediated experiences that are so much a part of our lives. By helping young people to become historians of the present, to read into the fabric of everyday consumer life, media education demystifies the given world. Distance is thereby introduced into the way young people experience their identities, their relationships with others and their sense of the world itself. The constructedness of our social and cultural lives is thus brought into view. Certainly, the fact that our lives are constructed in and of itself is not the problem; but unless we learn to think about how this constructedness operates, change is not possible. Media education also fosters thinking by helping young people to question bias in media, to see how figures of authority are constituted as such, to examine the production of media texts and practices in relation to an ecology of structures and forces, and by helping children and youth to use media texts as looking-glasses into the cultural patterns and pressures shaping their lives. The use of various forms of new media can foster thinking by helping students learn how to leverage the networking form and capabilities of the Internet. This includes learning to think via forms of collective intelligence, but more broadly, network thinking refers to thinking enabled through the production of meaningful connections in a world rich with information and digital media. This is a central ambition of what is sometimes called Media Literacy 2.0, as are efforts to foster thinking by developing young people’s abilities to sift through the information and narratives produced across media platforms.

Where thinking works to open up routine behaviours and practices, nevertheless, on its own it is not sufficient to foster young people’s democratic habits of mind, because thinking is typically something we do on our own. To preserve newness and nurture democratic cultures, however, requires that we engage with that culture, and to do so, requires that we learn to judge (Arendt, 1978). Judging brings us into the world because judging is something we can only do by forming opinions with and through our encounters with others. Judging is not something we do on our own, because to judge is to form points of view or positions regarding others, and to do this requires that we involve ourselves in “a talking through, a bringing forth, a constant engagement with one’s own thought and that of others” (Silverstone, 2007, p. 44). This requires that we act in the world, that we go out and engage with others in order to understand others. Through this, judging involves risk taking and oftentimes a challenge to the status quo because to judge is to see things from many sides and thus to understand perspectives not yet taken. Judging nurtures what Kant called an “enlarged mentality,” because to judge is to engage with the points of view of others and to mix these perspectives with our own. Through this comingling, we develop richer and more complex views of the world and our place in it. Thereby, thoughtfulness is preserved because our imaginations are increasingly habituated “to go visiting” (Arendt, quoted in Smith, 2001, p. 83).

Media education fosters young people’s ability to judge by affording opportunities for children and youth to talk back to various publics, to leverage the production possibilities made available by new (social networking spaces, blogs, podcasts, and increasingly accessible video production tools) and older media (including written text) to contest, engage, visit, and act with others. These resources make it possible – as perhaps never before – for students to be active agents in their lives and the lives of others. That said, young people don’t take on such roles automatically or easily. Rather, a willingness to judge with others, develops at least in part as students are provoked and challenged (by teachers and those working in other learning environments) to examine how media cultures operate in and through their lives, including how these cultures might be changed to make way for more equitable futures. To do this work, a production-oriented media education curriculum is not only an interesting add-on to the critical analytic work media education has long been committed to. It is essential for ensuring that media literacy programs nurture a kind of engagement that challenges and invites students to share their views with others, to learn to judge in such way that an enlarged mentality, a form of thoughtfulness, is the result. Where media production opens these possibilities, so too do a range of websites – i.e., TakingITGlobal, YouthNoise,, etc – that create interactive spaces where young people appear with each other and address issues of culture, race, sexuality, and youth action on global issues. Such spaces enable dialogue and the sharing of media resources among youth and educators, and by doing so, critical citizenship is fostered in relation to the media young people increasingly see as their own.

Of course, not everyone is willing to engage with ideas and people that are unfamiliar or unknown, and the same opportunities for media literacy and media production are not available to all young people. For these reasons, I argue that a third crucial way media education nurtures plurality and a democratic world is by fostering young people’s sense of hospitality towards strangers.

By this, I don’t mean that young people should be encouraged to go out and contact any stranger that happens to come their way. This idea would be naïve and irresponsible. The point is rather that the presence of strangers is crucial to democracies, because any democratic public worthy of its name must include more people than simply those one knows or those who are like me. As a consequence, strangers are a normal part of our social worlds. If so, it is also true that where young people are concerned, strangerhood is typically (and often unjustifiably) understood as a social condition thread through with fear. Strangers pose threats to children and youth (stranger-danger), particularly where kids’ online lives are concerned. Strangers can also signify the fluidity, volatility and precariousness of increasingly globalized lives, where meeting people we don’t know can often feel like what Zygmunt Bauman (2001) calls, “mis-meeting.” Conversely, adolescents themselves can become emblematic strangers when they are portrayed as being so different and unlike the adults around them, that they are seen to pose a threat to the very fabric of social life.

In each of these castings, strangerhood comes to represent uncertainty, precarity, and danger, the upshot of which is that the very idea of a relationship between strangers and young people comes to operate as a way of controlling, disciplining and managing adolescents’ sense of agency and belonging. Young people themselves often fight back against these restrictions and “engage in … ‘boundary performance’ – risk-taking [that] is often publicly performed as part of the process of identity construction in a peer group context … [The result is that] whatever we as adults worry about, whatever social norms we seek to defend, children will be motivated to transgress precisely those norms that society has constructed as vital to the preservation of childhood innocence” (Livingstone, 2009, p. 155). If young people are likely to be curious about that which they don’t know, nurturing a form of stranger hospitality is also about fostering a duty of care, a sense of responsiveness, or ‘responsibility’ to the world (Levinas, 1985). Hospitality in this sense is a central element of freedom, because in the final instance, “the only indispensable material factor in the generation of [public life] is the living together of people” (Arendt, 1995, p. 203). But this requires that we learn to live with others, many others, including those we don’t know.

If this is so, media education can nurture a hospitality towards strangers and thereby help sustain a democratic world by ensuring that “the digital and analogue spectrum” is available for all those who are marginalized in contemporary culture (Silverstone, 2007, p. 143); by drawing attention to those voices and bodies (including people who are homeless, refugees, migrant labour, sex trade workers, and others) that are regularly disappeared from view in the mainstream press; by helping young people to experiment with new forms of association, including ‘crowd sourcing’ and online community forums that are changing the political spaces of our cities and neighbourhoods; and so on. Most importantly, media education helps to nurture a hospitality towards strangers when those in the field enable young people to confront “fundamental and structuring wrong[s], a miscount, a radical and unjust exclusion” of people, of ideas, of media practices “that cannot be tolerated” (Barney, 2010). When we do this, media education not only helps to foster a regard for strangers, we also help to nurture a form of thinking and doing, a critical citizenry conscious of the ways all meaning (including that revealed through media texts and experiences) has a social and historical context, a form of contingency that is susceptible to change.


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Arendt, H. (1968). Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (enl. ed.). New York: Viking Press.
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Arendt, H. (1995). Men in dark times. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company.
Barney, D. (2010). ‘Excuse us if we don’t give a fuck’: The (anti-)political career of participation. Jeunesse, 2(2), 138-146.
Bauman, Z. (2001). Making and unmaking of strangers. In P. Beilharz (Ed.), The Baumann Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Levinas, E. (1985). Ethics and infinity (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Livingstone, S. (2009). Children and the Internet: Great Expectations, Challenging Realities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Silverstone, R. (2007). Media and morality: On the rise of the mediapolis. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Smith, S. (2001). Education for judgment: An Arendtian oxymoron? In M. Gordon (Ed.), Hannah Arendt and education: Renewing our common world (pp. 67-91). Boulder, CO: Westview.

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