Literacy, ill.

I love words.  I love seeking their origins, working out where they came from and why we use them to say the things we’re trying to say.

I have a fairly developed vocabulary- owing largely to the fact that I read a lot, but also because I know a number of languages, in addition to my mother tongue.  The ancient languages provide a foundation for some of the whys and wherefores, and the modern languages help explain particular usages.  It’s like a big puzzle- the way words connect us.  Words demonstrate the way in which we communicate- across this wide world of ours- and the way we always have done.

‘Newer’ languages borrow words from those that came before- adapting them to seek their particular linguistic needs.  Language is never static- it develops with each passing day.

Literacy- in any and  all languages- is something I regard as supremely important.

Lately there’s been a lot of talk in the news about the ‘words of the year’, according to the Oxford Dictionary– with ‘selfie’ leading the charge as the most popular term.  It’s still new enough that as I typed it, the little red line appeared underneath, letting me know that the spell check hasn’t yet been alerted to its ‘official’ recognition.

If you travel anywhere at all in the world of social media you are aware of the definition of this brave new word.  It is one of the many indicators of the paradigm shift that’s been happening as the interworld becomes increasingly realized as the de rigueur place to hang out.  These days it’s “all about me”.  Everything is geared toward self-glorification and the experience of those moments of fame (or infamy) to which we have been told we are entitled to experience.

For all the new words we create- to describe our increasingly self-absorbed perceptions of life- somehow we have completely lost the plot when it comes to things of real import.  You know, those issues that affect us and that are creating greater and greater divides of opinion and practice as our ‘communication’ allegedly increases?

I love Bill Moyers.  I think I might have mentioned that once or twice before.  Today I saw an excerpted post on his website about this very thing.

Henry Giroux, cultural analyst and foundational theorist in the realm of critical pedagogy, is another voice crying in the wilderness of the institutionalized dumbing-down of society that I have railed about so very many times here in my little corner of the WordPress world.  Although he is an American- and his great body of work generally cites American exemplars- we have been privileged to have him up here in the neighbourhood, as the Global Television Network (I won’t address the irony of that– at the moment, anyway) Chair Professorship in the English and Cultural Studies Department at McMaster University in the Hammer (again, sorry about the Grey Cup loss, Ticats), and is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University, here in the Big Town.

The excerpt from his book, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, notes:

‘The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy… a difference species of ignorance and anti-intellectualism… It is a form of illiteracy that points less to the lack of technical skills and the absence of certain competencies than to a deficit in the realms of politics- one that subverts both critical thinking and the notion of literacy as both critical interpretation and the possibility of intervention in the world.  This type of illiteracy is not only incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions, it is also an excuse for glorifying the principle of self-interest as a paradigm for understanding politics.  This is a form of illiteracy marked by the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self, an illiteracy in which the act of translation withers, reduced to a relic of another age.  The United States is a country that is increasingly defined by a civic deficit , a chronic and deadly form of civic illiteracy that points to the failure of both its educational system and the growing ability of anti-democratic forces to use the educational force of the culture to promote the new illiteracy.  As this widespread illiteracy has come to dominate American culture, we have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting and in doing so have restaged politics and power in both unproductive and anti-democratic ways.’


Have you ever felt like you’d like to spend even just one day in someone else’s brain?  I admit that I seem to be feeling that way quite a bit lately- between peeps like Ray and Professor Giroux I admit to something of a sense of comparative inadequacy in my own thought/creative/analytical processes

As one of my very smart and engaged sociologist friends pointed out to me this morning, Professor Giroux could be describing the situation we have here with our now-mayor-in-name-only and his remaining Nation.  To the letter.  (And today additional information was released by the courts.  Yes, there’s more.  Than just the crack smoking.  And obscenities.  And drunken stupors.  Stand by.)


The system- including educational, media AND political bodies- encourages the continuance of self-absorption (to a pathological degree, sometimes) so that we remain uninvolved in anything outside of ourselves, engrossed as we are in the minutiae and irrelevancies of cults of celebrity and mindless television/internet programming, rehashed (‘rebooted’) films, and formulaic/manufactured music.

We aren’t challenged in our entertainment- as we use what little leisure time we may be able to access as work days/weeks become longer- since such stimulation might lead to the exercise of unused brain matter that might, in turn, lead to more important evaluations- of society, politics, the imbalance between the super-wealthy and everyone else…

Heavens forfend.

That would certainly interfere with those who hold power- be it politically or economically- maintaining a status quo that is increasingly unfavourable to the rest of us.

WHY are we letting this happen?

(This is not a rhetorical question.  All possible explanations are welcome.)

I realize that many people are facing the sheer exhaustion of day-to-day living- what with un/underemployment, rising utility/housing costs, concerns about access to healthcare (particularly in the States)- and that time has become a precious commodity for more and more of us.  I also understand the need to use what little free time we might have in ways that make the daily grind worthwhile.   Time spent with family and friends, and even a little mindless entertainment is a good thing.  Such things do much to help us get through the day.

But I strongly object to the idea that ALL down time should be used playing Bejewelled or catching up with any freakin Kardashians.  We need to start educating ourselves- and cluing back into the communities in which we live.  If we don’t, these communities will continue their downward slide into political and social apathy as we let big business (pharma, the media, commercial conglomerates and etc.), the 1%, lobbyists and career politicians pad their own financial portfolios on the backs of the rest of us.

There’s this guy- a ‘financial expert’- who is a frequent contributor on the CBC (another precious Canadian commodity that is gradually being phased out by the Federal Conservative government- as we watch it happen and do nothing to stop it.  Farewell Hockey Night in Canada– your days are truly numbered… Sorry.  Got sidetracked.  I’ll defend the CBC another day) for some reason.

Some days- when I’m in a ‘selfie’ kind of mood, I think he’s there for no other reason than to make me see red.  In addition to his own ‘name on the masthead’ show, he is a frequent guest on the morning show.  I have no idea who might make up his appreciative demographic (although I can guess), but he’s obviously a ratings draw.

Anyhoo.  He makes me angry.  And that anger compels me to read up about the stuff he says that makes me angry.  To look at his opinion and the countering views of others.  In this way, I can form a balanced impression about whether or not I am reacting to the fact that I can’t stand HIM, or if I am truly opposed to his take on the ways of the world.

I try not to be knee-jerk about anything.  I fail, sometimes, but I think that I generally take the time- and do the work- required of me, as a fully-functional member of society, to make informed decisions.

I’m starting to feel more and more in the minority, as far as this approach to the world is concerned.  With each passing day/news story/political scandal/new reality tv series.

This new word of ours- ‘selfie’- shares a common linguistic root with ‘selfish’.    Which is defined as being ‘concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, regardless of others; characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself.’ 

We cannot afford to remain a selfie culture.  Shouting- whether in the comment section of online articles, with constant self-promoting pictures, or by actually yelling (and mowing down older women) in council chambers- needs to be replaced by critical examination and reasoned discussion that might lead to answers that will benefit ALL of society.

Everywhere we turn we are encouraged to develop ‘our brand’ through self-promotion and shouting louder than other voices.  We have become a society in which those who yell loudest tend to be the ones who end up as our leaders.

Is this really what we want?  Self-aggrandizing in place of discourse?

Pop songs are increasingly all about self-involvement- about ‘roaring’ and ‘sparkling’ and being a ‘firework’ and the like.  Some may argue that they promote the empowerment of those who feel powerless (particularly the young(er) peeps who can actually listen to Katy Perry et al without breaking out in hives), and maybe they are- on the most simplistic and formulaic of levels.

(I just CAN’T post one of those videos here.  Just.  CanNOT)

I’d argue that they contribute to the persistence of this pervasive solipsism that is making working together to change the world more and more difficult.

Professor Giroux is more emphatic:

‘The raging narcissism that seems to shape every ad, film, television program and appeal now mediated through the power of the corporate state and consumer society is not merely a clinical and individual problem.  It is the basis for a new kind of mass illiteracy that is endlessly reproduced through the venues of a number of anti-democratic institutions and forces that eschew critical debate, self-reflection, critical analysis and certainly modes of dissent that call the totality of society into question.’

‘Raging narcissism’.  Yep.  That sounds about right.

Basically, we don’t want to end up like this:

If I looked all over the world
And there’s every type of girl
But your empty eyes seem to pass me by
And leave me dancing with myself

So let’s sink another drink
‘Cause it’ll give me time to think
If I had a chance, I’d ask the world to dance
And I’d be dancing with myself

That post-apocalyptic imagery strikes me a as being a little bit too possible, these days.

24 comments on “Literacy, ill.

  1. Really liked this one, Cole. Thank you, especially for the intro to Giroux. As I read this, I kept thinking: Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism.” Cole has to read this.

    And then came the “raging narcissism.”

    This is what my two books are about. Thanks to you (in the good sense), my 2nd book will have to add Giroux to my attempt to unify Lasch with Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

    What Giroux (and you) are commenting on is the same long term process of decay which befell the Roman Empire.

    I’m an RCAF navigator, not a scholar. I wouldn’t be writing two books on this just for the hell of it. There’s something that scholars have missed, as it requires reference to military doctrine to perceive.

    • colemining says:

      Thanks Nav. There are definitely frightening comparisons with the fall of Rome. Giroux does discuss the ways in which governments employ the military- and military actions- in support of the furtherance of agendas that maintain such things as institutionalized racism and socioeconomic disparity in our societies. He’s a very interesting guy- worth a more complete read (I’ve asked for my own copy of the book for Xmas).

      This ‘nurtured narcissism’ (to coin my own term for the phenomenon) is responsible for the travesty of a mayor that we have here in town and the preponderance of consumerism and willful idiocy that is supported by the government, media and big business.

      Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist or anything, but I really believe that our suspension of critical thinking is one of the biggest social issues we MUST address- or face dire consequences.

      Thanks for reading! I look forward to the publication of your first book!

      • You make some great points, Cole. I may impose upon you for some future discussion to help refine my thesis and thinking along the lines of this post.

        I argue that narcissism includes a deep psychopathological aversion to the truth. Applied to the social level, this would explain the wilful idiocy and suspension of critical thinking that you mention.

      • colemining says:

        I only have very passing awareness of the psychological designation(s) of narcissism, so I’m not remotely equipped to comment on the pathology of the thing, but I do strongly feel that we are being encouraged to be driven purely by self-interest by those who hold power in society. It’s all about the consumerism, the vanity, the self-branding… and being conditioned to think first, if not ONLY, about ourselves is leading to the disintegration of our communities and the perpetuation of irresponsible governance. If we don’t act to change this ASAP we are all royally screwed.

        I feel VERY strongly about this- as I’m sure you can tell- and I’d be happy to throw my two cents your way.

      • In agreement with you, Sir. Looking forward to the discussions.

  2. evolution says:

    Colemining, I really appreciate this post. I have been thinking about narcissism in our culture a lot lately, as it’s increasingly brazen to me (or I’m just getting older). Just earlier I was standing in line at a book store, which was right next to the fashion magazine section. I tried to see how many of them had the word ‘hot’ on the cover, and I only spotted one that did not. It’s mind drivel, and yet I have no doubt these brainless fashion magazines far outsell the Economist, Time, National Geographic and the like. It’s what you say: an obsession with creating the selfie brand as a means of success and admiration (misguided self-worth), supersedes the importance of understanding one’s existence, and the existence of those around one. True self-awareness in context of our culture has taken a back seat.

    As I grow older, I find this look-at-me-culture frenzy to be increasingly comical, almost like our society is literally becoming a satire of itself. I guess having it all good has made us spoiled, and perhaps we aren’t grown up yet as a species to handle such abundance without letting our egos get out of hand….a theory, of course.

    • colemining says:

      Evolution- thank you for reading, and taking the time to comment so thoughtfully. Somewhere along the line we started buying into the idea that the superficial is more important than things of substance- and this reality permeates our society. It flourishes because of our access to instant information/gratification and the fact that we don’t have to work things out for ourselves any more. We have become intellectually lazy- and a population that is willfully uninformed (or that just accepts the sound bites that are handed to us without any critical analysis) is ripe for the picking by those who have self-interested agendas to pursue.

      I think you are spot on when you say we aren’t grown up enough to handle the consumables and technology we have at our fingertips. I can’t tell you how many times I feel like our society- especially our elected leaders- is stuck in those oh-so-wonderful sucky adolescent years, when not getting your own way results in doors being slammed and temper tantrums/silent treatments that last for days. When I see stories about people posting things online that are ill-advised (inappropriate selfies, bigoted rantings, misinformation, urban legends presented as fact… I could go on and on) my first thought is often ‘where are that child’s parents and why are they letting him/her post such things?’. And then I discover that the poster in question is an alleged adult.

      My heart breaks and my head hurts.

  3. “As this widespread illiteracy has come to dominate American culture, we have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting.” I know exactly what you mean. It’s on TV. It’s at the dinner table. We don’t listen, we only want to speak.

    And if that’s not bad enough, a report just came out that American schools globally aren’t even in the top 20 in math, science or reading. Yet, we bow down to ourselfies as idols (not to mention the aforementioned Kardasians or Miley Cyruses), turn the most religious holidays into shopping bonanzas, and wonder why “other people” are all so angry and selfish. We’re all on the wide road to Perdition, and we don’t even see the handwriting on the wall.

    It reminds me of the story in the Book of Daniel about the disembodied hand writing on the wall at the banquet of King Belshazzar the words MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. Daniel interpreted the words to mean that we have been weighed and measured, and found wanting.
    I agree with you, Cole: My heart aches and my head hurts.

    (BTW, on a lighter note, how did you get those snowflakes on your page. Sigh. Wonderful.)

    • colemining says:

      Susan- I have long been bewailing the fact that our educational system is failing- and that we are not teaching the right things, in the right ways.

      The disembodied hand writing on the wall is one of my favourite images from the OT (Daniel is one of my favourite books)- and you citing it here is particularly apt- given the apocalyptic nature of the book, and its message of social collapse. We are on the verge of a comparable situation now, and too ignorant of our stories and histories to make the connection. As I’ve mentioned any number of times here, we ignore our myths at our peril since they have vitally important messages to impart. As Nav65 mentioned in a comment above, the comparisons to the fall of the Roman Empire are extremely disturbing (at least to those of us engaged enough in matters outside of our narrow concepts of self), and echoes, as well, the societal issues that produced the biblical (canonical and non-canonical) apocalyptic literature.

      We are increasingly externalizing ‘the other’ as evil incarnate as we focus exclusively on self-importance and seek to blame those ‘outside’ of ourselves for all the wrongs in the world. We made this mess and we have to work together to get out of it. I’m really not sure how to rally everyone to this cause, though. Constantly seeking ideas- but not sure how many people are really aware that change HAS to happen.


      I added the snow to the blog page hoping it would stave off the real stuff, and thus far it’s working! I followed the directions provided on a link in my Reader, but if I remember correctly you have to go into your dashboard settings under ‘reading’ and they will let you add the snowflakes. Will double check and let you know.

      Thanks for the input- this is really bugging me this week. I’m so sick of the superficial emphasis on consumer culture and its ramifications. And I can’t escape such things- not at this time of year. Desperately re-seeking some optimism.

      • colemining says:

        The snow thing is under ‘general’ in the settings on the dashboard. And you have inspired me- might have to work on a post about the harbinger hand and the writing on the wall… Stay tuned!

      • So agree that we cannot look outside and point fingers. Even from a Christian perspective, Revelation tells us to stop looking outside the faith for the wrongs and the evil; we need to look right here among ourselves because that’s where we’ll find it. Yet the finger pointing continues.

        I pray that we wake up, smell the coffee, and begin to treat each other decently, respectfully, and with kindness and honor.

  4. […] My last new, not re-blogged, post- about our current selfie society- generated some great dialogue in the comments section, and led me to pull out the ol’ Old Testament and have a look back at the Book of Daniel (thanks, Susan!). […]

  5. yakinamac says:

    Really interesting post. As I was reading, I was wondering whether things really are much different today than they were a generation or longer ago: is this just the way we all start to think as we get older? After all, you can find books from the 18th century talking about how the country is going to hell in a hand basket, standards of civility are plummeting etc. And then I thought: perhaps things really are different now, but maybe some of the reasons for that are positive ones – namely the destruction (not always complete) of old frameworks of class, race, gender etc as means of encouraging or requiring deference to others. And if that’s the case, perhaps a focus on the self is an inevitable product of the pendulum swinging the other way, before – hopefully – we settle in a more balanced place where neither arbitrary codes of obeisance nor narcissism predominate.

    I’m in an optimistic frame of mind today, so I’ve decided to go with that explanation!

    • colemining says:

      Optimism is good- hold on to it for dear life! I think you are absolutely right- we have yet to find a happy medium between the concepts of self and community (with all the ugliness of class, race and gender distinctions that become institutionalized to our detriment). I’m certainly not suggesting that the old ways were best- or that they should be emulated (this wasn’t meant to be a ‘those were the good old days’ post at all) but, as you say, the pendulum has swung waaaaaaay too far in the other direction and our self-involvement is wreaking havoc throughout our societies. And if we don’t find some stability between the two positions, we are in a great deal of danger of societal collapse.

  6. We’ve headed down this path as a collective group because it’s the one of least resistance. Fat, dumb and, eager to do whatever it takes to make ourselves at least momentarily happy, many aren’t willing to put in the effort required for longterm genuine accomplishment.

    Of course, corporate America/Canada/Europe is all too eager to feed this insatiable need with whatever tripe de jour fits the bill. There are plenty of exceptions, but the “raging narcissism” that is exemplified in the rise of the “selfie” is now the norm rather than the exception, I believe.

    • colemining says:

      I completely agree. It’s institutionalized laziness- promoted by our governments to keep us from paying close attention to what they are getting up to. Our narcissism is becoming increasingly numbing- and it feeds upon itself with often-disastrous consequences.
      There are some few examples of organizations trying to overcome the selfie-ness- Me to We, started by those two young Canadian phenoms the Kielburger brothers, comes to mind- although even that is a for-profit off-shoot of their not-for-profit Free the Children.
      Thanks for reading!

  7. […] are the voices of those who shout about the extremes- polarizing the ‘sides’ that should be coming together in discourse […]

  8. Great post. Further to some of the other comments, a wonderful programme years ago (can’t remember what it was but a documentary) cited the reason for the fall of the ancient Egyptian civilization as a preoccupation with eternal youth and beauty. When perspective shifted to the illusory all was lost. The Roman empire is another classic case of shovel the shit and keep the populace happy and in blind ignorance. But, corrupt politicians may be allowed to be so through a disinterest in society and preoccupation with ‘selfie’. We reap what we sow.
    One of the facts of these examples that worries me is that the decline of significant cultures may have been averted with greater awareness and responsibility among people but the lead was taken from the ‘idols’ of the time. And when the mighty fall what replaces them? Who? And how? There may be dire times ahead but, as an eternal optimist, I intend to sing and say whatever I may to make my little difference. We all must.
    Thanks, Cole, for another great read.
    I might move to Canada and stand beside you in your running for a new type of office where common sense and reason prevail. Except I’m too old to get in now. Be sure of my support from here. Keep on writing. These words are stunning.x

    • colemining says:

      And this is why the WordPress world is such a wonderful place… Just when I’m losing all hope and feeling like I’m screaming into the void… ‘Thank you’ doesn’t seem like nearly enough.
      That old salt about not knowing history and being, therefore, doomed to repeat it? Yep. The signs are all there, and most of them aren’t pointing anywhere pleasant.
      I try my veryvery best to remain firmly in Camp Optimist, but it can get very wearying when one has to explain- at every single turn- why we have to examine ourselves- and our perceived progress- within the context of all that has come before. Today, though, is a good day. Thanks in large part to you and many other compatriots here in the WP World who ARE raising voices in song and support and dissention- wherever such is required.
      You would certainly be more than welcome here- for a visit or to become my running-mate… Your wisdom transcends age(s) and makes a great difference!
      I write because I must. But it is truly wonderful to hear that my words resonate outside of my own little sphere.

      • Be 100% sure of it and don’t give up. Your words also fill me with hope.
        Perhaps I am too linked to my laptop but I am finding an amazing number of amazing people whose truths outweigh what is purveyed as news and reality. This matters. There must be a multitude of people screaming for change, for hope. Words and music may provide it with action at every level.
        Optimism keeps me sane. I’ve decided God gave me that so I wouldn’t go off my trolley. Cos I would otherwise. 🙂 x

      • colemining says:

        I agree- the multitude seems to be growing- we just need to figure a way for the screams to become policy and practice.
        The derailment of my sanity trolley is a frequent fear of mine as well. Optimism IS the only means to keep on track.

  9. […] been a few months, but somehow it seems like eons ago) I wrote a little bit of a thing about our selfie culture and what larger meaning and impact that whole mindset is having on us, […]

  10. colemining says:

    Reblogged this on colemining and commented:

    While tooling around on the internets this morning, I noticed that Dr. Giroux paid a visit to Bill Moyers (watch it here and it reminded me about this post I wrote around this time last year.

    I had just been thinking, again, about our selfie culture and insane drive to buy moreandmoreandmore crap- as I watched the footage of the battles happening in shops on Black Friday- and ruminated on the fact that the impulse to buybuybuy- at times and places dictated to us by the marketing people and the economics ‘leaders’- has become increasingly repugnant to me. Not that I don’t love a good bargain (my Dad was a notorious bargain shopper- I guess I picked that up from him), but because I really resent the rank consumerism that is eating us alive.

    We celebrated US Thanksgiving last night- Fletch and his lovely better half always host us for an amazing food-and-drink fest in their home. I’m still full. Of the food, certainly, but mainly from the friendship and fellowship and great conversations we always seem to find at their place.

    I can’t imagine rushing out to fight crowds in stores where under-paid employees are forced to leave their homes and hearths to serve the state-sanctioned consumerism of the general public.

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