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.