Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Too Critical, Not Critical Enough


Reading Time: 7 minutes

This post is a response to the work of 3 great people I respect. I’m going to link all the things now so I can focus on writing my response freely. The first is danah boyd’s SXSW keynote, Renée Hobbs’ response and Benjamin Doxtdator’s response. There’s also been a Twitter thread that’s… Probably unmanageable at the moment but with notable contributions by folks like Mike Caulfield, Frances Bell, Benjamin, myself and George Station who started the thread (I’m the one who linker danah boyd before watching her video to the end, someone, i think Leo Havemann, linked Renée and I think Sundi linked Benjamin’s article). I apologize in advance for all unreferenced anything else in this post. But all of the refs are probably in the reference list of my thesis.

If you missed any of these… I’m going to offer a partial summary of key points. To me, danah boyd’s keynote has two main threads. One identifies a problem which reminds me of something Mike Caulfield had mentioned recently and which many of us who teach encounter: critical thinking turning into unstoppable skepticism such that everything seems equally questionable to people, particularly young people. I had responded to Mike that William Perry’a model of intellectual development calls this Multiplicity and it is a stage of “anything goes” that precedes the more mature Contextual Relativism. Perry’s model is problematic, however, given it’s based on mostly white male Harvard students and has been extended and modified by many folks including Baxter Magolda who modifies it with Belenkey et al’s work on Women’s Ways of Knowing – finding pathways to mature critical thinking that aren’t based on skepticism but rather on empathetic understanding of the other, connected knowing, on the path towards constructed knowing.

Back to danah. Her keynote included several statements that struck a chord. But the most important ones, I felt, related to how traditional ways of teaching critical thinking and media literacy are about asserting authority over epistemology. It’s… A strange phrasing imho, but I kind of think I get what she means… I think overall, critical thinking, North American model, focuses on technical skills of detecting fallacies and constructing rational arguments… In order to “win” an argument (an instrumental end). And because there are no social justice values linked with this, one could use one’s critical thinking for good or for bad (Richard Paul calls the bad “weak sense” critical thinking which only confirms our own biases/worldviews, vs “strong sense”, which involves seeing multiple world views. Something like that).

Now danah boyd’s solutions to the problems she poses are… A little less than impressive, which I think is what Renée and Benjamin detail in their responses. But danah also makes a strawman out of media literacy, because she seems to be saying things like the critiques of fake news are meant to make us go back to trusting mainstream media…. Whereas my (limited) understanding of critical media literacy is that it does in fact encourage us to question not only how messages are represented and how images/words are chosen to pass particular values/impressions on, but also to question the power structures behind anything in any media, and so of course, just as fake news is fueled by powerful corporate and political interests, traditional media has always been fueled by these, to a certain extent. Just perhaps different in magnitude and more accountable than the complete fakeness that is more common now. Meaning, news was always biased, but completely untrue news was held accountable. Although, really, don’t get me started on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq which the US used to invade Iraq but were never found… But you know.

Renée calls this out directly ” those who teach media literacy as a valorization of mainstream media or who present it as merely making simplistic distinctions between fact and opinion.” and she also makes an excellent point here: “it’s important for young people to learn about the economics of news as an industry and as a political force without promoting either blind trust in mainstream news media or cultivating debilitating cynicism.”

To me, Renée’s post is really good in pointing out what media literacy is. Because danah boyd’s talk was unfair to media literacy as a whole. But Renée recognizes that some people are taught a dumbed down version of it, and that’s probably what danah was talking about, and I’m wondering if that’s what is taught in schools – because many people won’t go on to college and that’s all the formal media literacy they’ll get. But Renée mentions also empowerment via media literacy and gives examples that seem to be targeting k-12…so I don’t know.

One word I don’t see in Renée’s post is justice or social justice. I found oppression once. I’ll circle back to this. But it’s not a shortcoming of her post. It’s just something I want to add.

Benjamin’s post (which Renée points to) mainly critiques danah for her simplistic/individualistic/psychological take on the matter because of several things

  1. She does not mention the role of platforms in perpetuating these problems, nor does she critique the power they hold or the values behind their designs
  2. She ignores power structures and focuses instead on working on students’ minds.

Benjamin critiques danah’s call for cognitive strength training – which in her keynote entails promoting in young people, abilities to understand different epistemologies (a call to empathy?), to look at things outside their context (presumably to be objective?) and to work on overcoming confirmation and selection bias.

Like Benjamin, I agree these are good and needed but not enough. But they’re good and needed and important not just because working on individuals is within our circle of control as educators, but because I do believe if more human beings in the world had more understanding of the other and more awareness of their own biases, we might go towards having fewer programmers who created algorithms which took biased training sets and gave us back injustice in the form of algorithms claiming to be neutral but were really algorithms of oppression as Safiyya Noble calls them.

But what is altogether missing from danah boyd’s talk is that any kind of literacy, if taught as a technical thing, including her list, without teaching about

  1. Values of social justice
  2. Deep consciousness of the ways in which power and oppression work in the world and have historically worked in the world

Teaching literacy without these can always backfire. The solution to this issue is much larger than a set of steps.

What Benjamin emphasizes in his post about recognizing the power of oppression the platforms hold is in itself a dimension of critical literacy youth and all of us need to develop. Benjamin writes this very clearly here :

We’re not fighting a misunderstanding between two parties with the same amount of power. We’re fighting active disinformation fueled by hate groups and spread by algorithms outside of our democratic control. boyd, who works for Microsoft Research, never once mentions a tech company or platform. At a minimum, we need to be literate about how those platforms shape our understanding of the world.

But I’m going to circle back to something. Maybe it’s not directly there, but checking our own selection and confirmation bias is in itself helpful to developing a social justice orientation. As are danah boyd’s other recommendations (and I have no idea why she refers to them as cognitive strength because I’d never heard the term before and it sounds a bit off to me).

Yes the platforms have power and it is oppressive power. But if the recipients of all the platforms produce are critical, empathetic individuals who care about social justice, and who also understands how platforms work… Wouldn’t those platforms wield less power over us?

Danah boyd’s solution is missing the questioning of oppressive power structures while overly inflating the importance of individual agency.

The problem with people who focus on agency is that they don’t keep in mind what Martha Nussbaum calls “combined capability” which is the ways in which the environment can restrict someone’s ability to do what they are capable of. Given what we know about algorithms and platforms, individuals’ agency is limited. But it’s not zero, and it’s worth working on.

On the other hand, focusing only on the power of the platforms can make us despair because they are outside our circle of control and sometimes even sphere of influence.

The platforms reproduce oppression because

  1. Oppression and injustice are already the status quo
  2. Algorithms and platforms sometimes mirror the status quo
  3. Algorithms and platforms sometimes exacerbate and amplify the injustice in the status quo
  4. People who work on these platforms and people who hold them accountable don’t have social justice as their bottom line
  5. Society has huge chunks of people who don’t have a problem seeing oppression and social injustice – as long as it’s mainly happening to someone else

I am no scholar of media literacy or propaganda or any of those things. But I don’t believe Hitler could have brainwashed people if they had no seedlings to start with.

I don’t think Trump made Americans more racist. I think (and I know Tressie Mcamillan-Cottom has said this) America already harbored lots of racism. Trump just kinda made it OK to be overtly so. Platforms are helping normalize what is unacceptable. But they’re not creating human cruelty and violence.

What am I getting at? Let me try to summarize this…

  1. I think there’s a key difference between critical or literacy as a technical thing which can absolutely be used “wrong” vs critical as critical pedagogy meaning conscious of oppressive/unjust power structures
  2. We cannot work on individuals and ignore the broader power structures
  3. BUT ALSO we cannot just stop at critiquing the broader power structures. We need to also work at the individual level to nurture agency that can stand up to this broader injustice at the individual and colletive level, not just for advocacy. Otherwise, the power of the platforms becomes debilitating.

Benjamin cites Chris Gilliard’s recent article:

Silicon Valley is literally built on segregation, which makes white supremacy a feature rather than a bug as Chris Gilliard argues: “design of these platforms, well-aligned with their racist history, promotes notions of free speech and community that are designed to protect the folks in society who already benefit from the most protections.”

Big yes to this.

But what are we doing to combat the racism and injustice in the world itself? How do you create a society that is both deeply aware of historical and current injustices within it, but is also working to actively do something about it? Neither psychology nor sociology alone will fix this.

Criticality does have a cognitive dimension (which can include some technical skills, but also digging deep into power structures), but it also has an interpersonal dimension (how we behave towards others) and it has an attitudinal dimension (where inclination towards social justice and empathy come in) – and it should also have an action dimension (clear in critical pedagogy texts, but not critical thinking; see also Barnett’s work on criticality as well; rarely mentioned in US literature). I’ll give a quick nod to Mike Caulfield’s Three Acts which go through the basic fact-checking, down to questioning broader power structures, and into possible action students can take – this latter really important so students don’t feel frustrated by what they’ve learned and don’t turn into mere perpetual skeptics. I think!!



  1. Hey Maha – great post! I used to work for an Ed-Tech company (now long gone) that wrote curriculum for various states. We examined state standards across the U.S. You were wondering what was taught as far as media literacy in schools. From a state level, almost all states have had (and probably still do have) very extensive standards to teach media literacy – not just evaluating sources, but questioning power structures, taking into account who owns the media sources, and so on. There are also many lessons available for this in many states. So it is out there. However, WHO teaches it is often unclear, and it may be assigned to different teachers that may or may not take it seriously. Quite often, you might see it thrown into an overall “social studies” course that may have a dedicated teacher, or it may have a coach that is just clocking time to get to the practice field. Then, of course, individual students will have varying degrees of interest in what is being taught, and so on. So mileage on those standards will vary depending on how the school sets it up in addition to all the factors that affects whether each individual learns it or not. Too many times we attack the various ideas of media literacy, but I would guess that the uneven application of these state standards is a huge reason why we see so many problems with media literacy now.

    • Thanks for responding, Matt, and letting me know more. I’m surprised danah would make such sweeping statements dismissing media literacy but I guess she’s trying to say the way it’s sometimes taught backfires. Not a fault of the field itself, but of its implementation, i suspect is what you’re saying…

      • To be honest, i am not really sure we know (or will ever know) exactly what is to blame. People just make mistakes. For example, someone we both know with a Ph.D. and probably the highest level of media literacy possible tweeted out a link to a documentary that was based on junk science. He watched the whole thing and didn’t think to question any of it. We all do it – I’m not even sure if there really is a thing as being media literate at all sometimes.

        Other times, I think a lot of people really just don’t know the regional differences in how various sociocultural groupings approach media. For example, when Trump started talking about arming teachers, many prominent national figures responded to critiques by saying “don’t respond to his idea at all. It will never happen – it is just a crazy idea he has.” Those of us in Texas had to point out it was already law here, with hundreds of teachers already trained and carrying guns in classes. The school district next to my son’s even places signs out front about it, and people in our school district want to do the same.

        Or, when I critiqued Mike’s Three Acts based on people that have a different view of what counts as a “reliable source”, he responded by saying that he doesn’t have time for extremists that think Southern Poverty Law Center is fake news and Brietbart is real news. Trouble is – those people are slight majority here in Texas. I can’t ignore those people here because they are my neighbors, my politicians, my local and state leaders. I don’t know if people from more liberal northern states realize how wide spread and ingrained this mindset is, and how evangelical bookstores and megachurches influencing millions of people have crafted a different reality for people. They have an entire thriving ecosystem of their own news sources, their own publishers, their own movies, their own music, their own TV stations all pushing this idea of a liberal world order trying to take away their faith. I don’t think people know that an insane man named Larry Norman (called the godfather of Christian rock) was talking and singing about ideas in the 1960s and 70s that have been coming out of Trump’s mouth this year. I’m just not sure media literacy is really the problem from what I have seen.

        • Those are powerful points, Matt. And honestly, if we’re really serious about this (whatever “this” is), I think we need to figure out if there’s a way to reach the kinds of people who blindly trust Trump. I say this and I know “we” (academics/liberals) seem to a. Not have the right vocabulary or discourse to speak to them well, and b. We seem to have an arrogance that prevents us from seeing their perspective clearly. There is something not right about how we’re thinking and going about this and we still aren’t doing anything about it. At least you’re recognizing what’s all around you as reality and saying what won’t work for this audience. I’m sorry if I’m generalizing (I’m also projecting without saying so explicitly for… Reasons)

        • P. S. Have always believed and said that literacies are contextual. We often don’t know enough about a subject to recognize how much we should be skeptical about what we find. (e.g. Lots of bad research about education). We also naturally question what we’re biased against and vice versa. It’s really quite rare for someone to be skeptical of something if it agrees with their worldview. Why waste time proving it wrong?

          • I think your generalized points are pretty much on track with what is happening. My big question is always: what do we do after we understand and we still disagree? That was the point of a follow-up post after I dug into the Three Acts, but the response to that post was mostly “if you still disagree, you must not really understand” and “you think you understand, but what if you didn’t”? There does seem to be that strain of thought in liberal academia that believes “if we just work to understand each other, the extreme Right will see the truth and be converted!” Or even “if both sides start listening, they will see they have more in common than they don’t.” That last one is often very true, but those things that the different viewpoints don’t have in common are almost always incredibly important issues. I think we need better frameworks or…. something… for disagreement. And these frameworks will need space to look at some extreme viewpoints (such as white supremacy) and say “that is not what we want as part of our society” and no longer entertain those as an equal part of the conversation.

            • I don’t know. I wonder if it’s something as simple as the blind thingie Rawls put forth. If you didn’t know who you are in society would a certain worldview be ok with you? So if u take white supremacy, how do u think u would feel if u were black, brown Latino, Muslim, female? Which is why really empathy on the individual level matters and i don’t think danah is wrong. Since I always say so too. But I also recognize it’s not enough to combat this

  2. Thanks for this and for mentioning me as instigator. 🙂 Not sure we can bring all the strings of the Twitter convo together, but worth a try!

  3. “the critiques of fake news are meant to make us go back to trusting mainstream media” – I have seen this from many places. Often the mainstream is major (not local) newspapers. Tacitly people endorse tv news (a disaster, in my opinion).

    You may have seen me write or talk about this elsewhere, but I’ve found a political continuum in how people approach digital literacy. On one end, faith in democratic intelligence, that well-trained and -supported people can make decisions for themselves that will ultimately be better. On the other, a trust in major institutions and gatekeepers.
    There’s an American tradition of this debate, but it occurs elsewhere, too.

    • I think your comment goes really well with Matt’s below and I’ll respond to him. Been telling Mike for a while media literacy means nothing without context. No matter how well-trained you are, you are inclined to question particular things for particular reasons. Could we agree that there’s a code and more transparency about funding and such for big news sources which does not make them infallible but makes it easily for us to judge their credibility? But can we also agree that some media literacy is better than none…but that danah is right, it can backfire. So we need to teach it more critically, and to help people learn to question even things that support their own worldview?

  4. This is a great post, and it captures some of my own thinking as I’ve followed along with Benjamin and Renee’s responses. I wrote these two posts last year that might also be germane to the conversation as well……

  5. This is a great question:
    “if the recipients of all the platforms produce are critical, empathetic individuals who care about social justice, and who also understands how platforms work… Wouldn’t those platforms wield less power over us?”
    That is an interesting counter to exiting platforms.

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