Policing Popular Culture and Communication

 In Blog, Elementary, Lessons and Ideas, Secondary


One of the most exciting—and at the same time challenging—aspects of media literacy education is its evergreen quality. Media technologies and issues change and influence one another relentlessly, challenging teachers to keep up on each front while trying to make sense of the friction between the two. Add to that the fact that media literacy almost always involves popular culture—and its built-in penchant to confront social practices in some way or other—and the challenges increase.

Which brings me to the notion of policing popular culture and communication, which is changing as I write. Three events from different parts of the world highlight both media literacy’s excitement and challenges.

Policing is done by police, whom society have licensed to enforce laws that make living agreeable to the majority. Policing is also an anthropological/cultural studies term that refers to the social behaviours that sustain values. The first is official and involves laws that have been passed via judicial processes. The second is unofficial and refers to unwritten, implicit laws within a group. Unofficial policing might involve how many dates before sex, fashion dos and don’ts, or who can and cannot say ‘nigger.’  Another example involves Wal-Mart, which applies private censorship rules to the music it sells. Artists wanting Wal-Mart distribution must either re-record ‘clean’ versions of songs evaluated and specified by Wal-Mart or forfeit distribution. One side-effect of policing is self-control or self-censorship.


Fired in Toronto

Twitter is a wonderful way to share information and ideas. The protocols of tweeting and responsibilities of tweeters are still being negotiated. Three Toronto firefighters lost their jobs after posting misogynist tweets that violated the city’s social media guidelines. Two of the tweets quoted lines from The Office and South Park, television shows that are notorious for their politically-incorrect dialogue and events. What the firefighters—and the rest of Toronto’s public service employees—have learned is that it is NOT OK to reference politically incorrect lines from popular television shows.

Twitter has been labeled by some pundits as an electronic water cooler—an inaccurate and unfortunate notion. Conversations that occur between 3 or 4 friends or co-workers around a real water cooler or in a car pool cannot be compared to tweeters’ average 126 Twitter followers, many of whom are unknown to the tweeter. The firefighters revealed a lack of media literacy not only in expressing inappropriate values messages but in the medium of expression. (Would they, for example, have made the same comments in the company of 126 people, many of whom are strangers?)

What are at issue here involves the nature of the punishment as well as the positioning of the tweeters and their audience. The firefighters were fired for violating the city’s social media guidelines. While there is no argument that misogynist statements are always inappropriate, there may be fruitful questions about the consequences and the setting of the comments.

These men are firefighters. Does making misogynist comments on Twitter make them less effective fire fighters? I.e., decrease their job performance?

Does it mean that an essential part of firefighters’ jobs is to speak/tweet of women with respect?

Was firing them intended to send a message to other employees about making inappropriate comments on social media?

Is this messaging more effective than sending them for sensitivity training, then putting them into employee meetings or school assemblies to recount their misdeeds and lessons-learned as provocations for people developing their own values?

Social media eliminate time and place, so are the times of the tweets and the locations of the tweeters irrelevant? I.e., are the issues and the violations the same if the fire fighters were off duty at home or on duty in their fire halls?

Does this mean that all civic employees must adhere to the city’s social media guidelines 24/7?

Is there no off-duty on social media?

The Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association is fighting the firings, claiming that, “These terminations neither address the specific issues that have been raised nor do they promote the alleged objectives of the fire service.” Will their challenge raise issues of professionalism, timing and location? Time will tell.

Whatever the outcome, the interesting aspects of these occurrences involve issues of policing, or making and enforcing rules of behaviour in emerging technologies and cultures. Specifically,

Who makes the rules?

Who enforces them?

How should they be enforced?

Who determines the sanctions?

Who determines how appropriate the sanctions are?

Who will hear the appeals?


Fined in Paris

T-shirts provide a wonderful opportunity to study popular culture. Because they can highlight a current pop culture issue, change rapidly and are relatively disposable, T-shirts are the newspapers of fashion. They are often designed for single-event wear (a fund-raiser, visit to a tourist attraction, in-store promotion or music concert), then either become rags or collectors’ items. I collected T-shirts until they became a storage issue and had to stop at 101.

3-year-old nursery school student Jihad’s uncle bought him a T-shirt that stated, “Jihad, Born September 11, I am a bomb.” Jihad wore it to school. School officials filed a complaint. Jihad’s uncle and mother were fined and given suspended sentences for ‘condoning a criminal act.’ Jihad was not charged.

The only way that Jihad’s T-shirt’s message could be interpreted as condoning a criminal act is if a great deal of inference was applied and it was taken both literally and metaphorically. The Jihad and Sept. 11 parts had to be taken metaphorically, when they more likely literally refer to the child’s name and birth date. The bomb part had to be taken literally, when it more likely metaphorically refers to his personality, similar to common metaphors ‘it’s da bomb,’ ‘you kill me,’ ‘you are out of this world,’ ‘you drive me crazy,’ etc. Suffice it to say that the audiences (relatives, teachers, prosecutors, judges) were negotiating meanings subjectively. It took a second appeal trial to find the mother and uncle guilty, the first trial deciding on a less-threatening interpretation.

The point that I am concerned with—as with the fire fighters’ tweets—is less about the T-shirt message than how different interpretations can be applied, the consequences of these interpretations, and the subsequent influence on people’s behaviours, i.e., policing.

How will Jihad remember this event?

How might it influence the ways that his peers treat him at school?

How might it influence his mother’s and uncle’s future birthday plans and their feelings about living in France?

How might it influence the attitudes and behaviours of the French people who read the news report about the fines?

Is this a symptom of a lack of media literacy, a general intolerance of diverse thinking, or both?

Is this a symptom of an ideological shift to the right?


Busted in Latvia

The WWW expands by exabytes of information weekly. Proponents champion information access and increased knowledge. Media literacy (processing information into useful knowledge) has been joined by information literacy (finding and identifying quality information).

It seems to be the dawn of an enhanced democracy, where governments transparently open their databases to citizens (and companies) because, they argue, taxpayers paid for the information and so should reasonably have access to it.

But not everywhere and not everyone.

“Ilmars Poikans, a researcher at the University of Latvia, tweeted that some executives at state-owned companies got $50,000 bonuses weeks after public wages were cut amid the world’s deepest recession. He’ll stand trial next year for illegally acquiring private and commercial data, charges he denies.”

Mr. Poikans’ actions are not the same as Bradley Manning’s or Edward Snowden’s in that he did not violate a non-disclosure agreement. He did, however, use information purposefully. He accessed companies’ income-tax records by modifying the suffixes of tax authority URLs and discovered that some high-level bureaucrats had NOT had their salaries reduced in spite of a country-wide salary reduction. His tweets caused a scandal.

He has been hailed a national hero and the Latvian government has been more transparent about civil service salaries as a result of the news coverage of his revelations. He still faces charges, however, and potential jail time.

So what?

So the Toronto Fire Services identified and discharged fire fighters who tweeted inappropriately. So a French court convicted two people of condoning a crime for putting a T-shirt on a child. So a series of tweets that revealed inequitable austerity measures resulted in policy changes but will take the tweeter to court.

What might these events be revealing about who decides appropriate behaviours?

…about the appropriate sanctions against the actors?

Do these actions and reactions indicate a shift?

Are the sanctions appropriate or over-reactions?

How might they influence the attitudes and behaviours of those involved?

How might they influence the attitudes and behaviours of you and me?

Might we feel encouraged to exercise our self-expression or will we self-censor?

And for me, most importantly, how might reflecting on these events help people develop their media literacy?

What’s going on?







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