In early March of 2012, a 28-minute video on the plight of African children received more than 21 million YouTube views. The video vividly depicts how the guerilla warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), reportedly abducted over 60,000 children who were subsequently forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves over the course of the civil war. Captured children who did not cooperate as said to have been mutilated and murdered. Production and dissemination of the video was a result of the efforts of an American charity called Invisible Children. In interviews with the press following the viral reception of the video, Invisible Children campaigner Jason Russell stressed the importance of the video as an example of how social media allows people all over the world to actually see other people -- see, as in the struggles, challenges, plights, and victories of a people with an immediacy that has never before been possible.
Digital natives and emergent social change agents united over the Kony 2012 campaign in a manner that put a new spin on the concept of critical consciousness. While Paulo Freire and other critical theorists tend to focus primarily on the evolution of awareness of oppressed people, the new digital media appears to support revolution on both sides of the equation. In the discussion that follows, I examine how critical theory is being applied in the new digital media to address structural and cultural violence. I contend that the overlapping systems of power and equality, which are justified on the basis of class, wealth, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, have reached highs of exposure and vulnerability through the enhanced populist communication that is enabled by the new digital media. The Kony 2012 campaign, the Occupy Movement and the studies of American education by Jonathan Kozal will act as the touchstones of my argument. I begin the discussion with a brief exploration of the terms critical consciousness, critical pedagogy, structural violence, and cultural violence.
Social change through critical consciousness. Critical consciousness gives people the capacity to perceive their cultures differently than do those who have not been afforded new perspectives. An education that provides lenses by which one can critically evaluate one's own culture is not new. The ancient Greeks first identified the essence of critical consciousness when the philosophers taught their disciples to cultivate an "impulse and willingness to stand back from humanity and nature... [and] to make them objects of thought and criticism, and to search for their meaning and significance" (Thorton, 2006).
Paulo Freire and others have described critical consciousness as thinking that emphasizes developing an understanding of the world through exposure to and perception of social and political contradictions. Traditional schooling, proponents of critical pedagogy argue, is believed to contribute to historical acceptance of oppression by the disenfranchised. Further, critical consciousness assumes that one will take action against the oppressive factors in life that have been revealed and that have been illuminated through the newly apprehended concepts.
Criticisms about the Kony 2012 video campaign accused the effort as being "self-aggrandizing, patronizing and oversimplified" (Wilkerson, 2012). From Michael Wilkerson, a journalist and Marshall scholar in politics at Oxford University where he is studying corruption and democratization in Uganda, comes a bifurcated review of the efforts of Invisible Children. While Wilkerson argues that it is important to embrace, not reject, criticism, he does not exemplify this ideal in his writing. I have included his words here as they typify the institutional arrogance that keeps informal social change at arms length and inadvertently can act as a barrier to change.
"As someone who, like the Invisible Children founders, loves and cares deeply about Uganda, perhaps most worrying to me is defining the image of Uganda in the minds of these millions of video viewers as a place of perpetual conflict and strife…On a darker note, Uganda also has many serious problems: a president in power for 26 years, millions in stolen funds and missing medicine, oil wells soon to begin flowing (with the potential for further corruption) and one of the world's youngest populations facing high rates of inflation and rising unemployment. Like many who know more than just one household name connected to Uganda, I worry that these important and more complicated issues will be overwhelmed by the half-informed outcry over the LRA and Uganda will, for millions, still be connected to one of the most terrible times in its history. And, of course, to the nice Americans who came to help" (Wilkerson, 2012).
Were Wilkerson a bit more self-aware, he might perceive his own position, as not so unlike that of the Americans -- the primary difference is that Wilkerson's efforts are steeped in academic tradition and a fairly patriarchal stance that conveys an I-what-is-good-for-you attitude that falls just short of missionary righteousness.
If contemporary digitally expressed social movements are criticized for being simplistic and, as we will see, on an ill-advised short track for quick solutions, it is illustrative to consider the earliest work of Paulo Freire. In 1962, Paulo Freire succeeded in teaching 300 sugarcane workers to read and write in an accelerated program that took place over a period of 45 days. Freire's work was more than an altruistic initiative to increase the literacy rate in Portugal. During the time he carried out his project with the sugarcane workers, the ability to read was a requirement of suffrage in Latin America. By teaching disenfranchised people to read, Freire was giving them the power to vote -- he gave them a voice, and he gave them perspective in what would later become known as critical consciousness.
The thrust of Freire's work was on social justice and not on the historical basis for the patterns of power and privilege in Brazil. Freire emphasized new awareness, commitment to act, and social change. Just as Wilkerson described the key driver of his efforts in Uganda to a deep love of the country and its people, Freire's compassion for his fellow Brazilians Freire fired his conviction to continue his studies and to become an esteemed scholar in the field of critical theory.
Structural violence. Structural violence is a phenomenon made manifest through social inequalities (Christie, 2001). The organizational structures of political and economic systems -- in fact, of every system within which marginalized people come in contact -- cause and sustain the sort of hierarchical relations that enable dramatic differences between and across sectors of societies. Within these hierarchies -- which are becoming dramatically more defined in the United States -- the people at the top have privilege, wealth, and power, while those at the bottom of the hierarchy are dominated, oppressed, and exploited (Christie, 2001). People are harmed and killed as a result of structural violence through subtle, slow, and pervasive forces: structural inequities deprive people of food, shelter, healthcare, education, and other resources that they need (Anderson & Hill Collins, 2009).
Cultural violence. The nexus at which status inequalities are accepted and turn gradually into an embedded and not particularly visible structural violence is cultural (Anderson & Hill Collins, 2009). The term cultural violence refers to the legitimizing process that occurs when violence is viewed as normative by a society. Structural violence is deeply embedded in the foundation of a society -- in their way of being over the long-term. When generation after generation is unable to meet their basic needs, the normal development and growth of individuals in those groups will be impacted. Structural violence is known to be insidious, happening subtly and indirectly, but to entire classes or groups of people. The depth of integration that structural violence achieves allows it to become established in a society or geographic region, the process of which is facilitated as people rationalize and tolerate structural violence.
For the past five decades, a former educator named Jonathan Kozal conducted research on the public schools that "serve" the most marginalized of American urban dwellers. His writings describe the horrendous conditions under which many impoverished or disadvantaged people live in America -- and how their public schools reflect the pervasive, enduring structural and cultural violence of American society. In a society that values education as "the great equalizer," the creation of enormous financial barriers to equalizing schools serves as a model example of cultural violence.
Philosopher John Searle suggests that critical pedagogy's primary aim is to create political radicals. Today, critical pedagogy is conducted on digital platforms that everywhere in the hands of young people and the Technorati. Although the Iranian Spring may be the most dramatic international example, the Occupy Movement is a prime example of a domestic populist movement designed to increase critical consciousness. It is through the proliferation of digital communication sound bytes and infographics that the American public is undergoing exposure to critical pedagogy. The Occupy Movement exemplifies a "velvet revolution" of America's own that is powerful because of the one substantive way in which it differs from other revolutionary efforts. Digital communication permits the revolutionary…