The Need for Critical Thinking and Literacy

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As I, like millions and millions of others, waited for the election results to trickle in last week, I came across this video of Trump supporters dancing to a song in Philadelphia as they protested for officials to stop counting votes. The video shows a woman in a MAGA hat, a flag shirt, silver pants, and a blue lives matter flag worn as a cape. The man on the right has similar attire and waves a Trump flag vigorously in the air. The woman raps along with the song, pointing at the gathered crowd around her. As an educator, this video caught my attention, not for the reasons you might expect. It caught my attention because the song that the people are rapping and waving flags to is Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” a song that directly runs counter to the imagery and message the protestors want to convey.

I want to look at this video, and some more, discussing the importance of critical thinking, specifically in analyzing the world around us, not buying in blindly to what someone puts in front of us. This is nothing new, I know, but this video really got me thinking about a lot of recent moments where simple critical thinking skills, mainly quick Google searches, would yield the facts. However, many feel that facts exist just to fit their own perspective, and no matter what information arises they deny the facts.

Pointing to the crowd, the woman in the video raps along with Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, “Those who died are justified/ For wearing the badge/ They’re the chosen whites.” Now, on its surface, these lines look like they may support everything the protestors support; however, that’s not the case. The song is a direct condemnation of police brutality, racism, fascism, and more. The band wrote it after LAPD officers beat Rodney King on camera, and the opening lyrics draw the line from the KKK to modern day policing: “Some of those who work forces/Are the same that burn crosses.”

The lines that the woman raps in the video are from the perspective of an officer who is “justified” on his actions because he “wears the badge” and he is a “chosen white.” There is a lot going on here, and when you break it down, the protestors do not comprehend the lyrics and what de la Rocha and the band is speaking against. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morrello retweeted the video and stated, “Not exactly what we had in mind.” Now, when this song came out and I was in high school, I wouldn’t have gotten this either. I listened to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and didn’t get any of it. I listened to other bands and didn’t get the true messages being conveyed. I did not have the critical thinking skills and the tools to analyze such works.

These tools are important for everything around us. These tools help us to move forward and to challenge racist, authoritarianism, stereotypes, and more. They help us interrogate rhetoric, especially when that rhetoric works to stoke fears and sow division. It helps us to see where even innocuous movies harbor racism that needs to be unpacked. This latter example occurs in films such as The Binge, a comedy based on a similar premise as The Purge. Rather than one night to commit crimes and kill people though, in The Binge people have one night a year to party and do as many drugs as they want without repercussions.

At its core, The Binge is a late-night comedy, one I’d watch in high school or college, but it deals in subtle moments of racism and stereotypes. One moment really stood out to me when Griffin, the white main character, has a conversation with his Black friend Hags. Throughout the film, Hags wants the reluctant Griffin to partake in The Binge because he feels it is their last opportunity to do something together before the end of their high school careers. Mainly, Hags wants to do this because Griffin is going to go to Brown for college and leave his hometown, and Hags, in the dust.

Hags tells Griffin that he wanted to have this last send off because he wanted to do something special for Griffin. He wanted to do something special because, as he puts it, he knows that he will remain in their hometown, get a job, and will live there until he dies. There are two things at work here. The first is that Hags, for all of the friendship moments he has with Griffin, serves as Griffin’s sidekick, his whole identity forming around Griffin, not himself. As well, Hags’ comment about never going to college and staying in their hometown signals that he has no prospects, that he has peaked in high school. The underlying message here is that the white Griffin can go to college, and an Ivy League college at that, but Hags cannot. What does that say?

This moment is a fleeting moment in the film, framed as a heartfelt moment between two longtime friends coming to the end of their adolescence, but the stream underneath the surface signals that Black youth do not have the capabilities to move beyond their circumstances and that, in film worlds, the exist as nothing more than characters that reaffirm the white characters’ positions. For a good discussion of this in relation to the horror genre, see the documentary Horror Noire.

Our inability to dissect and interrogate leads us to perpetuate inequality and causes us to succumb to those who want to stoke hatred within us through the cultivation of “false hopes” and “false fears.”

Again, these examples are not exhaustive, but I believe they highlight the importance of analyzing everything we encounter with a critical eye, engaging with it, talking back to it, and not just taking what we ingest at face value. When we do the latter, we fall into the precipice of always listening to things that reinforce our already entrenched ideas and feelings; in this way, we create nothing more than a feedback, a snake devouring its own tail, not growing but dying.

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What we experience today with the internet and social media is nothing new. Historically, people have met new genres of literature or new technologies with apprehension, deriding them for the break-down of society. In a1939 issue of the North Georgia Review, as they did throughout the entirety of the journal, Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling published reader comments to questionnaires they sent out or to the journal in general. Prefacing “Dealing the South . . . . On Democracy,” they write that before radio people “gathered about the stove in the old store” or elsewhere to talk through their ideas. However, when the radio arose they turned to commentators disconnected from them, and the messaging became a one-way set, disallowing any feedback outside of the bauble. They write,

Today we are content to know what the radio commentators thing or the boys gathered around the air-conditioning vent in a New York office think. The air-ways method. The trouble about the radio is that we need two-way sets, and many more stations. And so N.G.R., though small and of low wattage offers those who tune in the privilege of calling back.

Social media, in may ways, mirrors the “air-ways method” in that it awhile it allows for a “two-way” conversation it reinforces or amplifies one’s views and ideas, shutting down any real interaction. The disconnect that occurs between the keyboard and the screen allows for a disconnect in thoughtful engagement of ideas. Granted, this does not occur in all cases, but more often than not, it provides a space for individuals to not actively engage with analyzing things and rather doubling down on their thoughts.

For example, in September I came across a GIF of social media that showed a postal worker throwing mail into a dumpster. The screen read, “Postal Worker Caught Dumping Mail into Trash.” I did a quick Google search and discovered that the GIF originated from a television news story in Tampa Bay in 2014. When I pointed this out, the person simply responded, “It’s still happening.” In response, I shared that when election officials in Pennsylvania in late September heard that a temporary worker had discarded ballots, they immediately notified authorities and launched an investigation. The proper protocols had been followed for all nine of the “discarded” ballots. Instead of engaging with facts, the reply was, “God is about to expose your candidate.”

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In my classes, I used to do an exercise with students when teaching them how to analyze and determine whether or not a website was legitimate. I would project my screen and do a Google search for “Martin Luther King.” The results would always include Wikipedia, the Nobel Prize, history websites, The King Center, and more. At the bottom of the first results page there would be a site titled martinlutherking.org. When clicking on the site, it would direct to a page that looked similar to The King Center’s landing page; however, once you started to dig into it, you began to see that it provided misinformation about King and other things. It was a website from Stromfront, a white nationalist organization. The group made the site look legitimate, and it used that legitimate veneer to propagate lies. The University of South Dakota’s library uses this example as part of its information literacy lesson.

Writing about the Stormfront website and others, Paul S. Piper, back in 2003, wrote, “Counterfeit sites disguise themselves as legitimate sites for the purpose of disseminating misinformation. They are not always attempts at humor or spoof, and even when humorous, they are often misconstrued. The intentions of counterfeit sites are as varied as the sites themselves. but can be roughly divided into several categories: political, for fun, or instructional.” The martinlutherking.org site is markedly counterfeit, working to pass itself off as legitimate while peddling misinformation and racist ideas.

Learning to analyze sites and information is important on so many levels. During a course, as students searched for sources, someone found Occidental Dissent’s “American Racial History Timeline.” I had not see the website before, but when I saw it, I started digging further into it. On the surface, this page presents a lengthy timeline of race in America, specifically from 1900–1960 on this page. However, taken with the image of Raphael’s The School of Athens at the top of the page and the recent comments on the side, I knew something was amiss.

I read some of the entries, and while some had pretty neutral language such as the founding of the NAACP in 1909, other entries use language that points to the site’s agenda. For example, a June 1941 entry reads, “A. Philip Randolph threatens a March on Washington. President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802 banning racial discrimination in hiring of government of defense industry during World War II.” Overall, the entry provides information, yes. However, the use of “threatens” is an antagonistic word that does not describe the march, a march that, of course, would not actually occur until 1963.

Before I even looked for contact information, these were clues that the site was similar to the Stormfront Martin Luther King, Jr. site. It’s slick. It looks professional. And until you actually dig in a get past the surface, you may not notice the insidious nature of the site. I did more research and learned about the history of the site and its founder. The sites, founder, Bradley Dean Griffin, founded the site, and as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, it is a site “devoted to white nationalism.”

This leads me back to the GIF of the mail worker throwing mail into a dumpster in Florida. On the surface, and with the rhetoric coming from the White House, it seems perfectly legitimate that this woman is disposing of ballots in order to help the Democrats win the election. Yet, we know that is not the case. A simple search shows that; however, when one wants to buy into a narrative so badly, and succumbs to that narrative, no amount of information can sway their ideas. This goes beyond critical thinking and critical literacy. This, in effect, is the continuous loop of the snake eating itself, refusing to look outside of its bubble as it devours its own body.

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Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.

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