Problem: Invoking Technology to Explain Change

Technology is so often an easy scapegoat for undesirable social/cultural/political changes, especially when they are associated with the young. Commentators so often conform to a structure of pointing out how there has been some undesirable change, providing some historical perspective (which, if you think about it, becomes easier and easier to do over time, in more ways than one…), and then writing a paragraph like this:

“Stepford concerns are over-amplified on social media. No sooner is a contentious subject raised than a university ‘campaign’ group appears on Facebook, or a hashtag on Twitter, demanding that the debate is shut down. Technology means that it has never been easier to whip up a false sense of mass outrage — and target that synthetic anger at those in charge. The authorities on the receiving end feel so besieged that they succumb to the demands and threats.”
– Brendan O’Neill, “Free speech is so last century. Today’s undergraduates demand the ‘right to be comfortable’“.

I don’t think O’Neill’s suggestion here is entirely groundless, but in its form it’s a classic example of the kind of throwaway reference to the impact of technology that we read so often, about things other than alleged differences in cultural sensibilities across generations – one might think of terror recruiting, or the polarization of political views.

So the ISM on Black Lives Matter I’ve referred to in a coupla posts on this blog is done, and both my supervisor and I are quite happy with the work. The theory (structure of communications as a way to understand social phenomena) and themes (what constitutes a social movement? what is the impact of technology?) are things I should probably develop further, and I’m writing this post mainly as a bookmark of sorts for the idea.

I don’t think ideas like ‘echo chamber’ or the illusion of being part of some majority (which I think O’Neill suggests, and which is referred to in this article) lack merit, but I think they certainly warrant greater critical investigation, especially as they are invoked so often.

Week 3, Thursday: Social movements and the structure of communication in society

An article I was reading today was Robert A. White’s ‘Democratization of communication as a social movement process’, published in a reader on The Democratization of Communication (1995).

White’s main point is about the overlap between communications theory and social movement theory.

Social movement theory is broadly about why social movements occur, and how to understand their structure. As observed according to the theory, the protagonists and members of a social movement are those who are ‘marginal in some degree to the central communication and exchange networks’ (101) of a society. A corollary of this is that the potential protagonists of a social movement begin ‘in a dependency relationship to the leaders of the hegemonic coalition’ (101), through whom their access to resources and information is mediated (the proverbial gatekeepers and power-brokers).

The overlap with communications theory is that society can be analyzed as some pattern or structure of communications. Social movements can thus be thought of as attempts to ‘renovate’ (93) the communications process. The author suggests that for many societies the structure of communications is largely an ‘institutional’, ‘hierarchical’, and ‘non-democratic’ structure, and thus social movements arise in opposition to this structure and seek to modify it.

A point for further exploration is that while we can think of society as the range of institutions and forces which structure communication, i.e. as that-which-structures communication, society can also be thought of as that-which-is-structured-by communication, which is closer to the frame theorists of mediatization adopt.

White’s analysis of the actions and implications of a social movement is worth reproducing in full:

A social movement begins when the marginal groups cut their ties of dependency through more central exchange and information networks and begin to mobilize an independent base of resources in order to gain more direct access and stronger influence in the collective decision making structure. Often this can mean a fundamental change in the bases of cultural power so that the cultural capital of the subordinate groups has much more validity (101).

Reading the above passage, I found his description of the point of departure of a social movement particularly compelling, and in keeping with his preceding exposition on the nature of what a social movement is. However, I could not resist also feeling that this 1995 analysis is in severe need of an update to take into account the present-day state of technology, and social and media discourse. This is one source of motivation for my case-study.

Something else that White’s analysis illuminated for me was what I found compelling about my case-study. It is really the politics of the situation which I find to be revealing about the nature of communication technology. While the politics of the situation is entangled and fraught, I find it to also be very clearly readable. Reading this into the responses of the various parties to what they understand as ‘media developments’ could tell us something about the nature of communication technology.

The suspicion is just that communication technology has a fundamentally political dimension. In that sense White’s analysis that it is the structure of communication which is the object or site of contest remains as timely as ever.

Not A Refrain Sung Lightly?

The whole tawdry Purple Light ‘saga’ has been generating a ton of discussion in my digitally extended social circles, much of it in earnest, and all the more frustrating for that.

There is very little to disagree with as far as the rightness of the actual actions taken regarding the offending lyric is concerned. AWARE was right to raise it. MINDEF was right to ban it. Singing songs about rape is wrong and damaging. With the last point especially, the opposite position is morally indefensible.

Yes, it is true that there are those who seem to want to defend their right (or something) to do the indefensible. Yet I would contend that most people recognize that this would be an error.

There are those others who manage to avoid actually defending the indefensible, and still manage to be implicated as doing just that. These tend to be the ones criticizing the military higher-ups, or resenting the angry feminists. I cannot defend those males who feel that their status is being impinged on in some way by qualified feminist criticisms. Furthermore, I think it is not an easy thing for critics to patiently and untiringly put across those criticisms and take the time to qualify them, and I am persuaded that it is already an injustice that such qualifications and such criticisms need to be ceaselessly reestablished. But these things do not make unqualified criticisms any less unhelpful.

For those who’ve tended to criticize the military’s response, I don’t think their response is justified, but I do think they have been misinformed. I’ve argued elsewhere that how the ban was presented in ‘The Real Singapore’ (from what I know, the first popular faux-news source to pick up AWARE’s announcement) was highly misleading. The easiest way I can put it across is that the report came across as something like, ‘Wah MINDEF ban Purple Light!’ This naturally elicited the response, ‘Wah lidat also ban.’ This was my immediate response, and I would be confident in saying that that would have been the immediate response of many NSFs and NSmen, if  only because the discourse about the tendency of higher-ups to concern themselves with trivial things and deal with them in ham-handed ways is a pervasive one. During your full-time NS it seems as though you’re confronted with examples of it every day. Many servicemen eventually realize that part of it is structural, due solely to the size of the operation, etc., although though it never actually disappears, because the fact is that military life is fundamentally tedious. If I checked my immediate response, it was because I have been persuaded not to be so ready to think of the higher leadership as incompetent.

This is precisely where those who persistently argue that by expressing ire over the reported ban, the general run of males, barring a few or even a generous many exceptions, have shown themselves to be ready to defend rape culture because they’ve been socialized by the patriarchy are wrong. Most of them who are annoyed at the ban are annoyed for a different reason, and if you’ve not served NS or experienced something like the constant tedium of military life, it is indeed something you would not immediately understand. Within the attendant discourse, the action of banning a song does indeed appear trivial.

The problem is that the banning of a song (or a verse – whatever) was not the substantial action. What was the substantial action was the institution’s acknowledgment that the verse is bad, that the singing happens, and should be stopped. This is a moral response, in keeping with the institution’s values (as they wrote). The moral issue was treated as such by AWARE and MINDEF. It was not represented as such by ‘The Real Singapore’ and subsequent reports.

Let me affirm that the existence of the alternate context and discourse does not preclude socialization by the patriarchy and its discourses. It is clear that this is pervasive as well, from many of our responses. And it is wrong that rape culture can still be lightly justified, either in the song or in our responses to this spurious saga.

At the same time, none of this makes the majority of readings-into about why so many young Singaporean males (either my news feed, or because the older ones are further away and wiser) are upset (‘butthurt’) any less patronizing or misguided. If these readings-into happen to occur alongside legitimate criticisms, so much the worse.