By Chris Bacon
In fact, if we define critical literacy primarily as an attempt to disrupt dominant ideologies, post-truth narratives are actually quite “critical.” In aiming to instill a mistrust of mainstream media, academic institutions, and broad scientific consensus, post-truth narratives are predicated on skepticism toward institutionalized beliefs and top-down knowledge structures—principles not at all dissimilar to those advocated within critical literacy.
Yet we cringe to call such interpretations “critical.” That’s because critical pedagogy involves much more than knee-jerk suspicion toward mainstream institutions. It also necessitates what Paulo Freire calls “political clarity.” In Freire’s words,
“What keeps a person, a teacher, able as a liberatory educator is the political clarity to understand the ideological manipulations that discomfort human beings as such, the political clarity that would tell us that it is ethically wrong
to allow human beings to be dehumanized….” (1997, p. 315)
Make no mistake, those same ideological manipulations Freire described are manifested today in post-truth narratives. As such, political clarity that explicitly combats dehumanization is exactly what differentiates “critical” approaches that seek to liberate knowledge from those used to suppress it.
You see, the rise of post-truth at this moment in U.S. history is not a coincidence. It’s not that our society has suddenly become averse to truth, or, as many pundits would suggest, that we are somehow less intelligent consumers of text than previous generations. In actuality, we are more widely literate and educated a population with more access to texts and their production than at any point in our history.
Post-truth narratives are a response to this.
Post-truth represents a backlash by historically privileged groups threatened by inevitable demographic shifts and demands for long overdue social change. More and more, those long silenced are writing counter-narratives that disrupt the past textual monopolies of white, male, Eurocentric “truth.” With control over truth being wrestled away, those who gripped it for so long are attempting to burn the fields upon their retreat. If they can’t control truth, they’ll do away with it altogether—delegitimizing public media, empirical science, and even their own political institutions in a last ditch effort to slow the tides of change.
Therefore, combatting post-truth narratives warrants a return to critical literacy’s emancipatory roots. Teaching, learning, and protesting in this era will demand a renewed and definitive commitment to justice, anti-racism, and overt resistance that grounds itself in political clarity. This political clarity will call for literacy that is more than cosmetically “critical,” but specifically counters narratives and policies that act to dehumanize. As Lilia Bartolomé argues, “Critical pedagogy challenges us to see through the dense fog of ideology and to become courageous in our commitment to defend subordinated student populations—even when it is easier not to take a stand” (2004, p. 120).
Now is the time for political clarity to cut through the fog of post-truth. So buckle up. Take a stand. The fog may be dense, but one lighthouse can lead an entire fleet through it.
Bartolomé, L. I. (2004). Critical Pedagogy and Teacher Education: Radicalizing Prospective Teachers. Teacher Education Quarterly, 31(1), 97–122.
Freire, P. (1997). Mentoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Luke, A. (2012). Critical literacy: Foundational notes. Theory Into Practice, 51(1), 4-11.
Chris Bacon is a PhD candidate at the Boston College Lynch School of Education. A former high school English teacher, Chris researches the intersection of language, policy, and identity. You can see more of his work at www.chriskbacon.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ChrisKBacon