Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Caty Barum Chattoo and Jeffrey Jones (Part Two)


Caty Borum Chattoo:  

Your experience with the term “civic” matches my own in terms of whether or not young people embrace it semantically. In university classes focused on communication and storytelling for social justice, I position the idea of “civic” as a dominant element. But I do so with the recognition that the term might be new – but also with the motivation that it might also be inspiring. The ideals of “civic” help to capture their imaginations about who they are as human rights actors – as individuals who move through the world not merely (or foremost) as consumers of material things, but as members of publics with fundamental human rights and the ability to affect change through their voices and ability to coalesce around social problems that matter to them.

These are exciting moments in the classroom, actually, when this kind of framing provides language to help position and identify the inner-workings of people-powered change, or perhaps it simply resonates with their natural proclivities, given that their digital identities have already empowered them with the language and tools of creative engagement beyond anything natively understood by older generations. I don’t know, of course, precisely what they get out of it. But I do know that introducing thinkers like Dewey and his concepts of “publics,” and civic and its concept of a shared system of communal values, is the backbone of inspiring students to come with me on a journey to learn how social change happens, and how social change has unfolded historically, powered by the relentless pursuit of justice by individual people who demanded remedy.

At the same time, as you also convey, young people are practicing civic engagement in ways that are breathtakingly new and exciting. I work with and study activists, and this bears out. In the young advocates for gun control or climate or racial justice, we see a full embodiment of their own voices as they leverage the participatory tools of the networked media age without fear or hesitation in their right to be heard. And this is where I think our two essays connect in the grand ideas about contemporary civic practice in service of issues that matter. So much of my research and writing – and indeed, work with change-making organizations – is devoted to lifting up the power of creativity, culture, and real storytelling in social change work. While we certainly need to convey facts and statistics – information – to help publics understand the prevalence or severity of daunting issues, we also certainly know enough from decades of research to understand that those are not the elements that actually engage people and encourage them to participate. Too many well-established civil society organizations still rely on communicating dire facts and information almost exclusively.

And yet, here we are in the beautiful chaos of the digital media era, with all of its possibilities for creating narratives and capturing attention through creativity and culture. This is where I come back to your idea of young people and voice, and my work about culture and creativity in social justice work: Young activists do not need to “learn” these ideas, even if the semantics around “civic” might be fresh to them. This is their native practice, engaging through social media and telling and sharing stories. Indeed, the young activist I write about in my opening reflection, 26-year-old Amanda Nguyen, didn’t think twice about leveraging the cultural, civic practice power of comedy – of all things – in a movement designed to change legislation around sexual assault, one of the most harrowing issues to address. She, and the young activists you mention, exemplify the cadre of social justice leaders Henry Jenkins and his colleagues write about – they do their work “by any media necessary.” So, this is a totally new interplay we will continue to follow as young people shift the reality of what civic practice looks like, along with the creative and storytelling machinations they employ to spark it in the first place. It’s all very hopeful to me, ripe for discovery and research and new ideas.

And yet, while my optimism is real, I come back to a question I pose to myself as much as anyone: Our civic fabric is deeply damaged by polarized ideas and the way we even dehumanize one another in our dialogue about public issues, so how will we build and repair from this moment? A new Pew study finds that Americans find it increasingly stressful to even talk about issues with people with whom we’re pretty sure we disagree. I come back to the idea of culture and creativity and storytelling every time, though, inspired by the idea that new generations of young people who want to pursue social change will embrace this idea organically, without needing to be convinced. But how will we come together in these endeavors if our divides continue? How will communal values – “civic” – be established as we shape a new way of being after this political moment has ebbed? Or maybe it won’t ebb, and this is the new normal. How do we build civic practice and shared concepts of social good in such a world?

Jeffrey Jones:

Well, you have truly asked “the question” of our day, one which we will be wrestling with and trying to answer for many years to come. Before I attempt an answer, though, let me reiterate your point about young people and their natural proclivity to “act” through social media, to use the tools that come naturally to them for communication, expression, and mobilization--for what us observers call civic practice. 

What’s important here is that the tools we use really matter. Digital and social media have the structural advantages of widespread dissemination, feedback/participation, amplification, dialog, rebuttal, contestation, etc. built into them. That is, digital-social media embody the dialogic components that Dewey (writing in the 1920s) and Carey (the 1980s) found missing in the mass communications of the 20th Century, structured as they were toward the top down, with controlled access, limited distribution, no feedback loops or avenues for participation, awash in spectacle and distraction. The downside, as we have seen, is a robust propensity toward troll culture, where racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, violence, and so forth are just finger clicks away from dominating the tenor and tone of all public conversations (as the saying goes, “don’t read the comments”). The upside, though, is that those who have typically not been given a voice in public spaces or who have been relegated to the margins--young people, immigrants, the marginalized--can and now do have a voice, one that can speak, rally, mobilize, etc. No invitation is necessary, no permission is needed, no training is required. And thus, we are seeing young people, people of color, women of the #MeToo era, sharing their voice and making it public. And as you say, once that has happened, all manner of creative civic practice can and has emerged. 

Another thing you say is vitally important, which is that such empowerment can lead young people to think of their identities in new ways. And the way that is most exciting to me is their identity as “citizens.” By having voice, we see our citizenship differently. Too often in the past citizenship was seen as a “duty” or an “obligation” (indeed, Boy Scouts--one of the strongest civic organizations in training young people--still employ these words when encouraging citizenship). Or citizenship was connected to the sine qua non of civic practice, voting occasionally. Now in this creative digisphere, citizenship is or can be about telling our stories.  And when we tell stories, most often the best stories are personal stories, ones that are derived from personal and local experiences. As former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously put it, “all politics is local.”

So what we see is not just organizations mobilizing for criminal justice reform, but people posting videos of police violence and intimidation of black kids for just being black. We don’t just see organizations trying to counter the NRA with rational gun laws, but also David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez talking about the horrific mass murder of their Parkland High School friends. We don’t just see climate change deniers given equal time on cable news networks to sow doubt and confusion, but also 15-year old Greta Thunberg publicly shaming older generations of politicians at a UN Climate Change conference because it is the younger generation that will bear the costs of their cowardice. In each instance, young people found their voice and identity as citizens to speak for change because it was personal, and local. And we know these young people’s names not because it is so unusual to hear young people speak publicly (though it is), but because their testimonies were powerful, precisely because they were personal. 

But let me now attempt a feeble answer to your difficult question about how to restore the civic fabric and bridge partisan and ideological divides. The concept of bridging that divide is a popular one on the political left and middle (I’m not sure those on the right feel similarly), and indeed, is grounded in liberal democratic thinking that through dialog and deliberation we can arrive at commonality and the common good. Certainly Dewey and Carey felt that way, as we have discussed, but they never imagined an America where its democratic norms, traditions, and civic culture would be so thoroughly and rapidly challenged (if not upended). 

First, many of the things we believed in, that many of us took for granted as beliefs that transcended both major political parties--the rule of law, the separation of powers, the separation of church and state, fair elections, unbiased courts, anti-corruption of government officials, the value of a free press and watchdog journalism--are actively being challenged by an authoritarian leader, a cowardly GOP, and an electoral base that seems completely fine with it all. 

Second, it is important to note that there are groups who have helped create this divide and who benefit greatly from having it being a divide (and an angry one at that). This includes right-wing media, evangelicals, the NRA, oil companies, even the GOP more broadly. Often emanating from these groups are ready-made talking points that citizens have taken up and use. Perhaps more insidious, though, is that they have formulated ways of thinking, an epistemology that stands in stark contrast to liberal democratic thought. This includes a rejection of evidence, a rejection of standard terms of debate, the contestation of “truth” and how it is arrived at. So when Carey suggests that it is shared beliefs that maintain society, it would seem incumbent that our communications try to tap into these shared beliefs as starting points for agreement. But how we go about bridging a divide when there are such enormous ruptures in shared beliefs and agreed upon ways of thinking is going to be tremendously difficult. 

What is also pernicious is that while we have these new means for engaging in communication that could enrich the local community (“social media”), our civic culture is so infected with the older forms of mass communication that have, as Carey put it (quoting Camus), “replaced dialogue and personal relations with propaganda and polemic.” Watch most discussions of politics on Facebook and you will see how clearly we mirror the talking heads on cable news. We want to win points, not find common agreement. People typically blame the platform (Facebook) while the problem is really a toxic civic culture. We see no commonality because we don’t see political talk as a road toward that end. 

In sum, I don’t know how to bridge the divide and restore the civic fabric. I think history has shown that there are, at times, bad actors in public life who simply must be defeated, not negotiated with. While sometimes that involves violence, we are still at a place in America where those defeats can happen in the courts and at the ballot box. And perhaps those defeats will be lead by young people and young female legislators (like AOC) who know how to deftly employ digital media to craft a new and fresh conversation that will encourage broader participation and engagement. 

Which begs my question back to you:  if digital media invites broader participation and storytelling from an array of fresh voices (like the young people and marginalized we’ve mentioned here), what types of stories (or how they are told) can unleash the civic imagination? How does storytelling utilize creativity and culture for social justice ends, for offering fresh avenues into intransigent issues such as rape culture, gun culture, racism, or science denial? Can such storytelling offer a way out of this toxic civic culture I have described?

Caty Borum Chattoo:  

I deeply appreciate this question about mediated storytelling and the contribution to shaping and repairing civic fabric – that is, the tapestry of human experiences and individuals and heroes and villains and values that tell us who and what we are as a society, and an aspirational set of ideals that brings us back to what we care about. At this juncture, divisive hatred surely is not what we want, but anger permeates so much of this moment. It’s awfully hard to move forward solely from the vantage point or motivation of anger, even to right grievous wrongs. I center this question in service of social justice – what kinds of stories, told by which storytellers, and to what end, to build the kind of compassion and connectedness that brings a culture together? Mine is hopelessly idealistic framing, I know, but to quotethe environmentalist Paul Hawken, “The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.”

There are, of course, different forms of mediated storytelling created and marshalled for social justice purposes – that is, the process and pursuit of fairness and equity for all people. There is a place for anger as a motivating source of energy, to be sure, but I’d like to focus this response on the place of empathy and human connection and optimism and hope.

Given the participatory tools of the networked era, social justice organizations and individuals are creating their own stories for dissemination across a variety of digital platforms. I’d like to suggest here that one of the great challenges is resisting a knee-jerk tendency to simply echo back the ideological polarization that is packaged up and sold to us by cable news outlets – that is, commercial enterprises that have benefited greatly from this culture of discord – or by the political machines in Congress, who likewise stir up vocal supporters through extreme rhetoric. We have to be smarter and more courageous.

Here’s an example of what I mean: From well-establishedresearch, we know, for example, that climate change is now well-understood by a vast majority of Americans as a real, human-caused phenomenon that requires intervention. The idea of “climate deniers” is fringe, believed by a fringe contingent, but used for political gamesmanship. And yet, we still see well-meaning campaigns promoting stories and narratives about climate change deniers as a public engagement strategy. Not only does this not reflect the reality of real public opinion in this country – but instead, the red-meat potential of “deniers vs. science” as drama carried out by pundits – but other research shows we damage the ability to have meaningful conversations with a wide swath of people when we employ this kind of divisive messaging.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that the kind of mediated stories that will help repair our damaged civic fabric, and indeed, shape a new one for a different future, will not be focused on polarized and divisive policy arguments, but will instead spotlight the lived experiences of people – deep, intimate, vulnerable, hopeful. Documentaries about social issues do this well, and if we’re talking about tactical outcomes here,my own researchhas found that elected officials on both sides of the dominant political aisle can come together when they witness human lived experiences behind hot-button issues. The path to enlightenment and compassion through storytelling comes from an emotional connection to stories and characters, not through the strength of a policy argument or the degree to which the tenor of anger matches our own.Social justice stories that employ comedyare important, as well, because of the motivating emotions of hope and optimism injected into seemingly intractable, impossible social problems, as well as comedy’s ability to entertain us.

Storytelling is, of course, dominantly reflected in the entertainment marketplace, and we know that the streaming era has competitively pushed open entirely new arenas for innovation to voices who have been traditionally marginalized and underrepresented – people of color, women, ethnic minorities. (To be sure, a great deal of work remains ahead in the business of equitable representation in the business of Hollywood, but there is great reason for hopeful forward momentum.) What’s particularly meaningful about this trajectory is the extent to which this digital generation of diverse storytellers – like Issa Rae, Hasan Minhaj, and many others – is entertaining us by embodying their full life experiences, asserting full cultural citizenship. This benefits us all in service of long-term social justice. These are the kinds of stories to create, lift up, study, and honor.   

I’ll end with another quote from Paul Hawken’s terribly inspiring missive, as it so accurately describes the kind of courage we will need as we move forward: “Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done…Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.”

Jeffrey Jones:

It is interesting that you end with a quote using seven words with the prefix “re,” meaning “again” or “back.” There is an aspect in our discussion of looking forwards (form, build, imagine, consider), but also backwards at the same time, at what we have lost or should try to be again as a nation--for me, the dialogics of community exchange inherent in civic practice, for you the hope and optimism of an America not consumed by this fire of anger and hatred. 

My discussion of civics (even Carey and Dewey) suggests that we should look backwards or should re-engage with ideals of community that allow for participation and an inclusive politics of practice, but done for the 21st Century.  Indeed, I am sure many readers thought of high school in the 1940s and 50s when they read the word “civics,” the mandatory class in which we learned about government, but also the constitution.  As Frank Zappa noted, when civics classes were replaced with social studies in the 1960s and 70s, we stopped the intense study of the constitution. Here too we have lost something: “If you don’t know what your rights are,” Zappa contends, “how can you stand up for them? And furthermore, if you don’t know what’s in the document, how can you care if someone is shredding it? 

I think we both agree that the current moment can be served better by moving beyond a citizenship dominated by divisive 24-hour news programs and into civic spaces of robust and inclusive storytelling that offer the imaginations and lived experiences of people who have far too seldom been included in the construction of our democratic social order.  One of the privileges of doing the work I do--Directing the Peabody Awards--is we get to see and recognize (perhaps even culturally validate) so many of these storytellers, including two you just mentioned, Issa Rae and Hasan Minhaj. 

The Peabody Awards are an exercise in recognizing civic storytelling at is best. From 1200 yearly submissions, we choose 30 winners and 30 nominees from across news and documentary and entertainment programming in TV and radio and the web--”stories that matter,” as we call them. All are, as you say, vehicles for the emotional connection that comes from stories of the human lived experience. They are simultaneously powerful and moving and invigorating, and at times, downright depressing (as human avarice, deception, corruption, violence, hatred, and so forth typically are). Yet in the end, such civic storytelling is somehow hopeful, precisely because media makers are using narrative to move us to see, recognize, and understand these issues, doing so with tremendous depth and clarity of vision. 

Ultimately, these are stories that appeal to us as citizens of a community (local, national, and global), and within that appeal is the belief that we as a community can, given sufficient willpower, address them. What three bigger issues can one imagine than global ecological disaster through climate change, racism, and guns treated as false idols (protected by America’s sacred text)? Yet as I argued above, I think these new youthful voices we are seeing and hearing are hopeful ones. They are civicly engaged, using stories that have the power to prompt further engagement, perhaps in the process restoring our civic fabric.  And in that, you and I share a degree of civic hope and optimism for restorative justice and change through the product of our civic imaginations. 


Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, based at American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. Her documentaries have aired on TV outlets in the United States and internationally, and she is the author of two forthcoming books about the role of creativity and storytelling in social change (comedy and documentary, respectively). 

Jeffrey Jones is Executive Director of the Peabody Awards and Director of the Peabody Media Center at the University of Georgia. He is the author and editor of six books, most of which deal with citizenship as relates to popular media and culture.