Ruha Benjamin

In reflecting on this historic moment in the life of the planet, one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Arundhati Roy, in “The Pandemic is a Portal,” wrote: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

The image of “dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred… our data banks and dead ideas,” has been nagging me…in a good way. At exactly the moment we need to be imagining and crafting a world that is more livable, more just, and joyful for all of earth’s inhabitants, will we hang on desperately to the familiar, pining for a return to normality?

I am convinced that without a deep engagement with critical digital pedagogy, as individuals and institutions, we will almost certainly drag outmoded ways of thinking and doing things with us. If we do not reckon honestly with what all we have been carrying, many dead ideas are sure to be repackaged as new and innovative “tech solutions” for the converging public health, social, political, and economic crises we face.

In Amer and Noujaim’s 2019 documentary, The Great Hack, there is a moment when the narrator is explaining the goal of those who used fake news and digital propaganda to manipulate the electorate on both sides of the Atlantic, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum. The aim of disinformation architects is to “break society.” In the words of one of the chief architects, “It is only when you break it, that you can remodel the pieces into your vision of a new society.”

Their “new” vision is nothing new, of course, just more white supremacy, more class oppression, more patriarchy, more ableism, more imperialism. And to get more, they need to break (or, continue to break) the social contract, by deepening divisions and amplifying hierarchies using what Vaidhyanathan terms “anti-social media.” In short, there are powerful people and organizations working overtime to undermine the very premise of this thing we call “society.”

So, what are the responsibilities of educators and educational institutions in a context where this is a deliberate campaign to break society, erode mutuality, grind down our ability to care for one another, eat away at any notion of a collective good, and destroy the institutions upon which our society depends? In this context, I think educators are called on to be champions of the social contract and to model and cultivate caring forms of sociality that are everywhere under siege.

What could be more important? That those of us who have a radically different vision — one that insists on everyone having, according to Erik Wright, broadly equal “access to the social and material means for a flourishing life,” use every tool at our disposal to ensure that no one be sacrificed at the altar of progress. This brilliant collection of essays offers a set of political, pedagogical, and practical tools that are essential as we move through this portal.

When the late-great writer and builder of speculative worlds, Octavia E. Butler, was asked, what is there to do about the state of the world, she responded, “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers — at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

Without a doubt, Critical Digital Pedagogy energizes all of us to be an answer, if we choose to be!


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Critical Digital Pedagogy Copyright © 2020 by Ruha Benjamin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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