Critical Literacy: Is Performance Considered Action? 

Critical literacy seeks to transform our lives and the lives of others to support marginalized individuals. So teachers are called to help their students:

  1. identify perspectives and values implicit in texts ,
  2. identify what perspectives are promoted and which are marginalized by the text (or who is favored and who is marginalized),
  3. seek alternative perspectives and values,
  4. take action to transform their lives and the lives of others to a more equitable and just world.

I have always struggled with the fourth step, ‘taking action to transform the world.’ Recent media has been full of discussion about the difference between ‘performative’ acts which signal a person’s stance on an issue without making any real difference.

Ocasio-Cortez as performative?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attends a $35,000 a plate ‘Met Gala’ with a “TAX THE RICH” message on the back of her dress as a political message performance and then socializes with other rich ‘woke’ leftists. Critics will say that this performance does nothing to create a budget that makes the rich pay more for the government benefits they receive. It doesn’t inform or seek to convince with reasonable facts or ideas. In fact, it may alienate some of the people at the gala by distracting from the purpose of the event which is to celebrate art. The comment may also lead someone to believe incorrectly that the rich are not taxed. On the other hand, the performance does draw public attention to the issue making people consider the idea. It makes the issue important.

Performance is a way people use to ‘signal’ their values and we signal all the time with our words, our clothes, what we buy, what we eat, where we spend, and what we drive. Asking the waitress what their vegan options are may confer high status on an individual depending on the values of the group you are eating with. Driving an electric car, wearing fair trade clothes, and signaling your opposition to a new law usually from somewhere in the South on Facebook, or simply agreeing with another’s views can all be ways of signaling and establishing membership in your group.

Recently, Greta Thunberg complained about the performative nature of Climate Summits recently by talking about what she anticipates people will say and do at the COP26 in Glasgow, [They] “stand on their soap boxes, and yackity-yak-yak-yak” all the while practicing their can kicking skills in their spare time. Oh and COP stands for ‘conference of the parties’ and PARTY they will-do, canapés by the gigaton and flutes of Dom Perignon champagne to puncture the clouds with CO2 bubbles. The righteous bloviating by the concerned parties alone will add a gigaton of GHGs to the atmosphere. And with hangovers all, the conference of the parties will trundle home from Glasgow, quickly to fudge and forget their pledges as they return of a work-a-day Monday morn to their GDPs and always more growth models of biznezazuzul.” In this instance, Thunberg suggests that such a conference may be a performance to make it appear as if government representatives were doing something about climate issues while in practice, they do quite the opposite by continuing to subsidize oil companies, approving additional fossil fuel pipelines, or refusing to impose a carbon tax on gas vehicles or further incentivize alternative forms of energy.

Obviously, in this blog, I am just beginning to explore the idea of performance as action. The topic deserves much more thought; however, I am coming to some tentative conclusions. First, signaling is not necessarily good or bad. It depends on how and to whom the message is communicated to. That needs to be explored. Second, it’s more helpful to find ways to identify facts and reasons to persuade others to take action than to simply identify a position. Third, its best to act being a model and then describe the reasons. Why am I a vegan you might ask? Answer: for my health, the climate, and love for animals. Why do I recycle? Shop fair trade? Give the reasons. Fourth, always be friendly and invite dialogue so as not to polarize your group. Finally, performance can be a negative thing. Shouting slogans or identifying others’ actions as disrespectful or immoral without the intent to inform might feel like a bonding action to the group, but it can alienate and polarize some other people.

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