Why political literacy?
Politics is about power and change, how we live our lives and what kind of world we want. The political is not a separate sphere of life, it’s embedded in our everyday experience, as are the ideologies that surround and shapes us. Politics is an essential part of our collective life, even if the way it’s practiced sometimes give us good reason to avoid it or even fear it. If we withdraw from engaging with politics because of cynicism or lack of confidence, we lose a significant part of our agency.
The importance of politics means that political literacy should be an essential aim of everyone’s education. If we are to act as equal citizens in a democracy, with a stake in our collective future, we all need to have some understanding of how power works, how change happens and how to engage and act politically.
Our political education begins as soon as we start to look beyond our immediate concerns and start to acknowledge those of others. Making connections between ‘things and people I know and care about’ and ‘things and people I don’t yet know much about’ is the start. This can then build on a developing understanding of justice, equality and freedom.
From early childhood, we start to learn that there are people we’ve never met who have needs and aspirations similar to ours and that there are people we’ve never met making decisions which affect us. We start to realize that our choices and actions have consequences and can make a difference, and that the combined, interconnected impacts of these actions can be more powerful at the societal level than at the individual level. We also learn that people who have power and privilege don’t often give it up or share it voluntarily but that changes in the distribution of power and privilege are possible and have been achieved, generally through struggle.
Students should be encouraged to think politically, to discuss politics, to be political. This political education has nothing to do with trying to persuade anyone to take a particular view or support a particular cause or even to be politically active.
Some teachers may not have the confidence to talk about political questions with students or they may simply avoid them because they themselves see politics as controversial or divisive, or even worse, boring or irrelevant. And a fear of being seen to be influencing or indoctrinating students can create a vacuum in their education where political literacy should be.
Promoting political literacy requires us to challenge some common assumptions about politics. Here are five for starters:
1. “Politics is conflict” The hostile language and personal animosity of much political discourse implies that the only way to engage is by setting people against each other and channeling their hostility. We need to show how, in Chantal Mouffe’s terms, it is possible to be agonistic, ‘the struggle between adversaries’, rather than antagonistic, ‘the struggle between enemies’. This is not to suggest that we can all agree and achieve universal consensus, transcending the struggle for power. We need to emphasize the importance of listening to others, deliberating in a spirit of openness, thinking critically and being able to collaborate. But we also need to acknowledge that some differences can’t be bridged. This requires neither aggression nor passive submission. Opposing injustice and advocating radical change can be done agonistically.
It’s not surprising if some people are put off by this apparent need to be opinionated and combative and that they would rather avoid politics altogether to reduce the risk of conflict or argument; particularly if they already feel powerless or vulnerable. Our opinions are nuanced, contingent and provisional and will change and evolve through our engagement with others. It is not always appropriate to distil them down to soundbites or use them as battering rams. Some aspects of democracy, such as voting in elections, do require us to make a clear choice and pick a side. But being political is about what we do in the whole of our life not just in the occasional election snapshot moments.
2. “Politics is irrelevant.” Much political debate may well be about things which just don’t seem important to us. If politics is just a game being played by people whose lives are remote from ours about things which mean little to us, then apathy is an understandable response. Urging people not to be apathetic and lecturing them about the suffragettes doesn’t really address this disconnect. The answer is not to dismiss politics, but to work out what does matter to us and take it really seriously.
3. “Politics is abstract” The language of political discourse can seem detached from our day-to-day experience. Terms like ‘society’, ‘democracy’, ‘inequality’, ‘privilege’, ‘power’, ‘growth’, ‘austerity’, ‘climate change’ all relate to broad, large-scale concepts or patterns of events. We need to be able to relate these to our own experience but also to understand how they operate at the social level. These phenomena are not intellectual abstractions, they have real-life consequences. Systemic inequality, poverty, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia… all of these do real harm to real people.
4. “Politics is technical and complicated.” The world is certainly complicated, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grasp its driving forces. Complexity should not be an excuse for doing nothing or relying on others to make key decisions. Leaving it all to the ‘experts’ or the ‘grown-ups in the room’ simply means handing power to those who already have the greatest access to it. Equally disempowering is the view that only a few of us are destined to be leaders, with most of us as followers. Instead, politically literate citizens should all be capable of offering leadership, support and challenge, while maintaining a healthy suspicion of those who are too eager to be seen as great leaders. We don’t have unlimited time to devote to political activity, but we can all benefit from having the necessary knowledge and skill to critically assess and hold others to account for what they say and do.
5. “Politics doesn’t make a difference.” Ideas like “nothing ever changes” or “they’re all the same” are often used as an argument for doing nothing. Dismissing the impact of political organising and action feeds the cynicism and apathy which in turn threatens democracy. Luckily, we know that this is a misreading of reality, and students can learn about how change has been brought about by people working together. And while it’s empowering to know that we can all ‘make a difference’ we need to be cautious about overstating the role of individuals in change-making. Margaret Mead’s “small group of thoughtful committed individuals” who “can change the world” and Mahatma Gandhi’s entreaty to change our own nature in order to “change the attitude of the world towards us” don’t fully explain how personal change can drive societal change. Our actions are only an example for others if they resonate with them and help them see why it might be good to follow our example and join in. Even non-violent direct action is only effective if enough other people agree that it is better than the alternatives, such as doing nothing or using violence.
A political education is about more that understanding how our current democratic structures work or promoting the importance of voting in elections, although these things are important. It means being able to develop a critical understanding of the exercise of power, democratic processes and collective action with all their strengths and limitations. This is best done through regular discussion and practice, building outwards and upwards from people’s experience and understanding of the world.
And without political literacy there can be no real democracy. The enemies of democracy want us to see ourselves as atomized, apolitical individuals with little agency beyond selling our individual labour power and using our purchasing power, plus the occasional opportunity to help select our representatives. But we know from experience that it’s only when we think and act politically that we have any chance of changing the world.
(Illustration: Linear Composition, Liubov Popova)
Freire for today (March 2021)
The mighty pencil (November 2019)
Learning through conflict (November 2017)
Giving young people a stake in their future (July 2017)
The habits of democracy (May 2017)
Voting and the habit of democracy (May 2014)
‘Agonistics, thinking the world politically’ by Chantal Mouffe, Verso (2013)