A Social Commentary on Social Commentary
June 8, 2016 4 Comments
by Mr. Westbrooks
In conjunction with a reading unit my students recently completed, I assigned a research paper that was based on the same theme as the texts we just finished perusing the prior week. What was theme of the unit? Social commentary. In the reading unit, we focused on how writers use various forms of literature (short stories, poems, and open letters) to make comments on the issues that are happening in society. After reading Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and “Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham,” I had the students research the contemporary issues in our society, explain what they are along with the major current events surrounding them, and lastly offer their own social commentary on those issues.
One day when I took the time out of my already short lunch period to reteach how to format and craft a formal outline to two students, one of them challenged me to write a paper on the topic of social commentary. I accepted the challenge with no qualms, and what you’re about to read is the result. This piece goes out to Elvin from period 3/4, the only high school student I know that listens to Pro Era and Logic. (Rappers are social commentators too, by the way.)
Everyone has an opinion, or at least they’re capable and have the freedom of expressing his or her opinions, especially when it concerns events that occur in society. That’s something that hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. What has changed is the ways in which those opinions are expressed. In the past, individuals were limited in who they could reach, and there were limitations on who could be considered a social commentator, but with the advent of new media, anyone can reach anyone anywhere at anytime, and anyone can call him or herself a social commentator. People’s ability to create their own platforms and disseminate social commentary to the masses instantaneously can work to both the benefit and detriment of themselves and to society as a whole.
Everyone Can Have a Voice
If you consider any nation in this world, an indicator of how free its people are is the extent to which they can express themselves. It’s not the only indicator, but it’s a major one. Freedom of expression is also something that Americans take for granted since it’s readily available and accessible. Historically, such platforms like the printing press, soap boxes, pulpits, recording studios, meeting halls, and radio waves have granted individuals and groups the opportunities to express their points of view on politics, race, sex, economics, religion, identity, etc.
While some of the above mentioned platforms were limited to individuals in positions of leadership and those with money, 21st century media platforms has made the world’s audience available to the masses. In addition to the outlets that were operating in the past and are still functioning today, anyone can set up a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or SnapChat account and voice his or her opinion on issues going on in society. Other Web-based platforms include sites such as WordPress (what I use), Blogspot, Blog Talk Radio, Blogger, Soundcloud, Weebly and Tumblr (“The Eleven Best Free Blog Sites”). Commentators’ choice of online platform is dependent upon their style, but the fact that basic usage of them is free for everybody, creates the prospect for anyone to give social commentary.
The downside to everyone being able to have a voice is that anyone can have a voice. While everyone is free to have an opinion, that doesn’t mean everyone should use a public platform to express it. There are too many social commentators that constantly spew out hatred, ignorance, and misinformation. While the producers of such content should be responsible for what they put out, the consumers should transform themselves into critics and analyze the information they’re taking in. While negative energy and just plain stupidity grind my gears, the widespread access to free and inexpensive media platforms used for the purpose of expressing social commentary should continue with the added caveat that public sharpen their third eyes and view the information critically.
Social Commentary Comes from Both the Producer and the Audience
In addition to everyone having the ability to establish platforms and disseminate information to the masses, contemporary social commentary allows the masses to respond to the commentators initiating exchanges and conversations between the producers and the consumers/critics. Historically, commentators responded to each other through newspaper editorials and pamphlets. In 2016, commentators and critics can respond instantaneously. If you read online articles, watch YouTube videos, or view posts on social media, you might notice that on many occasions, the comment section is more interesting than the feature piece. This also applies to the chat room format.
A variety of characters inject their thoughts into online open forums and call-in lines, and you never know what to expect. Constructive building, in which all participants engage with respect and the absence of emotionalism, sharpens everyone’s swords; however, debates can become toxic and unproductive when people begin to attack personal character rather than perspective and make comments strictly out of emotion instead of logic. Unfortunately, the elasticity of engagement between commentators is stretched wide, making the regulation of comments difficult to manage unlike that of a formal debate setting.
Despite the distractions that may arise in comment sections, chat rooms, and discussion boards, the chance for the public to directly respond to perspectives on the happenings of society is an advancement in social commentary. It’s not yet clear who’s able to define the specific criteria of social commentary, but one may argue that perspectives expressed in comment sections can be characterized as social commentary. This shows that in the 21st century, you don’t have to have a publication, radio show, organization, blog, or website to be a social commentator.
There are other points to be touched on and questions to be answered, but keeping in mind that this post was written for my students, I know that I’ve written well beyond their interest and attention span. The final analysis of social commentary in contemporary society is that people should take advantage of the platforms available to them. There are many spaces and opportunities for them to do so. For the youth, such as my students, who are now coming of age, it’s especially important for them to give their social commentary since they are our present and future. Think about how you can package your message in a way that supports your personal style and interests and a way that engages your peers, adults, and the youth coming after you. Be a responsible and productive social commentator by obtaining the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding before you release your message. In a society of ignorance inflicting the youth and the public at-large, the world needs it.