What would Marshall McLuhan would say about white privilege?

I think I can set the stage here without being pejorative.  Because I am not being pejorative, if I do say so my damn self.

You have an instructor of a local junior college Intro to Mass Communications class.  She’s a black woman, with her academic experience say prominently shaped by feminist, black liberation, and Marxist studies.

So she’s in her class, and is of a mind to focus the instruction on how mass media is driven by the predominant culture and power structure, and thus serves white people and institutions.

There is a range of students obviously, but among them are some earnest young white men who were raised in this age of heightened anti-racism.  They come to find this narrative grating, cloying, tiresome.  They feel they are being called out personally.

So the sensitive young white guys go to the administration to complain about the honky hating Marxist professor.




There would appear to be several fairly precious personalities here.  And I use “precious” as an ironic pejorative.  But people maybe oughta brush examination of the personalities aside, as we kinda have a feel for the political and interpersonal dynamics here.  That stuff is pretty stereotypical .  More interesting question is, what’s going on with collegiate Mass Communications instruction?  You know, isn’t that supposed to be writing news copy and editing video?

Well as like a lot of fields, academia has over time developed a Marxist critique of Mass Communications.  That’s what Shannon Gibney is teaching.  This critique is now common among four year mass communication curriculums.

And it’s been there a while.  I did my mass comm undergrad mostly in the late 80’s – early 90s at Beaver State.  Beaver State had then (has now?) a good practical mass comm program.  Given Beavertown’s general remoteness and whiteness, you might figure it an unlikely spot for mass comm instruction of a revolutionary / transgressive bent.

And you’d be mostly right.   There was one leftist professor in the Mass Communications department there at the time, and she was an obvious lefty.  But something of a conventional peacenik really, and not terribly controversial.  Nor was her instruction very inflammatory.    It was pretty much down the line news writing.

I finished up though in the fall of 1994 with a 300 or 400 level class I took by extension at Husky State.  I don’t remember the name of the course or the professor’s name.  Suffice it to say she was very memorable as an archetype, that of the feminist, leftist, lesbian, boy haircut professor.  We were going into a gubernatorial election here in Minnesota, and she was never without her “It’s Marty Time!” campaign button (this button and John Marty still gets me.  Prior, I had voted for Mike Dukakis, Rudy Perpich, and Bill Clinton.  John Marty was the first time I didn’t vote for a Democrat).

And this class that I had to finish, whatever it was, focused entirely on how mass media is driven by the predominant culture and power structure, and thus serves white people and patriarchal institutions.  IE, white privilege in mass communications (though that certainly was not the title).

Then like now there was some spirited in class pushback to the instruction.  This class at the time was entirely white, and the student sensitivity was the same as now if not more so.  Twenty years ago we were still all post-civil rights era babies, and we weren’t racists (I’ll have you know!).

This woman was unfailingly respectful though I’d say there were some clenched teeth moments where she’d just about had her fill of affluent, bratty, unworldly white kids challenging her.  And I do imagine complaints were made to the department chair, as the course itself was unanimously derided by students as frivolous and impractical.

I think I know this MCTC situation well, though fair to say urbanity and recent modernity probably spikes it with both higher concentrations of white aggrievedness and black uppityness (again, allow me some ironic word choice).

So then it will probably be on both FOX and MSNBC soon enough, right?  Probably.  As a brouhaha it has all the elements for cable.  These pieces will inevitably pale in comparison to my accumulated wisdom though.  Here’s that:

On white privilege:  It exists.  I’m a 45 year old white guy.  Take it from me, we benefit from an assumption of credibility.

On mass media being driven by and serving the predominant culture: This is true, students.  It ought to be intuitive.

Is this bad? :  Ahem.  The predominant cultural ethos / milieu is (I assert) bourgeois, middle class.  There’s some implied whiteness there, but it’s not conceptually restricted to whiteness.

Just about the only people who think bourgeois, middle class culture is bad are Marxist professors.

No, it’s not bad that mass media is driven by and serves the predominant culture.

Should you white, MCTC Mass Comm students feel aggrieved?  Maybe some disgust is warranted, but aggrievement is going to be a waste of your time.  Better to figure out if this curriculum is worth your money.

Should Gibney be disciplined?  I’m not sure for what.  No.

Is Gibney’s course “legitimate”?  Sure.  I would think it’s very much a legitimate academic line of inquiry.  Hell, Marxism is a very legitimate philosophy.

Is it a legitimate study of Mass Communications?  Maybe.  Provided it ends at a recognition that yes, mass media is driven and serves the predominant culture, and this is not a bad thing.

Should MCTC be teaching the Gibney course?  No.  It’s a frivolity.  You’ll reach one person who’ll ever be able to use that analysis in a way that benefits society.  It’s a misplacement of resources to teach this at a local junior college.  They should be teaching news writing and video editing.


2 thoughts on “What would Marshall McLuhan would say about white privilege?

  1. pm1956

    Some really good points here, Erik.

    On your last point, I think that you have to look at the biggest question–what is education for? Is it just to help people get jobs? this is the practical approach to education. Or should it be about something more basic–teaching people about the world they live in, or teaching them how to learn. Either of those emphases would be consistent with the more “liberal” approach to education (as in “liberal arts”–nothing to do with liberal/conservative, everything to do with the Enlightenment, arguments about core curriculums, the value of teaching cursive/Latin/History/study of the Constitution, etc.– all good “conservative” arguments).

    And, of course, this is a class based argument (Marxist? perhaps). Should the classic “liberal arts” be reserved for those who will become the CEO’s, ie, those who will be attending Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford? While the “workers” attending Beaver State just get an education tailored to make them more “productive” as workers? (a more obvious version of this form of dichotomy was implemented in South Africa with the Bantu Education system–I could bury you with all sorts of quotes to illustrate the point that you educate people for the roles that society has available for them–the exact opposite of a meritocracy based argument).

    I don’t know if the Gibney course will make better workers or raise consciousness or eventually change the system by making people aware of the system, but hopefully it makes people think. Exposing people to ideas that make them uncomfortable is a good thing, i think. Getting them to understand why it makes them feel uncomfortable is even better.

    Oh, and this is a really great piece on race in current politics (just in case you haven’t already read it–not exactly the topic here, but you did bring up race….):


    1. Erik Petersen

      Liberal arts is good, of course.

      I think it’s fairly sensible to assert that a Marxist or Chomskyite deconstruction of Mass Comm is a highly esoteric / theoretical discipline, and would rank pretty low on a list of things you’d want MCTC students spending their tuition money on. That, and its also a dead end. Media is not going to be rearranged in a way that pleases these professors. These kids observe that this woman belabors the point. I have no doubt that’s true. Move on professor, you’ve covered it.

      I read Chait. He’s very smart, and I still don’t like him. I have more words to spend on that.


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