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“It’s Called Giving a Shit!”: What Counts as “Politics”?
by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova
A panel on participatory politics, hosted by the Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT in November, 2012, brought together representatives from several of our case study organizations. But, when asked if they identified as activists, each participant distanced themselves from this category. Some hoped for their projects to “stay away” from politics in order to focus on “universals”, and others, argued that “being too politicized” might distract from the educational and entertainment value of their work. Even those whose groups were involved in a range of political issues stressed the human rights side of their activism rather than a particular political “ideology.” Meanwhile, the audience, mostly representing a slightly older generation, were expressing, via Twitter, their dissatisfaction with what they characterized as a “blacklash” against activism or a denial of the political stakes of these young people’s public expression. One audience member summed up the collective response, “On the semantics front, it’s not called ‘activism.’ It’s called ‘giving a shit.’”
These experiences at the Futures of Entertainment conference forced us to ask ourselves: Who are we to identify as “political” activities that participants themselves sometimes understood in different terms? And how do we think about the problematic relationship between their attempts to “change the world” and institutionalized politics?
Given the general disappointment with government expressed by many of the young people we encountered, it comes as no surprise that the panelists distanced themselves from politics and activism. This exchange reflects a desire to dissociate one’s self from institutional politics, but not from the idea of social change. Politics are practiced through other means that make sense in their everyday life-worlds, speaking about politics through channels they already use to connect with friends.
This chapter pulls together many insights about participatory politics from across the book. Through our cases, we have been mapping some of the “civic pathways” that might enable young people who are active in participatory culture to see themselves as both political and change agents. Popular culture offers shared references and resources performing bonding functions within the group and also bridging functions towards a broader public. Through political storytelling and transmedia mobilization (Sasha Costanza-Chock, 2010, 2012), participants are seen as having an expressive capacity to construct and circulate their own media via a variety of communication practices. Within this model, youth are encouraged to link their own personal experiences to a larger collective good: expressing why the cause matters to them through the media they created themselves.
All of our cases show a complex interweaving of the cultural, social and political through processes of adaptation and transformation, as participants’ actions need to be rendered meaningful to their local communities and effective within the context of local traditions and beliefs. What one community sees as political, another may declare to be apolitical, even if (and at times precisely because) outsiders disagreed with this categorization. All of this indicates a need for a more nuanced, and culturally inflected, understanding of what constitutes participatory politics.Media Referenced in Chapter 7