I recently watched a preview of Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care, a new documentary that explores the problems and inconsistencies in our health care system. In it, there are clips from some pharmaceutical drug commercials, ads I've seen many, many times. Then, we learn that the US and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world in which its legal to broadcast drug commercials.
I was surprised. I thought "why do we think it's okay to advertise for drugs when no one else does?!" But, of course, it was obvious: Americans are obsessed with free speech. It's a frantic obsession, something we cling onto desperately. At moments, it even unites both sides of the political divide: conservatives associate free speech with less government regulation, and liberals feel that free speech evens the playing field, equalizing ideas and equalizing people.
Hey, I'm on board with the first amendment; it's hard not to be, when I was taught to revere it. I'm afraid that removing drug commercials from the air might lead to banning Huck Finn from public schools. And let's not even start on how the Internet would become a battleground. In writing this post, my intention is not to question the first amendment. I want to put the spotlight on a necessary complement to free speech: critical media literacy.
We need to teach students, starting at a very early age, how to question the media. If we can say anything we want on Youtube, in our Tumblrs--even television is a pretty open space--we need to accompany that furious freedom with a rigorous critical thinking-focused education. Until recently, the third Google search result for "Martin Luther King, Jr" was a white supremacist website that claimed that King was a communist and sexual deviant. Certainly, plenty of naive youth (and adults!) stumbled upon this site and read it as factual.
Although everyone seems to agree that media literacy would be a good thing to teach, we aren't really doing it. National and state standards include bullets indicating students should be analyzing media in the classroom, but it is still not commonly taught in schools. If we insist on protecting free speech as a cornerstone of the American identity, we need to accompany it with rigorous media literacy training.
If media literacy were a required course in schools, the dangers of free speech would be virtually eliminated. Every citizen would be able to ask questions about the truthfulness of an advertisement, the hidden message behind a reality TV show, and the cultural implications of the latest Oscar winning film. A teenage girl could hear a radio ad about a new weight loss supplement, and know how to question its claims. Someone who grew up in a small town could watch Todrick Hall's "Beauty and the Beat" and understand that it's a satire. Without this ability, free speech might do more harm than good.