Sunday, November 20, 2011


If the #occupy movement has done nothing else, it has become one of the most effective conversation starters of the past few years. Bring up the subject of thousands and thousands of demonstrators taking part in a mass residential protest, and you'll inevitably find out the opinions of most anyone within earshot. In a very real sense, the protests have already done exactly what they needed to do, which was bring attention to some major social and political issues that just seem to keep getting pushed to the back. In some cases, the conversations can be awkward and heated, but this is unavoidable in politics.

Recently, in an e-mail exchange focusing on #occupy, a friend sent out a video shot by a former Soviet citizen. It's fairly straightforward: our videographer finds a pair of protesters that are holding signs that call for the end of capitalism. Seeing this, he asks them what they might suggest as a replacement. Without missing a beat, they answer back in unison, "Socialism." With this response, the videographer immediately goes after them, asking what might happen under socialism. One of them replies that "we wouldn't have people unemployed," as the videographer sneers over the top of her. From here, the conversation completely devolves into shouting, with the protesters claiming that the people of North Korea are well off, while the videographer bellows that "capitalism, people prosper; socialism, people die."

There are two immediate thoughts that I had when I first saw this video. The first was that the two protesters are simply regurgitating party rhetoric that they've been fed, and that seems clearest when they make their North Korea claim. In terms of being able to hold and defend any sort of point they'd like to make, they are completely ineffective. The other thought I had was that this whole exchange would never have been anything other than a shouting match, simply because of the approach of the videographer. From the outset, his intent is not to ask questions, but to attack*.

The political content of this video is not what I found myself focusing on. Instead, I was immediately struck by the dynamic of the argument, and just how terrified these people really were.

One of the biggest questions about this video is just how different--how newsworthy--it would be, had the videographer approached these, and other, protesters with a more neutral, or less combative, stance**. Instead, he goes in with both fists up; his tone of voice already speaks of his distaste for the protest as soon as he begins speaking. And with the first answer that is given him, he is already falling on top of it with cynicism and judgement, before the woman is finished saying anything. This makes the protesters even more defensive, and puts them in a fight-or-flight state, from where they begin arguing back with the videographer. Soon, all parties are yelling at each other, making spurious claims and refusing to listen to each other. It is the equivalent of putting on earmuffs and blindfolds and shouting.

One thought is that the dynamic of the confrontation is already set for all of them--businessman and protesters--before they've even met each other. The vast majority of coverage of #occupy has had a very distinct "us vs. them" flavor to it, and this sense seems to pervade all debates about the subject. The ubiquitous presence of police at these protests has also heightened the general level of tension, and so there is an extra energy that is not necessarily productive to all these confrontations. As a result, we end up with constant conflict and friction.

My guitar teacher noted that the movement, though it was being touted as "the 99% vs. the 1%", had much more of a "100%" spirit to it: though there is a strong feeling of the very small 1% taking advantage of the 99%, the 99% was trying very hard to relay the message that, on this planet, we simply don't have the time to spar it out anymore, and that the only useful approach at this point is to dispense with any personal claims and wants and to work together to fix and heal the situation. This compassion-based approach does not sell newspapers, but that may be why the movement has largely eschewed mainstream media and self-reported on Twitter, Facebook, et al.

So, coming back to this argument between the videographer and the protesters, the question really seems to be about how it might have played out if even one person had simply not reacted out of fear, and instead acted from compassion.

More on this in coming days.

*My friend pointed out that the man had grown up in Soviet Russia, and very likely spoke from personal experience, so it would be understandable for him to be on edge as he went down to the protests to speak with them. A google search yields a few things on him, but nothing damning: he is simply a former Russian citizen who is now an American businessman with a strong love for capitalism and support for the Tea Party. He's become a bit of a champion for the anti-OWS crowd, by virtue of being exactly the kind of figurehead they'd want to have.

**It is really easy to slip into 4th Way work jargon at around this point, so I'm making a concentrated effort to not use any.