Let’s be honest about this, coverage of the Occupy movement has neither been fair nor balanced in most cases. What coverage there has been has usually centered on 1) how much of a mess these sites are making, 2) on how the absence of explicit demands makes them “incoherent”, and 3) on how the major political parties may or may not try to turn the frustrations of the protesters to their advantage in the coming national election cycle. Much of the coverage that I’ve seen has focused on the second of these items, on how the protests seem to be just a sort of collective “acting out”. “With no clear message”, so goes the refrain, “how can the Occupy protesters hope to achieve their aims (whatever they are)?”
I have to admit that this seemed a fair critique to me for quite a while. After all, without an explicit message the whole situation looks like a fight in a romantic sitcom: She’s upset and he doesn’t know why. So he asks “Why are you mad at me?” She says, arms crossed, “You know why I’m mad.” (Cue audience either laughing at the familiarity of the scene or going “oooooooh” because she looks. so. serious.) It’s a trope with which we’re all familiar enough that we can see how blatantly, transparently simplistic and stereotypical it is when compared with an actual difference of opinion if any seriousness between real lovers. In the sitcom version, though, we know it’s going to get resolved because we know the characters and the arc of the usual story. We know it will all blow over in the end and no lasting damage will be done. We’ll all be back on the couch next week laughing at whatever new hijinks are afoot. (Does this comparison seem offensively facile? Take heart at least, dear reader, in knowing that it isn’t my invention.)
In line with the model just sketched it would be tempting to think of Occupy in much the same way: it’s a temporary, non-threatening, overly emotional (=nonrational) tantrum that will blow-over eventually without any lasting effects. I mean, it can’t be rational–otherwise there would be demands, wouldn’t there? And there aren’t any, so it must just be a sort of large scale act of frustration. Understandable really. Lots of things about our existing economic and political institutions are…ahem…less than ideal right now. So if a bunch of folks want to show how fed up they are by camping in various bits of green space in major cities, well, more power to them. So long as they’re not hurting anyone, it will all be over soon and we can get back to more serious affairs. Mobs, right? Can’t live with ’em, etc. etc…
But I think this misses the point entirely. Exhibit A:
As (perhaps somewhat a less animated) Exhibit B consider this quote from Elisabeth Jacobs’ very interesting piece on the Occupy Movement at the Brookings Institution website. The source of the quote, as a footnote in the original piece makes clear, is an interview with a member of Occupy:
Within the movement itself, the lack of demands is a point of pride. The General Assembly of the New York City occupation has explicitly denied the Demands Working Group’s claim to speak on behalf of the movement. While the Demands Working Group has struggled to delineate a list of specific policy demands, the broader movement has firmly resisted this effort. “We are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies, to fight back against the tyranny of the 1%. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted,” proclaims the Occupy Wall Street homepage in a statement disavowing the Demands Working Group. As one New York occupier explains, “The notion of demands connotes disempowerment, or hostage-taking. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about empowerment. The government shouldn’t need us to make ‘demands,’ because it should be of us.
“We are our demands”. How far away is that from “we are our argument”? Let’s pretend it’s not far enough to prevent the following analysis of what it would mean for the Occupy protests to be their own argument. Before proceeding down this path, however, I should make it clear that I mean to table the philosophical question about whether people camping in green space and cooking hot-dogs can embody a premise-conclusion sequence of some kind. I’m not at all sure that they can and I’m not sure I want to make the case either way. So instead I’m going to sin against my discipline and be deliberately ambiguous and vague (just for now) when it comes to the definition of ‘argument’. Mea culpa. I shall do my penance voluntarily in direct order. With that out of the way, then…
I think the quote is telling–and revealing–as to the point the Occupy protesters are trying to make. It’s a point that’s almost impossible to make within the context of the American political system. This is because we have Establishment Left (EL, a.k.a. the Democrats) and Establishment Right (ER, a.k.a. the Republicans), and Crackpots (C, everyone else, by degree). This is how our media frames the discussion. EL and ER are the centers of gravity, with seriousness of members of C being a function of their translatability/cognizability under the rubric of either EL or ER. Hence, the Tea Party are the “least C” of those in C, because they are the most like ER. We’re still struggling with Occupy. ER (predictably) thinks Occupy is something akin to a kind of transimissable Marxist Ebola. EL doesn’t even seem to be interested in them.
There is a reason Occupy seems relegated to a strange C status, and it explains why Occupy won’t (can’t, really) make any demands. Were they to make demands the causes represented therein would be immediately claimed by EL or ER, who would promptly engage an army of focus group testers and media consultants to gauge their appeal to swing voters (no need testing them against the views of the faithful, who base their very identities in large part on their allegiance with EL or ER as the case may be). Those demands that are marketable to “swing voters” would turn up in party platforms, and be referenced by presidential candidates in an effort to demonstrate “responsiveness” to the voice of the people. And so, the demands of the Occupy Movement would be subsumed into politics as usual, in the usual way, by the usual suspects.
But, this, of course, is exactly what the Occupy Movement is trying to fight.
Unfortunately, it saddles them with an impossible rhetorical burden. How do you make political claims against a system that instantaneously co-opts your claims into it’s rhetorical framework? You can shout and scream all you like, but once mainstream media has decided what you mean, the majority of people are done listening to you unless you “play ball” with the media outlets they frequent–which usually means agreeing to be interviewed in spans of time far too brief to explain the complexity of your ideas by interviewers who are (to some degree) professionally obliged to treat you in a hostile manner–either in the name of not appearing “soft” or in the name of appeasing the political sensibilities (again, either those of EL or ER) who comprise the show’s demographic. And once you’ve done that, well…see above.
What it seems to me that the Occupiers want is a genuine alternative to a political system (both in terms of institutions and in terms of ideology) that has largely decided that positions outside of EL or ER are irrelevant. There’s no way to make the case for those positions when the only way to get one’s claims heard is to translated into the language of EL or ER. So what is there to do? Nothing. Except to literally stand outside of those positions in sufficient numbers for people in general to notice. And that is exactly what the Occupy Movement is doing.
But there is a cost.
The cost is that the audience won’t trust you if they don’t have an idea of the world you would make were you to be successful–and as any rhetorician will tell you, ultimately you need the trust of the audience. As Aristotle teaches us, there are three ways to win that trust: through logos, pathos, or ethos. Without going into the subject of public education in America let us simply bracket logos–the basic reasons the protesters are in the street are more or less known to everyone anyway. Pathos, too, faces little chance of success. In the current economic situation in America, either one is already hurting oneself, or knows someone who is. Things are literally “tough all over”, and both EL and ER have formulae for that already in play. The result is that only ethos is left as a viable pathway for rhetorical success. And what is the ethos of Occupy? More importantly, how will anyone outside of it trust any representation of that ethos unless they know what it is, within certain tolerances for ambiguity and vagueness, that Occupy actually wants? Demands would tell everyone what it is that Occupy wants but, as I’ve suggested above, they would also get the very real and valid concerns of Occupy quickly co-opted into a political narrative whose very fabric they are desperately trying to resist, to counteract by their very presence.
So the nut of the thing seems to be this: If one wants to change American politics, then one has to contradict the dominant narrative of American politics (EL vs. ER) without getting co-opted into it.
I’m not sure we have a model for that.
Upcoming Rhetorical Citizenship Conference in Copenhagen, we’re looking at you.