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Columns

Rosenbloom ’13: The fight for the soul of the Occupy movement

By
Opinions Columnist
Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street/Providence/College Hill movement has the potential to be a generation-defining protest movement. It could make our political landscape more compassionate and equitable. Yet this movement could also become a force for further polarization, discord and folly. As a student body with many political activists, our choices will help to determine the eventual course of this new protest movement.

In its brief time in Providence and on College Hill, the Occupy movement has already exhibited both its potential for positive social transformation and its capacity for destructive rhetoric. Some Brown students have used their time and influence to advocate for more just and empathetic practices. But other community members have used the Occupy movement to indulge in spiteful, simplistic and self-righteous politics.

The Occupy protesters should be motivated by compassion for the victims of the current economic order and a desire to alleviate their suffering, not by malice toward the wealthy. Some protesters certainly have been guided by a single-minded desire to address injustice. I hope they will continue to advocate for productive solutions and drown out the spiteful and simplistic rhetoric that is also on display at the Occupy protests.

One negative narrative of the Occupy movement is that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population is to blame for all the problems experienced by the other 99 percent. This theme played a prominent role in early Occupy College Hill demonstrations. It does not provide an accurate description of our world’s problems, nor does it lead to productive dialogue aimed at effective solutions.

The idea that the richest 1 percent cause all of our pain is an appealing narrative. It shifts all the blame to Wall Street and offers a seductively simple solution to all our problems.

Unfortunately, any honest appraisal of the current political situation leads to a much more complex picture. David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “A group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed.”

An overly simplistic analysis of the root of our problems leads to similarly flawed solutions. Revitalizing the world economy will take shared sacrifice and complex policy proposals. It will require experimentation and attention to detail.

This is a frightening truth. We would all rather live in a world with simpler, easier solutions. While it is tempting to believe that condemning the super-rich will solve all our problems, it is intellectually dishonest to do so and ignores the complexity of the current economic situation.

This 99 versus one approach is not just inaccurate as political analysis. It also leads to excessive victimization and self-righteousness. This extremely elevated sense of moral superiority and nobility was on full display at the Occupy teach-in held at Brown Oct. 11. Professors invoked Gandhi and the American civil rights movement in describing the Occupy movement.

Comparing oneself to Gandhi or civil rights protesters causes an elevated sense of moral righteousness. It is hard to relate to your opponents or reflect on your own shortcomings when you see your movement as analogous to those led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. When you view yourself in such morally elevated terms, it is easy to scapegoat all of those who are not on your side.

Poverty, economic injustice and bad employment prospects are not caused by any one person, political party or policy. Addressing these problems cannot be accomplished merely by vilifying bankers and the wealthy. Gandhi had more reason to demonize his opponents than do the Occupy protesters, yet he overcame this impulse to denigrate and instead focused on finding productive solutions to address injustice.

Though some Brown community members have fallen into the trap of self-righteousness, others have shown a refreshing sense of humility and self-examination. At the Occupy College Hill assembly meeting held Oct. 12, members of the movement expressed an awareness of their own fallibility and shortcomings. Justin Kuritzkes ’12 said in an Oct. 13 Herald article that fighting inequity in one context “doesn’t mean you’re an angel.”

If all Occupy participants share this mindset, then the Brown community can use the Occupy movement to promote justice in a productive and honest manner. This humility will make the Occupy movement appear more credible and pragmatic to a mainstream audience. If Occupy participants instead opt for the path of self-righteousness and hatred of the rich, then the opportunity for lasting social change provided by the Occupy movement will be wasted.

The basic impulse behind Occupy College Hill is commendable. These protests show that the Brown community has a strong desire for social justice and equality. In order to effectively advocate for change, we must rise above simplistic and spiteful rhetoric and instead be guided by a genuine desire for social justice.

Oliver Rosenbloom ’13 is a history concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be contacted at oliver_rosenbloom@brown.edu.

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