Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Occupy the gospel

What’s up with that “occupy” thing?

I’ve kinda avoided current events on my blog, but if I feel up to commenting on the history of everything, why not include history in the making too? A recent OnBeing got me thinking in that direction, although that turned out to be mislabeled. It was good, it just didn’t talk much about “Occupy”.

So, if you read the above CNN article, or even if you didn’t, you have probably heard that the movement is criticized for a lack of focus, there is no leader, no symbol. Many of them have responded that this is their strategy. And it might be working. The symbol that is emerging is of innocent peaceful people being sprayed in the face with pepper spray. There is much outrage about this, but wasn’t it expected? The police are responding in a very traditional way to what may be a new way of organizing.

Let’s examine some of those traditions.

Create a mythology. Whether purposeful or not, great story tellers, leaders and writers have built cultures around them that have survived beyond their lifetimes. Whatever really happened to get them started gets lost in history and later generations defend what they believe happened because they so love the story. The story speaks to them, so it must be true.

Attack the symbol. Storm the Bastille or dump tea in the harbor. Take the thing that is the symbol of your enemy and turn it into your symbol.

Peacefully and strategically make a symbol. Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white person, and she didn’t do it just because she was tired one day. There were people working in basements and churches before Martin Luther King Jr. came along, looking for just the right personality to take that action. They had newsletters, organizers and lawyers ready to popularize that incident and defend her in court.

Social media and instant news cycles have helped bring revolution to parts of the world that without it, may have remained under dictatorships, or ended up in much bloodier revolutions. These new communication systems have also affected how these strategies work.

We have been attacking our current leaders and their images for decades now, and when we tire of that we go back and rip the reputation of Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus. History doesn’t get “lost” so easy these days. Mythology relies on a lack of information. Police and security forces have grown in strength and improved strategies and some parts of the media support anything they do, so acts of violent civil disobedience are not only difficult, they can come with a lot of backlash. Any strategizing is heavily scrutinized and often mischaracterized in the public debate. The battle can be lost in that arena.

The question is, is the strategy of not creating a symbol, a strategy or a mythology that can be attacked, working? Those are normally the things that give a movement fuel. The anger and frustration with a variety of structural problems are usually just recruiting tools. Only a couple months into the movement, maybe recruiting is all that needs to be done. If the opposition keeps responding in a traditional fashion, there will be plenty to be angry about and recruitment should be easy. But most youth have to go through this anyway. At some point they realize the world is not the well organized place they learned about in High School civics and there are bad people, and worse, people who appear good but do bad things. I’m glad an image of me facing that realization half a lifetime ago is not permanently archived on YouTube.

Besides slogans and speeches, leaders should also be supplying information. They had a library in Zuccotti Park, hopefully some people have had a chance to come into contact with authors and ideas that they were not exposed to by their teachers.

A frequent mistake I have seen leaders make is to not seek the counsel of other leaders. In a leaderless organization, a lot of people need to be seeking that counsel. Time will tell if old mistakes are repeated, but so far I see a focus on the non-corporeal corporations instead of a certain generation, a certain dress code, ethnicity or background. This is an improvement.

Leaders also act as a storehouse of ideas. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of that movement shared bits of speeches, quotes from philosophers and scripture they were using and weaved those bits in as they were speaking. Take a look at the “I Have a Dream” speech. It starts out fairly dry and the crowd is not responding. Watch his eyes and the eyes of people near him as they notice this. He starts to weave in the “dream” and the crowd responds and he crescendos with bits from the Constitution, the Bible and America the Beautiful.

Perhaps the greatest lesson coming out of recent events is that we all should be asking ourselves what we are going to do instead of analyzing what happened and asking “Occupy” what they are going to do next. Waiting for a leader to show up has not gone well. We might have to limp along for a while, giving each other counsel, sharing ideas with each other.

What will you be doing?

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