What we can’t think about: People support the goals of Occupy Wall Street as long as nobody does anything.
You hear the complaint from all sides: people are fed up with abuses and injustice–why won’t they do anything about it? The complaints label concerned but inert folks “sheeple.” A recent post here showed that social science might see the sheepish inaction as an expression of underlying fears that open demonstrations such as OWS are a threat to law and order. It’s OK to think protest, but to act on it rouses fears of blood in the streets.
That argument sounds reasonable. But it’s an adult explanation. Let’s expand on that:
The basic problem is that we’re children. As a species, we’re the neotenates: we start as helpless infants and grow up slowly, retaining childlike characteristics to the end. As children we’re submissive, care-soliciting animals, curious, playfully exploratory. It takes years before we realize that we kill and eat Piggy, Chickie, and the Moocow. Our emergency demands often come out as tantrums, which signal loss of control and may frighten us as much as they do parents. We’re socialized to fear and hate tantrums. We grow into “adults.”
That’s “adults” in scare quotes.
“Adults” carefully control tantrums. The most vicious outburst is war, which of course is highly ritualized and rationalized with lots of submissive saluting and obeying orders. It’s takes place in the “theater of war.” Theatricality makes the tantrum adult. Hitler famously rehearsed his. Right wing rant talkshows stage the climactic outburst that “knocks em dead.” The invective, the humiliated opponent–it’s predictable and exciting. And carefully arranged to have no consequences. You can lie, you can fume, you can feel ten feet tall with righteous wrath. But as in a Hollywood shootout, nobody gets killed and the avenged hero and his girl ride off into the sunset.
If you silently agree with those scruffy protesters, you’re an adult in your living room. If you join them, you may feel you have safety pins holding up your underpants. Lose your adult status and you lose self-esteem. You lose yourself. You face social death.
If you stay an “adult,” you can agree with Occupy themes such as the need to tax the rich more, and remain supremely right. Nobody’s going to drag you off or pepper spray you. Your boss won’t sack you. Your self-esteem is intact. Contrast this with the Occupy protesters. They’re a crowd, but you’re not bodily in it, so you don’t share that crowd energy that Canetti describes in Crowds and Power. Worse, like any open protest, their behavior raises the specter of punishment. The stern parental police and the adversarial One Percent make it clear that they’re always on the edge of cracking down on the kids and the Kid in you.
The threat isn’t just police violence either. It’s also shame. The protesters are mostly young. And they’re acting young. They’re not used to the world’s hypocrisy. For them, horseshit is, well, horseshit. They’re trying to humorous in some of their signs and get-ups.
The crackdown on the “kids” threatens not to break bones so much as self-esteem. Pepper spray leaves you helpless and crying–like a squalling infant. Mass arrests don’t threaten years in the gulag; rather they harass the unruly children, like being made to write “I won’t protest” 100 times on the blackboard. The law takes your money and time and mixes you in the holding tank with lowlife miscreants. It’s not a negotiation among citizens; it’s a spanking.
And then there’s the basic problem. If you act on your protest, you’re no longer practically apart and neutral. On the contrary, you’ve taken a position and any impasse that follows reminds you how helpless and insignificant you are. In effect, you put yourself outside the community of everyday habit and now your exposed helplessness can feel like social death. You say you’re part of the 99% but you feel like zero as the limousines leave you in the dust.
And the final turn of the screw is that it’s all visceral. The behavior isn’t the outcome of a strategic plan or a syllogism. It’s a gut feeling that you’ve stood up to be counted and somebody’s laughing at you. Let’s face it, futility feels like death.
What it needs is courage and principle and the hide of a rhino. Here’s a true story from January 2012:
A public employee in the richest town in Massachusetts is called to a construction site in town. A retired Wall Street banker in his early 40s has bought three McMansions and had them torn down so he can build a proper McMansion for his family. The town worker notices a building the size of a garden shed built of beautiful cut granite standing beside the demolition site. When he inquires, he’s told that the new owner wants to build the new Super Mansion out of granite from a special quarry in Pennsylvania. But to see how it would look, the owner’s had them build a custom granite garden shed first. “And a good thing too. Because the owner decided he didn’t much like it and wants it torn down too.”
Sorry, pal. No guns in the saloon.