NEW YORK – If you have been following the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS), by now you have heard the question “What is the message?”–posed sometimes nicely, often aggressively. This is often followed by some variation of “they have no message.”
Let me clear this up right now, because the message of this first stage of OWS has been crystal clear. The message is: “Join us.” Also, that message has been received from sea to shining sea, as the saying goes. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case: the proof is in the fact that the one OWS event has not spread to dozens of events and marches, with many more in the offing.
But wait a sec: if I get this, and you get this, why are so many people not getting this?
The Message in “What’s the Message?”
Back up for a second and think about this scenario.
Has anyone ever asked you “What’s the point of Facebook?” I get this question all the time and it is maddening to try to answer. There is no good answer to this question because the question itself already contains an answer. In general form, the questioner is saying: “I do not support [x],” only they are saying it in question form. These questions are in fact criticisms masked as invitations to clarify. “Want to know what Facebook is about?” I always respond,”Try it. If it’s for you, you’ll get it right away.” This answer typically elicits the real response lurking behind the question, which is some anti-social media variation of “Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!”
Now back to “What’s the message?”
From its inception, the Occupy Wall Street movement has been confronted by a very similar “I do not support [x]” question posed as: “What is the message of Occupy Wall Street?” This question is posed earnestly by some, less so by others–there is a wide range.
There is nothing wrong with a new movement–a movement in the process of taking shape–that initially makes sense to some people, but not to others.
Why do some people just get what is going on with OWS while others are resistant to it? Why do some people get Facebook while others do not? Because it (e.g., Facebook, OWS, whatever) is in their immediate framework of understanding. Clearly, many people get that the first message of OWS is “Join us.” Many people, therefore, are inside the same framework and, therefore, are able to understand each other as this new kind of political activity takes place.
At the same time, many people see OWS happening, but they do not get it yet–or they get it and disagree with it or think they get it and think they disagree with it or they see it and hate it. These people are in a different frame of reference. Maybe they will eventually join others in the framework that has allowed others to unify and join each other at the level of political action, maybe not.
The “Injustice” Frame
The reason people get OWS when they engage it either at the level of joining at street-level or engaging via some other avenue (i.e., online discussion, etc.) has to do with a broad frame of reference for a range of political and economic events that we can call: the injustice frame.
The injustice frame means that people see a broad range of phenomenon–government, economy, environment, social welfare, foreign policy, consumer habits, political ideology, history, media, etc.–all through a very broad lens of injustice.
People already seeing current politics or the economy through the lens of the injustice frame will tend to get what is happening in OWS while people seeing things from another frame will tend not to get OWS.
Look at the signs at the events and they all tie back to the injustice frame. The point of these signs that the media has ridiculed as “not having a core message” is twofold: (1) emphasize the broad frame of injustice as a way of seeing the current American situation and to declare a simple message to anyone watching (2) “Join us” (see above).
Before cohering to media-ready messages, “injustice” for OWS has produced a core set of principles: full participation, fairness, responsibility, equality. It has also identified a core set of problems troubling our political and economic system: greed, unchecked corporate power, government corruption.
Thus, beyond that basic frame and broad message, the OWS activities have focused more or less on a specific kind of injustice as a core principle: economic injustice.
OWS expressions of economic injustice frame can be seen in widespread use of phrases in both casual conversation in and around street level events and discussion online.
The phrases “corporate greed” and “we are the 99%” are both messages emphasizing economic injustice. These phrases do not carry specific policy demands–yet–so much as they are used to invoke a broad frame about the lack of fairness crippling our current economic and political systems. And, since they are secondary messages, they are also meant to invoke the broad message of OWS so far: Join us.
But what about people who already see or politics and economy through a broad frame of injustice, but do still do not “get” OWS? Many of these people are very committed to leftist politics already via other organizations, including the presidential election campaign, non-profits, fundraising and so forth.
Why do people who agree at a broad level with arguments about injustice still not get it?
Participation Must be an “Affordable” Alternative
This question is actually much more interesting than the “What’s your message?” stuff being peppered by the media.
Online discussions in particular are rife with people 100% committed to fighting economic injustice, but who just cannot find a way of seeing OWS as anything other than a distraction from the actual fight against injustice.
Some people will just disagree with the premise or style of OWS as a form of political engagement. Still others will not see corporate greed as a problem to be dealt with at a systemic level, so much as a hiccup to be treated.
Has America driven into a ditch of economic and political injustice completely or do we just have a small chip in windshield? People who disagree with the extent of the problem will disagree with OWS. Not everyone agrees with everything.
But some people agree and still do not get it for a different reason: affordability
By “affordability” I do not mean the dollar cost of understanding OWS, but the cost in terms of what one must give up to participate. In particular: how much time does it take for a person to come to a point of participating in OWS or just getting it?
All political actions that require participation run into this problem of affordability, but OWS is bumping up against it big time. And not surprisingly.
Camp out for weeks on end in a public square? The people who can do this are few and far between, initially. In fact, more people have time than believe they do. So, convincing people that they can participate is a top, if not “number one” priority at this stage.
Who can afford to participate and get OWS initially? People whose time is not otherwise committed are the first category. This is because a 24-hour-per-day occupation is a huge time expense. In fact, while the OWS organizers have been very good at solving the problem of affording food and other necessities, they are still having some trouble figuring out how to make the time commitment more affordable to more people.
But affordability is not just an issue relating to participation, but also relating to understanding meaning. Who can afford to understand the meaning of OWS so far? The answer is: not very many journalists.
Some journalists are predisposed to reject OWS because of where they work. Most journalists, though, may want to get it, but simply cannot afford to take the time to do so. A journalist’s time is beset with deadline demands that make even a minimum commitment to understanding current political events often unaffordable.
Then again, even the wealthiest journalists in terms of time to spend understanding, may not be willing to spend the time to understand.
This week, however, there has been a big change in the coverage. The initial protest was quickly dismissed by many newsrooms as a “hippie” event. Now that the protest has reproduced all over the country, journalist are relating to it as a political even “of national significance.” The success of the message “join us”–which has led to more protests–has resulted in bringing in more journalists even if those journalists do not think they understand the message…yet.
Stay tuned. Soon enough, even journalists who claim they do not get what is happening because OWS has not produced formal policy positions–they will spend more and more time flushing out the details of the protest. Because as the OWS movement grows, the cost of ignoring it also grows.
(Note: Keep in mind throughout these Frameshop discussions that I am not an OWS leader. I am writing these posts from my office, not from Zuccotti Park or any other protest location. The ideas in this post are my own and were not developed in the context of a general assembly or working group.)