Occupy Wall Street: The power of words
Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.
~ Toni Morrison
Occupy Wall Street is a fast growing movement that is “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations”. While inspirational, dare I say hopeful in spirit, this movement, as with previous movements, is not without problems. For a start there’s the concept of occupying. Words like this are not just words, and to raise an objection ain’t as simple as arguing over semantics. Words have contexts and histories. Like holocaust. Or nigger, for example. It pays to be aware of what you’re pulling in, and on, when you use such language. Others have critiqued the terminology far more articulately than I could, such as the startling observation of occupation made several weeks ago: THE UNITED STATES IS ALREADY BEING OCCUPIED. THIS IS INDIGENOUS LAND. A real clanger – obvious once stated, and uncomfortable in the way overlooked (ignored) truths often are. Native American activist JohnPaul Montano expands in his Open Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Activists :
I hope you would make mention of the fact that the very land upon which you are protesting does not belong to you – that you are guests upon that stolen indigenous land … I had hoped that you would address the centuries-long history that we indigenous peoples of this continent have endured being subject to the countless ‘-isms’ of do-gooders claiming to be building a “more just society,” a “better world,” a “land of freedom” on top of our indigenous societies, on our indigenous lands, while destroying and/or ignoring our ways of life. I had hoped that you would acknowledge that, since you are settlers on indigenous land, you need and want our indigenous consent to your building anything on our land – never mind an entire society.
Native peoples around the world would respond with a collective ‘Amen’, or here in Aotearoa ‘Amine’, and several have written as such including leading Māori academic Dr Leonie Pihama here. So occupation – even for political purposes (challenging power) in the context of histories of marginally acknowledged occupation that characterised the spread of European empire, is problematic.
I wish to take issue with the concept of occupation from a different viewpoint. To consider the occupation of a metaphorical space coinciding (but not coincidentally) with that same colonial history. Unsurprising given that colonisation of the ‘other’ in Africa, India, the North Americas, Australia and New Zealand was rationalised on the basis of ‘racial’ inferiority – a racist ideology. So how does the concept of occupying apply? My argument is that the majority of Wall Street protestors already occupy, perhaps without comprehension, an important ideological space – the space of what, and who counts. Let me elaborate with an image.
The above picture appeared on a protest site that has been vocal in its support of Occupy Wall Street. The image and its ‘one love’ logo are symbolic of the movement and as such is used on a number of photographs taken of the various demonstrations that have occurred. The response I had on seeing it was a visceral one, and these are the words, in the comments beneath the image, that went with it:
Nope. Don’t like it at all. It upholds a notion of individualism that not only is not shared by a good percentage of the world’s population (i.e. its a uniquely Western and relatively recent invention), but is also a part of the sickness behind many of the current crises we currently face. Or to put it plainly; its idealistic, colonial nonsense. I see none of me, or my people, in that.
The response was deafening. *crickets* … I wondered – perhaps they didn’t get it? Maybe when I invoked my people I appeared to be demonstrating what is considered problematic to this utopian vision? One love. Down with posses and tribes and stuff. Problem is my people hold dear to the concept of affiliation. Of our intimate connection to our maunga (mountains), awa (rivers), hapū and iwi (nations). These relationships are central to our identity, our wellbeing; as evidenced in cultural practices around identification – pepeha. So let me state my objection to the image and its words again. The denigration of affiliation that is apparent is not a universal right way of being; it is a culturally specific idea. It upholds the primacy of the individual who can join with other individuals in a global feel-good hug that obliterates difference. It promotes the elision of painful and long histories of colonial rampage and exploitation that have wreaked havoc on the lives of those colonised/enslaved both historically and in the present. It is really just ‘the melting pot’ in drag; circa 2011.
In raising the objection, I’m talking to those who have begun and still dominate this particular movement. Western, white people. Living in the US of A. In doing so I aggregate the diverse realities that inhabit whiteness without due attention to other aspects of marginalisation around gender, class, sexual orientation and so on, but I hope you’ll grant me some lee-way in aid of the overall point. Listen up white folk – too often the ‘one love’ you call ‘us’ to is one characterised by your own predilections. A call blind to the mere existence of other orientations, let alone demonstrating a will to embrace them. Your occupation of the space that is normal and what/who matters. Its an occupation that has to end, if there’s ever going to be a common ground upon which we can meet. In effect what LOOKS inclusive on the surface, actually hides an informing ideology that is most definitely EXclusive. Seriously, you gotta cut this shit out. That is if you hope to build a movement with the strength of numbers.
Or, and here’s a really radical idea, you could join in the multiple movements that have been running globally for quite some time now. By indigenous peoples. By ‘3rd World’ peoples. By impoverished, racialised, incarcerated blacks and Latinos in the US. Its just until recently they’ve been beyond (beneath?) your comprehension. A warning though, if you were to join in/get alongside existing movements you may have to give up some power. Stop being in charge of things. Have some humility that ‘others’ may know some stuff about struggle that is useful to the cause. Now that’s the consensus-based participatory democracy you talk about; time to put it into action. In the broader relations of (over)developed/under-developed (ugh, objectionable terms in and of themselves) nations; you are still privileged- economically and ideologically – you matter! When journalists start bemoaning the presence of the privileged at protest sites, as Cord Jefferson does here of Kanye West, the hypocrisy is gob-smacking.
When you talk about loss of jobs, homes, healthcare, we feel ya, really. Only too many of us have been living that existence for quite some time now, centuries in fact. When OWS participants state “We’re not going to accept society the way it is” it is difficult to bite back the retort – “well it seemed to be ok with you up until now!” It is important to know what is hidden within the espoused 99%. Understand that while the economic marginalisation might be shared (now), our experiences past and present are not. And it would be a good idea to stop giving ‘us’ the job of pointing that out to you. As Occupy Wall Street protestor Manissa Maharawal points out-
Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. … I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, and that it shouldn’t be my job.
In other words: Payattentiontothegapstheunspokentheinvisible. See what happens when you don’t? The message gets confusing. And exclusionary.