Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Further reflections on the occupy movement

I have spent the better part of two days at Occupy Sudbury, and two days before that at Occupy Toronto… that hardly makes me an expert, but I have heard some reoccurring questions that I want to address here.

What is it I think this movement can do?

First and foremost, in my opinion, is that it opens up space for dialogue. I often talk about politics in my everyday interactions with people, but I often read that talking about controversial things like politics is not polite in certain situations. I have friends that never talk about politics, which saddens me… politics are so much fun to talk about!

In my last post about the occupy movement, I talked about Weber, and in this one, I will discuss another theorist that I almost never use in my own academic work; Habermas! Hopefully I don't simplify this so much that I am not doing his work justice, but basically, what he said was that within the public sphere, which is a public space not controlled by the state, people could engage in conversation and exchange views and knowledge and that this undistorted communication could lead to liberation. However, through the mass media and mass consumption (as well is bureaucracy and excessive rationality among other things) we lose our ability to think critically about the state.

The space that has been created by the occupy movement, and how it has been used for political discussions, has reminded me of my third year sociological theory prof's lecture on Habermas. There are a lot of problems with his work - for instance, whereas Habermas thinks that opening up this space for communication could allow people to speak freely about politics, I would argue that we really need to put more emphasis on the social and economic hierarchies that shape how we view the world and how we can talk about it… speech, in a racialized, patriarchal, capitalist society will likely never be free from distorting influences such as social power, and this is something I keep bringing back into our conversations at the occupy sites (such as in my critique that most of the leaders-who-are-not seem to be young, charismatic, white men). Anyway, it just amuses me when every day experiences bring to mind lectures or readings that I haven't really thought of in years.

So, back to the question of what I want this movement to do. What I hope it is currently starting to do is expose some of the social relations involved in aspects of our economic and political system that have been reified to the point where they seem like naturally existing structures without any alternatives. We created capitalism. It is not a thing that has always existed... it hasn't even been around very long. We made it. We can end it or we can change it.

In order to want to do so, we have to expose so many of the ideas that we have come to think are true, but are really just ideologies that serve to uphold capitalism. Ideas like poverty being caused by individual flaws, we need to get rid of the language associated with "helping the poor" and "handouts" (which were used last weekend by some very progressive people in the group).

These imply that certain people deserve everything they have gotten within capitalism, but should help others who are less fortunate. This is problematic because it upholds the capitalist system.

The other question I hear a lot of is with regards to solutions… let's just say that the education part works, then what?

Here is where I come into problems... I simply don't know what the answer would be. But I think that is a good thing because I don't think that any one person has that answer. Nick Dyer-Witheford writes about using people's creative capacities to come up with something better - a new way of organizing. I like this idea, we can learn from previous movements - what has worked and what hasn't - and build from there.

I do think it has to be everyone working together. The workers movement was quieted by dividing us up into trade unions without the capacity to organize together and support all workers. It is difficult to frame this movement in a way that all people are being included, that reparations are being made to certain groups, that decisions are being made while considering the specific needs of groups, the ways that the current political, economic and social relations are affecting the ways that we are able to participate in this movement.

As a sidenote, also relating to Nick Dyer-Witheford's work, I love how we are using tools of capitalism against itself within this organizing. Using facebook, twitter, youtube, blogs, etc. to get the messages out to so many people.

It is very early in the organizing process. There are so many possibilities. And I believe that the problems within the movement are easier to talk about now, while it is still new, as opposed to later, when things become more entrenched and the social relations become hidden in routine processes.

Still, at the same time I am having trouble working in a movement with so many people with such diverse opinions. I enjoy the dialogue, and I am usually good at respecting the fact that people have different beliefs and ideas and that everyone's are just as valid as my own… but sometimes I hear things that make me cringe at just how problematic I think they are (granted, I'm sure there are people there who do the same when I speak)... I should add, are not reflective of the movement as a whole, just a few opinions that keep popping up either here or in Toronto, or both.

1. The national anthem.

I was not there when they sang this in Toronto, but I was shocked when I heard about it. Indigenous communities were torn apart by European settlers and that these communities are still struggling in a variety of ways. The national anthem is a colonial song - it celebrates a colonial nation. There were indigenous peoples present objecting to it, but it was sung anyway.

Then, in the local occupy movement, it was played in a youtube video right before an indigenous drumming circle, which fostered more than a few discussions yesterday afternoon at the occupy site about whether this is a sign of "solidarity and friendship" or whether it is colonial and disrespectful. Neither side won, but the people advocating for fostering friendship and solidarity agreed to check with elders in the community.

And, on top of colonial implications, nationalism does nothing to help support what should be viewed as a global movement.

2. "The police are our friends."

The police are not our friends. Individual officers do make up the 99% in that they do not have huge sums of money that influence decision making on a legislative level, but, as a group, they do have a considerable amount of power. Yes, they smile and act friendly towards us, and I am not necessarily opposed to us doing the same, but remember, when they get their orders to arrest us, the power they have will become very evident. This also has other implications, where certain groups are more likely to have problems with the police than others (such as indigenous people).

Still, the local police have told us that they support us, and we don't exactly have large numbers of people at the occupy site at the moment, so I wouldn't advocate for anything that is is too anti-police. But don't think of them as friends or allies.

3. The word "violence" is thrown around.

"No using violence... like yelling at police officers or breaking things". Now, I agree that the protest is probably best off being peaceful, especially because we are trying to build public support, but I object to using the word "violence" when referring to damaging property or speaking loudly. For police actions to be considered violent, there has to be bodily harm inflicted... why do we not have the same standard. I'm not saying that we should damage property... I think that doing so would likely halt the movement through mass arrests and outrage against the 'violent' and 'threatening' protesters. I just think we should reframe how we are conceiving of violence and use different language when we are talking about these issues. Property damage is not violence (unless someone is likely to get hurt).

4. Lastly was the phrase "the most important thing is..." at facilitation/organizing meetings. To me, the most important thing for a facilitating meeting is to work out the logistics to create a space that will foster discussion and allow occupiers to have necessary amenities (bathrooms, food, shelter, warmth, etc.). If you are coming to the facilitation meetings to talk about how the most important thing is promoting electoral reform or climate change or whatever else you think it is, then I believe we are going about this the wrong way. What makes the occupy movement so amazing is that it can bring in so many people with diverse experiences. Your specific soap box argument is not the point of a facilitation meeting (and yes, I understand that using my soap box - this blog - as a means to convey this statement can be seen as ironic, or even somewhat hypocritical, but my point stands).

And now I will set aside some of this cynicism, make a few more kick ass signs (thus far, I have carried a sign with a Marx quote "What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers" and one I have carried before in Toronto "there's no war like class war"- which I would love to nuance, but a sign does not allow for that). I will be back at the occupy site this afternoon for the rush hour road-side demonstration I can't wait until we have enough people to have a march like in Toronto.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Gender in Disney films

This topic has been covered a lot, by a lot of people, but I came across two good pieces this week that I wanted to post. First was this image (found here);

This image emphasizes the importance of women being pretty and reliance on men within Disney films, in some of the characters that little girls idolize most.

This film (found here) shows masculinity in disney films.

My favorite piece from it was this quote.
It's much more a question in creating a certain environment of images that we grow up in and become used to and after a while those images will begin to shape what we know and what we understand about the world... it's a slow accumulative affect and it's much more subtle.
I don't blame Disney for sexism by any means, but I think this quote is very true. These images become seen as normal and gendered practices that exist throughout the media become entrenched in our thinking as naturally gendered behaviours based on real biological differences, when in fact, many (if not all) of these differences are social constructs.

What concerns me most is when I watch television programming that is currently geared towards young children... the gender stereotyping on the Disney channel, which airs sitcom-like television programs for kids is way more blatant than in any of these movies, in my opinion.

No always means no.

I saw this image on graphjam a few minutes ago. In my opinion, it should never have been posted.

When she says no, she does not mean yes, EVER. When she says no, she means no, and that is the end of it. The entire circle should be green, not just that little green part at the top that looks like it occupies about 10%. The "something something something feelings" is irrelevant... it is just no.

I'm not even going to get into the implications of this kind of thinking.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quick vent about kids and consumerism

My 8 year old daughter asked if she could purchase a book from the book fair, and I told her I would go with her after school to get it, but I have to get cash first. She was concerned it would be gone and asked if she could bring her own money. When I told her she didn't have enough money for it, she asked if she could bring her money to buy something else - like she might have enough money for a pen or some other gadget or trinket being sold.

I let her take it because it is her money and she saved it herself, but this bothers me. We are so into the idea of buying something that we will bring money to a store (or bookfair) without a concept of what we need or wish to purchase, just for the point of finding something that we might happen to want. In our house, this item will usually end up buried in a corner within 2 days and never seen again.

I think Hannah Montana and The Suite Life are beating me when it comes to consumer education.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Toronto; Why I could not participate in a movement to restore democracy

I am currently working on a more theoretical piece about the occupy everything movement, including issues around the ideas of whether this is a reform or revolutionary movement, that I hope to post in a day or two, but this one is about a few specific issues that I encountered while trying to participate in Toronto this past weekend.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend occupy Toronto. A group of students at the university I attend managed to get funding for a school bus and 18 of us set out to participate in this movement. I have been following Occupy Wall St for a while, and was thrilled to be participating in what I hoped would become a revolutionary movement. I had these romanticized notions of what it would look like and who would be involved. I do not have such notions anymore, and I will try and describe some of the reasons why, but I do still have hope that the occupy everything movement can work through these problems.

When we arrived in Toronto, we were among the first to set up the tent and we were full of anticipation about what exactly was happening and how it would work. The first problem I encountered was called the people's mic. Basically, how it works, is when someone wants to get a message out to the group, they yell "mic check" repeatedly, and the people around them echo the words in fragmented sentences to get the message to the entire group. This was incredibly difficult for me... the first time it happened, the chorus of voices coming from all sides (to announce a general assembly taking place in a few hours) was so loud and overwhelming that I actually found myself cowering... I was literally crouched on the ground in a ball with my hands over my ears and I was shaking.

I tried to find out more about the people's mic. Apparently, it is being used in New York because voice amplification is illegal. It is not necessary in Canada because there are no laws restricting the use of megaphones; at least not in Toronto (I'm not sure if other municipalities have such bylaws). It is also used because it does not require any power; amps require generators and megaphones have batteries. Still, I spent the next 18 hours trying to find someone who was part of an accessibility committee that may or may not have existed at the time, and in that process encountered 4 other people with the exact same issue as myself (3 of whom packed up their tent and left on the first day) as well as dozens of people who had trouble hearing and understanding what was being said.

I have no knowledge of what happened at Saturday's meetings because I was unable to participate... actually, I have very little recollection of the meeting at all, other than having met one of my favourite writers, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and my absolute favourite blogger, although the stress from the noise around me was such that I can't even remember what he looked like, nevermind what was said.

When I eventually did encounter someone who was part of the accessibility committee, they brought the issue to the beginning of the next General Assembly. A few people argued vehemently for abandoning the people's mic in order to make the meeting accessible to everyone, providing that everyone present could hear what was happening through the megaphone. Others argued that we continue to use the people's mic until we get to the part on the agenda (I don't know who came up with the agenda or how) where we discuss motions. This seemed contrary to they had just finished making about how any form of discrimination including racism, sexism, heterosexism and ABLEISM would not be tolerated. In the end, they decided that the people's mic would be used from now on and if anyone was not able to participate, they could self-identify and watch on a live feed from a tent on the other side of the park.

This felt like a form of segregation to me. I will not be returning to that park until/unless I can participate in the meetings... if people could not hear the megaphone, that would be understandable, but I cannot comprehend their reason for keeping it (partly because I couldn't participate in the discussion on whether or not to use it, as the discussion was done with the people's mic) other than it being some kind of tradition-based thing brought from New York. If someone has a good argument for keeping it, please let me know. Also, how was this decision made as a "consensus" when those it was affecting most were unable to participate in the discussion?

As for the issue of consensus more generally, I believe they really were trying. Still, it seemed as though those who were facilitating the assemblies were almost entirely white men. I do not blame this on the movement, but on the current climate where certain people are given more authority. Now, I'm not one to site Weber very often, but notions of his idea of charismatic authority kept coming to mind when these leaders-who-are-not-leaders spoke. It also brought to mind a quote from Marx's A Critique of the Gotha Program;
What we are dealing with here is a communist society [not really- at least not yet], not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges (1981).
I am not sure what the answer is to avoid the leaders-who-are-not problem, or to encourage people from marginalized positions into these facilitating roles. I know that the group encourages minorities to get involved as much as possible, but when the meeting was attended by a sea of young white university students, it might be hard to find people to fill those spaces. So, the question becomes, how do we reach out to them and include them, and how do we move past the notions of privilege and authority that are so entrenched in our minds that these movements often participate in them while actively trying to reject them?

Also, while I was walking around outside of the park in the evening, I noticed homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk near the park. I think we need to figure out why they weren't in the park itself, because this should be their movement. How do we get the people who are most in need to participate?

While on the topic of consensus, there were a lot of issues figuring out exactly what consensus meant. An example was with regards to Sunday's march. The action committee decided to propose that we march at 3:00. Someone proposed that we march on the sidewalk and obey traffic signals. Other people, myself included, were opposed to this idea; we are marching on public streets - OUR streets - we should not do so following their laws. Some debate ensued. It was suggested that we postpone the walk until this discussion had been figured out. Someone else suggested, in the name of consensus, that those who want to march did so, and those who did not want to march stayed behind. This is not consensus. I had to leave at this point because of the people's mic issues, but the discussion went on for several hours and a march did take place, I am assuming based on a decision that I am assuming was made on a consensus basis (by those who were able to participate). It is a minor issue, but these are the types of things that, if handled in an appropriate manner, would probably work themselves out over time as the group got accustomed to the idea of consensus organizing. Still, if we don't have full participation, than even a unanimous decision isn't really a consensus.

It is very early in the organizing process. There are so many possibilities. And I believe that the problems within the movement are easier to talk about now, while it is still new, as opposed to later, when things become more entrenched and the social relations become hidden in routine processes.

So, the question I continue to ask myself is whether this movement represents my own beliefs as an activist and as someone who engages in Marxist/anarchist social theorizing... and the answer I keep coming to is not quite... but it could be. I am supportive of it, and will continue trying to be involved in any way I can.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We are the 99 percent

I was talking to my 8 year old about Occupy Wall St. and the supporting occupations that have popped up around the world. Then, we looked at the website for We Are the 99%. She decided to make her own sign and she asked me to put it on my blog.

In case you can't see it, the top says "Riche" (french for rich) and has a picture of two nicely dressed people throwing money up in the air. The bottom half says "poor" and has what she described as "ninety-nine sad faces." She said that she is doing this because it isn't fair that the rich people have so much money when there are so many poor people.

Also, you can barely see her face (which I told her was a requirement for posting this, as I don't want her face online) she is trying to make a sad face in the picture, but kept laughing when she saw the camera.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My dentist is Katy Perry

I might not be posting for a few days, as I am not trusting my ability to write coherently on pain meds, and I just had major dental surgery. However, I feel it is imperative that I tell all of my loyal readers (yes, both of you) about the experience of waking up from anaesthetic!

Apparently, the first thing I did after waking up was look at my partner and say "my dentist is Katy Perry"

She responded by asking whether the dentist was playing Katy Perry music, and I shook my head and went back to sleep.

Just thought you should know that even when I am unconscious, I am thinking about pop culture! And I really really really don't like Katy Perry, and not just because I can now blame her for my swollen face, sore mouth, and inability to eat solid foods.