Archives for November 20, 2011

The power of discomfort

You’d think after all this time, I would know better than to read comments on YouTube. Most of the time, these things aren’t worth commenting on, but there’s something vital I feel people are missing when it comes to the Occupy movement. I keep seeing comments like this one, regarding a group of UC Davis students practicing civil disobedience by sitting peacefully on a sidewalk after being told to disperse by police officers: “Can somebody please tell me, how does sitting on your ass achieve social justice?”

Seriously? Didn’t you people ever watch Ghandi?

It’s a bit unbelievable, but I see things like this all over the internet these days, making it painfully clear that people don’t actually understand the point of protest, especially the kind of prolonged, non-violent protest being employed by the Occupy movement.

When a group of people want to air a grievance, especially with their government, the easiest thing to do is to sign a petition or write a letter to their legislators… maybe make a phone call for something a tad more confrontational. These are all comfortable options. Comfortable for everyone. We can feel that we’ve spoken up, and our legislators can listen (or pretend to listen) and then proceed with their day. It’s all very civilized, and incredibly easy to ignore, as soon as the moment has passed. Even a single march or protest is easy to gloss over in the hustle and bustle of daily life. At worst, it’s like a trip to the dentist for those who wield power—occasionally painful, but inevitably finite.

It’s the same for us regular folks, too. Most of us aren’t thinking about things like “freedom” or “justice” every moment of the day. Even those who are being constantly oppressed are still mainly concerned with day-to-day survival—putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. And people who are living comfortably are going to be even more eager to let uncomfortable thoughts fade away as quickly as possible.

The point of prolonged protest is to make us uncomfortable. It is intended to make it increasingly difficult for us to push aside the issues being raised, by becoming a constant, visible presence in our daily lives. It is supposed to be inconvenient, and not just for the institution(s) being protested against. It is intended to force all of us to think about these issues, including those of us who are affected by them but have not yet taken up the cause.

The Occupy movement comes out of a frustration with the fact that our comfortably accepted, polite procedures are no longer effective. Our votes are no longer effective. Our petitions, letters, and phone calls are no longer effective. We’ve become easy to ignore. By camping in a public park or sitting in the sidewalk, even after being told to leave by those to whom we’ve (wisely or not) granted authority, these protestors are forcing everyone around them to take notice—to spend at least a few moments of their day thinking about injustice in our society, in hopes that eventually, if they keep it up long enough, they’ll gain the kind of numbers that can’t be ignored by anyone, including those who benefit most from our deeply corrupt system.

The point of visibly and constantly occupying public spaces is to create something that can’t be comfortably or easily forgotten as soon as the moment has passed. And frankly, judging from the overreaction of quite a number of authorities, it’s working.