Blog Post

Self-Reflexivity and the Traditional Protest Model


On Dec 30., 2011,  Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Steve Huntley takes aim at the Occupy Movement using a Nov. 9, 2011, article in the “far left thought” magazine, The Nation, written by Eric Alterman.  Alterman criticizes Steve Jobs, the former head of Apple Computer, Inc., for a less-than altruistic business model, which included sweatshop conditions at a processing facility in China, and Jobs’ decision to discontinue company charity programs (since reinstated after he left the company in August 2011).  Even while referencing Jobs with such phrasing as “boorish,” and a personal fortune “hoarder,” Alterman admits to being “deeply devoted” to his Apple computer products.  Huntley uses Alterman’s personal feelings to explain the masses of people supporting the Occupy Movement.

“[The Occupy Wall Street protesters] hate corporations but wouldn’t dream of living without their products.  Strip Occupy camps of corporate products and you’d be a bunch of naked people shivering in public places,” Huntley argues.

Huntley isn’t entirely wrong.  Corporate products are inescapable.  My home city ballpark is now named after a cellular phone company; the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square sports a gigantic, branded light switch, and I can’t actually remember a movie, concert, or public event that wasn’t brought to me by _____________. 

What Huntley has presented, however, is an either/or proposition that only benefits those with social, political and economic capital: either you disavow completely, or you have no right to complain.  That kind of argumentation, however, encourages public apathy. 

Huntley’s fallacy in argument is to assume that a desire to take corporations to task for not improving the communities and people they impact must include a full-scale boycott of that product.  Many times, it’s just not that simple, especially when we think about “parent” companies and the sometimes hundreds of smaller companies they incorporate.  Nor does this problem get any easier when we think of communities with limited access to a wide variety of goods and services, such as those with more food deserts and liquor stores than co-ops and green homes.

Educators (some of whom I met at Chicago Occupy) in impoverished neighborhoods sometimes are faced with tough choices about taking donations from companies with poor social or environmental involvement.  Should those teachers deprive their students of educational enrichment because the kids, through no fault of their own, don’t have the same advantages as others in the same city or nearby town?

What about college students (also in high number at Occupy Chicago) who win scholarships because of their academic, athletic, or public service accomplishments from a company that may be bad news? Should they always put principles first? What about if it is their only shot at a post-secondary education?  Not everyone has the luxury of rejecting an opportunity for advancement. 

When I lived in Vienna, Austria, some of my Fulbright colleagues told me of the night they had witnessed neo-Nazis beating up a South Asian tram driver. None of the Austrians on the tram rose to defend the driver. Many turned away. The Austrians on the tram that night had somehow come to the conclusion that because it wasn’t them, it was alright to stay schtum.

Just because some one may be advantaged, it does not mean some other is not disadvantaged.  Nor does employing self-reflexivity when calling for change nullify the protestations of the many.  The misconception that only the purest among us can agitate for change is what keeps change from happening.  To merely accept abuses and inequality because “I’ve got mine” goes against everything I’ve ever learned as an American, and particularly, as an American of Color. 

I can’t think of anything more important to remember as members in the local, national, and global community that, contradictions notwithstanding, we have a responsibility to agitate for ourselves as well as on the behalf of those who have come to accept the idea that the most powerful among us should be allowed to behave callously toward the masses.  America belongs to us all, not only those with unlimited purchasing power.



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