Why Can’t We Be Friends?

There is little room in the blogosphere for another comparison of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement, but echoes resound in the empty space where neutral constructive criticism might be found. This approach seeks not to endorse one movement over another, but attempts to advise both sides equally. A leveled methodology is precisely what both movements need. Inflammatory protest rhetoric engenders negative feelings in the very people the movement needs to sway: potential converts and opposition policymakers with veto power. It would behoove America’s grassroots socioeconomic movements to reconsider the antagonism that forms the crux of their complaints. A more positive discourse might increase the movements’ appeals to the unconvinced and lead to more gains.

In the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, America witnessed the emergence of two general approaches advocating for racial justice: racial separatism, championed by Malcolm X, and nonviolent resistance, championed by Martin Luther King Jr. For most of his career, Malcolm X believed that “integration is hypocrisy” and, therefore, “separation not integration” would bring justice. While separatism supported the ideological and daily needs of African-Americans plagued by prejudice, its incendiary words and actions alienated the movement from the rest of America. Separatism remains an integral object of discourse, but history has shown that integration—rather than separation—has allowed today’s society to be structured with a great degree of racial justice. In 1963, King urged against separatism: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of white people, for many… have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny… that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

King’s potent message should ring now more clearly than ever. Throughout his life, King believed that hostility of word and action appeases the indignant and antagonizes the opposition. Change can only occur when the shared humanity—the “destiny” and “freedom” of the people as a whole—is brought to light. In My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, King explains his “true pacifism”: “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter… [inflicting] only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while [receiving] may develop a sense of shame in the opponent…a transformation and a change of heart.” Pundits and people speak of class warfare today. Must it come to warfare? It seems that much of America—and the world—is unhappy with the economy; OWS and the Tea Party share a sense of victimhood. Yet both factions point fingers incessantly in the blame game.

King’s perspective traces perfectly the sharp bipartisan divide between the grassroots left and right in America today. Protesters carrying hostile signs—whether directed at corporations or at government—are unlikely to gain any sympathy from those whose support they most direly need: the other side. It is just too easy to call out an enemy; antagonism abounds. The U.S. Day of Rage website declares that “Either our representatives are with us or the terrorists. Will they abolish corporate personhood?” To its own detriment, this branch of Occupy Wall Street effectively alienates moderates by creating a vicious binary. On the one hand is full agreement with the cause, and on the other is terrorism. One egregious—yet perhaps still representative—member of the Tea Party was caught on camera during a rally holding a sign that declared “Congress = Slave-owner, Taxpayer = N*ggar.” Thus, a reasonable cry for smaller government becomes overshadowed through devastating and derogatory language. Is it not hard, then, for a moderate to sympathize with either extreme? Both movements lack King’s principle of love, or hope that the opposition will want to incorporate itself into the movement’s realistic vision for the future—without being forced into it.

As the newer movement, Occupy Wall Street has received its share of scrutiny, especially for its apparently incoherent policy objectives. Yet in the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” the General Assembly states an explicit and a singular call to action: “Assert your power. Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” Open discourse is thus proclaimed the primary objective; as a result, the movement should not be criticized for not yet having policy objectives. From what we have seen in stagnant Congressional politics of late, open discourse is of the essence, for we elect our representatives much less frequently than we change our minds, in the world of Twitter and news flashes. Give the protesters time to figure out where their strongest and most universal purpose lies. Nevertheless, if a movement is to succeed they must both encourage all types of dialogue and embrace the people they despise the most—for their support is vital, their disapproval fatal. Every member of society must be incorporated into any realistic or practical vision for the future. While democracy is the vehicle by which every voice may be heard, it is the voices which attain universal respect—such as that of Martin Luther King Jr.—which are heard for generations to come.

Diana T. McKeage ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a literature concentrator in Cabot House.

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