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A Different Conversation

By Roisin Duffy-Gideon, Erin Harrington, and Andrew Howe

We find ourselves becoming ever more disappointed with the nature of our campus discussion about Occupy. Too many of us, in lecture halls and dining halls, on Facebook and in The Crimson, have increasingly been expressing derision and hostility towards the movement.

Many of us have values and experiences in common with the spirit of Occupy. We know about the economic challenges of the middle class, the working class, and the very poor. We are aware of unequal access to quality education, healthcare, housing, and food, and we believe these are serious problems for the country.

In spite of these shared concerns, there is a growing group among us choosing to disparage Occupy. Instead of respecting the efforts of those camped out in cities across the country, they condemn the movement as disorganized. They complain that there are too many messages and too few concrete goals. When Occupiers do propose concrete ideas and goals, these students dismiss the proposals as shortsighted, off-point, or extreme. Many take issue with Occupy’s lack of leadership and clear communication. When the demonstrators do communicate, there are Harvard students who label the rhetoric as overdramatic or anti-intellectual.

We tell ourselves that if the right leader came along, we would get involved. If it were just the right message, in just the right tone, then we would hold up a sign and join the march. If there were a beautifully packaged eight-point plan, then the demonstrators would deserve our support.

Real democracy isn’t like that. It’s messy and complicated and hard, and people bring to the table what they have to give. Real democracy means everyone has the chance to stand up and speak out. If we’re upset about half-baked goals and unsatisfactory rhetoric, then we should come up with our own. We should help the Occupiers research and write and dream up bigger and better things for this country. It’s not enough to say a policy isn’t supported by evidence, if we can’t supply one that is better-researched. It’s not enough to say a goal is impractical if we can’t suggest a more realistic one.

In a true and fair democracy like the one Occupy is trying to foster, decisions are made by those who show up. If you’re not showing up, then it’s not fair to make unproductive and contemptuous criticisms of those who are working to build a better society. Constructive criticism is essential to a healthy democracy. The purpose of constructive criticism is not to tear down another person’s work but to support it and improve it.

We need a fundamental change in the conversation about Occupy and in the broader conversation about the state of the country. Let’s talk about the kind of country and the kind of world we want to live in. Let’s talk about how to take better care of each other. Let’s talk about how to be responsible neighbors and dependable friends. Let’s talk about how to be inclusive and respectful.

We need to stop asking more from those who are already doing their best, and start expecting more from ourselves. If we agree that no one should be hungry and no one should be cold, that every child should have access to education and every sick person should have access to medicine, why are we content to sit on the sidelines while others work toward systematic solutions toinjustice?

These goals speak to the most important problems facing our society, yettheyare not all that we should be striving for. Our neighbors and friends should not have merely enough to survive. Our society has the means to ensure that its citizens live rewarding and fulfilling lives. Achieving such an end will require much of us. If Occupy has taught us nothing else, it is that our society suffers from too little civic participation and too little active citizenship. Far too few of us vote. But even voting is not enough to ensure a just and vibrant society. That requires time and effort from us. We can march. We can write. We can even simply discuss with our friends.

So let’s have a different conversation. Let’s talk about empathy and justice, compassion and love. Let’s talk about how it isn’t fair when someone doesn’t have a place to live and doesn’t have enough to eat. Let’s talk about what matters, and then let’s do something about it.

Erin E. Harrington '12 is a government concentrator in Cabot House. Andrew P. Howe '12 is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Cabot House. Roisin L. Duffy-Gideon '12 is a social studies concentrator in Cabot House.

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