Mixed messages

You all know about the Occupy Wall Street movement. But, it often seems that its aims are distinctly unclear. Are the protestors seeking greater government intervention in the financial sector? Are they demanding laws be passed that limit risky activities undertaken by banks? Are they protesting against the influence that corporate wealth has on American politics? Or are they demonstrating against what they perceive to be the unfair distribution of wealth between rich and poor? The Economist has called it the “Rorschach test of protests” in that it has no defined form; people just look at it and see what they want to see. But whether you see the movement as a cacophony of protests that simply drown each other out, or as a coherent critique of the capitalist culture that is a foundation of American society, one thing is certain – this movement is one without a clearly defined goal. Nevertheless, the protest is something we at the College must take notice of.

At the College, we are far removed from the busy streets and activism of New York, but that does not mean we are not, or should not be, affected by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The College is a favorite recruiting ground for many big name firms, many of which exercise tremendous influence in financial and public policy. Many students here are from affluent backgrounds, and those who are not are still exposed to the many opportunities open to students – opportunities that the overwhelming majority of Occupy Wall Street protesters do not have. Moreover, we are a student body that takes pride in our intellectual curiosity, activism and understanding. When we feel that there is something unjust in society, we do not shy away from openly addressing it.

The Occupy Wall Street movement contains useful lessons that can help us become better advocates of progress. The first lesson is letting our target audience be the protagonists instead of the antagonists. The Occupy Wall Street movement makes clever use of the phrase “we [represent] the 99-percent.” During one the First Days presentations on rape and sexual assault at the College, presenters could for instance decide to state that some 90-percent of rape victims are women instead of stating that some 90-percent of sexual offenders are men, which undoubtedly creates a sense of mistrust between male and female students and hinders cooperation in preventing sexual assault. This was the right choice on the part of the presenters, and it is a move that activists at the college should make in the future whenever they are genuinely interested in making a change: It is a more effective tactic than blame.

The second lesson is embracing greater diversity within our movements. The Occupy Wall Street movement was better received when young, hip protesters were joined by uniformed airline workers demanding better wages, a position that labor unions and middle class Americans could empathize with. The Williams College Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Alumni Network could gain wider support on campus if it put more emphasis on the friendly cooperation between homosexuals and heterosexuals in advocating tolerance rather than putting emphasis on past instances of intolerance; that emphasis breeds distrust and hinders progress.

The third, and most valuable, lesson is the importance of clarity in what we advocate. The Occupy movement lacks the cohesive, principled core that was the basis of so many political and social movements in history. The litany of interests within the Occupy movement has prevented the group from gaining traction. Occupy Wall Street has received immense scrutiny from the media because it lacks clear and concise goals. The ultra-conservative Tea Party began in a similar fashion before figuring out a concrete message and gaining political traction. Without a succinct mission, the demonstrators appear to be protesting simply for the sake of making a scene and expressing their anger. In comparison, it seems that activism at the College, though often well-intentioned, also tends to lack clarity at times. Take for instance students lounging in Paresky, staring with confusion at a giant poster that reads “Define Slut.” Though the Slut Walk movement advocates the protection and rights of women who are sexually assaulted, the poster’s strong words and lack of  explanation leave many passersby with a quiet sense of distaste and bewilderment. If people did not attend the slut-walk or read the Record on Oct. 5 (“Defining ‘Sluthood’”), there is no way that they could wholly understand. Working to clearly present what the issues are and what is at stake in all of our activism is imperative if we want to actually achieve something.

The lack of direction of the Occupy movement should serve as a lesson for student advocates at the College: There is value in knowing what we are doing before we take action. We must seek to gain an in-depth understanding of an issue before we condemn it or advocate on its behalf, and we must set concise goals that are realistic and logical. In essence, we at the College must think before we take action.


Alex Sun ’15 is from Potomac, Md. He lives in Dennett 3. 

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