Friday, October 14, 2011

"Othering" the Wall Street protestors: How image is tied to legitimacy

I've been reading a lot of online media (Cutting Through The Visual Dissonance of Occupy Wall Street; Occupy Wall Street --Faces of the Revolution) and Facebook posts regarding the problems some people have with the carnival nature of many Occupy Wall Street activists. "This isn't Halloween/I can't take anyone in a drum circle seriously"... The line of reasoning appears to be that if activists aren't dressed in a serious nature then they can't be taken seriously.

In order to legitimize the movement, reporters are pointing out that "everyday people," retired teachers, military vets, business owners, are also part of the protest. Dissecting a photo of a protest in San Francisco, author Queena Kim writes: "There’s the tie-dyed clad man with the white beard (hippie), there’s the woman with multiple-piercings around her mouth wearing thongs in the rain (street kid?) and then there’s Beverly Best." Standing amongst the stereotypical activists, Best, a 60 year old unemployed white woman "who is really upset about the way this country is going," serves to authenticate the concerns of the movement.
I found a similar phenomenon when doing my dissertation work with New York City freegans. Many people I spoke with wanted to compare freegan dumpster divers with "legitimate" homeless people. Diving food was at best virtuous for homeless individuals and at worst an unfortunate survival mechanism. For freegans though, the stigma of choosing to root through garbage to make a political and environmental point rubbed many people the wrong way. I found that often this tactic of de-legitimizing freegan activists based on the (false) theory that most of them were privileged white kids on a lark, helped distance the politics behind what the freegans were doing and hoped to accomplish.

In anthropological terms, this process of "othering," creating oppositional distinctions between “us” and “them" and using those distinctions to create or maintain a power dynamic, has been used between and among nations for centuries.  (Edward Said wrote a classic book, Orientalism, which looks at the process of othering the "Orient" and the social and political implications.) Othering of activists by people who don't, or are looking for a reason not to, take the protest seriously, allows the focus to remain on stereotypes and differences.  This makes it difficult to find commonality and begin a conversation.

In the next blog, we’ll discuss another highly criticized aspect of the protest, the seeming lack of a unified message, and how the plurality of causes is an integral aspect of postmodern political activism.

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