This is the second post in a series of posts I am writing in response to some inane commentary about #OccupyWallStreet. I am beginning with a response to Sally Kohn’s Piece “Follow No Leader” but will add to the discussion as I read more inane commentary from journalists who seem content to point out their own incompetence and call this “reporting.” I am not singling out Kohn’s piece because I think she is incompetent and other journalists are competent. Instead, I chose her piece as representative of a genre.
I don’t see this post as a defense of the movement as much as it is a criticism of journalism.
The sections I examine are as follows:
2. Leaderless Clearly Means Pointless (This post)
3. They are Middle Class the Hypocrites!
4. Those “Smelly” “Jobless” Hippies Should Just Try Harder if They Want to Succeed
5. Focus on What They are Wearing
6. Are Journalists Simply Incompetent?
In the first post, I argued that the demand for one demand is forgetful of history. Once we recognize an injustice it is easy to identify that injustice as the demand (in retrospect). But at the time an awareness of a new form of injustice is developing the sense of outrage is usually amorphous, because we don’t yet have words or concepts to name that injustice. Usually there are a series of smaller demands that only later seem to be related to a single goal. “I have a dream” that we will be taken to “the promised land” is not exactly a specific demand. In retrospect, once we have a name for the injustice we can see how the “disparate” demands are actually “one demand.” But that only happens over time.
In this post I want to look at the criticism in the mainstream media that seems to say that if there is no leader, then the movement cannot have any point. Once again, this criticism was raised in response to the G20 protests in Toronto, but once again, all it does is point to journalistic incompetence.
2. Leaderless Clearly Means Pointless
One of the main criticisms of the new kind of activism that eschews leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King is that without a leader the media cannot figure out what is going on, so clearly nothing is going on (they mistakenly conclude).
As was the case with the demand that there be one clear demand, this only shows that old-style media reporting cannot keep up with new-style activism. I agree with the journalists that it is probably more difficult to get a “sound bite” from a movement with no leader charged with producing such sound bites in their inspirational speeches.
I wrote before about why reducing arguments to sound bites in the media is harmful, but here is another shot. In philosophy we teach students that they must criticize the premises, or the connection between the premises and the conclusion. They may not just attack the conclusion. The reason we teach this is that if all one does is attack the conclusion one has “contradicted” the speaker, but one has not argued against the speaker. By reducing arguments to sound bites, as journalists have recently been doing, all we get in political discourse is contradiction. We don’t get any argument. If this seems confusing, watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ “Argument Clinic” sketch.
The complaint that there is no leader of the movement really boils down to a complaint that this makes the job of the journalist difficult in a way it used to be difficult before journalism gave up. If there is no leader, then journalists will have to research and think about possible reasons for a protest rather than reducing the argument to a “sound bite” which is even worse than reducing an argument to a conclusion.
So, let’s see how this operates in an actual article. I have been working with Sally Kohn’s Piece “Follow No Leader” so let’s stick with that. Kohn goes on to write:
Indeed, the group calls itself a “leaderless resistance movement” and claims inspiration from “our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland.”
One of the downsides of anarchists is they tend to oppose most forms of organization—including their own. Rather than the usual “we’re all in this together” sense of purposeful community that propels meaningful protests, Occupy Wall Street felt like the political equivalent of a rave; it made recent uprisings across the globe seem like a trivial fad. (Source)
There are actually two points here. The first is “There is no leader, so who am I supposed to interview?” part which is just journalists whining that the way they were taught to do their job no longer applies (and thank goodness for that, since the “sound bite” was destroying discourse). The second complaint also lacks substance; it boils down to the claim that without a leader there can be no sense of community.
This second claim is a ridiculous claim. It ignores the fact that having a leader can also undermine community. One of the reasons that modern activist movements avoid leaders results from complaints in previous movements that having a leader excluded some voices and some experiences. For example, some Black feminists have argued that the civil rights movement was a movement for Black Men’s rights but neglected Black women’s rights. Similarly, Black feminists complained that 1960s feminism was a movement for White women’s rights, but it neglected the rights and issues that were important to non-white women. Having a leader can undermine a sense of “we’re all in this together” just as much as (and possibly more than) having no leader does. Kohn is simply not paying attention to who counts as someone who does not feel that a movement is “all in this together.” That is her problem, not the problem of #OccupyWallStreet. The complaint that movement leaders often overlook the needs of the most marginalized among their groups is actually well-documented within peer-reviewed scientific literature. When I can be bothered to link it up for the lazy journalists, I will do so.
Kohn suggests that comparing #OccupyWallStreet to Egypt trivializes the Egyptian revolution, but here we should ask whether this is really true. For example, who was the “Leader” of the Egyptian revolution? When was this “leader” identified? Before or after the success of the Egyptian movement? There were leaders in retrospect, but as far as I saw there were no “leaders” at the time. This is what the internet gives us that was not there before the internet: the opportunity for organizers to organize without being killed or identified as easily as Dr. Martin Luther King was. One of the advantages of modern leaderless activism that is enabled by the internet is that it prevents us from having a clearly identifiable “leader” who can then be assassinated in an attempt to end the movement (whether this assassination is at the hands of a “deranged” individual, as in the Dr. Tiller case, or a genuine government action really is of little consequence. What matters is whether there is an assassination or not).
Finally, what is wrong with the fight for justice feeling like fun? Seriously? I believe that a lot of the movements in the 1960s felt like fun. They also felt scary. But gaining rights for a group/cause previously excluded should be fun. It is the “fun” of confronting the unknown, and working to clearly identify previously obscured injustices that can keep us motivated to learn about injustice.
Before I end this post I want to look at one last aspect of Kohn’s article that is ridiculous on this “leaderless” criticism.
In other words, part of the “collective” in the collective-art form of protest comes not just from a loose association of strangers marching on the street but intentional, cultivated communities. That’s why, for instance, Internet “organizing” has been effective at rapid-response, mass mobilizations but not the deeper, sustained work of movement building. There’s a qualitative difference in what’s achieved through on-the-ground community organizing. (Source)
This just shows that Kohn has no idea what internet activism is. We can, and often do, feel community with others not just because we interview them face-to-face (as is stock and trade for journalists) but also because their stories have been told in a compelling way. Authors who write novels, for example tend to make us feel a part of the “collective” not by going face-to-face and interviewing someone, but instead by imagining being in their place.
So guess what, journalists, your method of creating epistemologies is not the only method. It might in fact not be the best method. Stop pointing at your own failures and blaming them on someone else. Do some reading, I assure you that it is possible to sort out what this movement is about, even if there is no leader. It does not trivialize Egypt. It continues to legitimize Egypt and the kinds of causes they were fighting for.