This month marks the fifth anniversary of my personal introduction to Occupy Newfoundland, the local manifestation of the global Occupy movement that arose from Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011 — and I’ve been giving some thought to the lessons and values I learned from that unique experience.
The Occupy movement is remembered primarily for two things: its naming of the villains who constantly thwart humanity’s desire to build a better world — the Wall Street investment bankers, the mega-corporations and the elite one percent of the population that continues to take an ever bigger share of wealth and income — and the Occupy encampments, populated by thousands of activists who interacted with each other in a very special way.
Occupiers as listeners
Above all else, Occupiers valued listening, and in our province they demonstrated this in a variety of ways.
On Tuesday evenings sessions were held at Memorial University featuring documentary screenings and guest speakers.
On Thursdays there were tent meetings at Harbourside Park. St. John’s was home to the only North American Occupy group to maintain an encampment over winter and into spring.
For me, it was the Sunday night meetings in the Crypt of the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, hosted so graciously by Rev. Jonathan Rowe, that kept me driving into town to attend throughout those dark winter nights.
Picture the scene: a large circle of chairs, and a table in the corner with coffee and cookies. Most Occupiers there were between 20 and 35, although there was a fair sprinkling of seniors like myself. Men outnumbered women, four to one.
The meetings started with the publicizing of the agenda, and then the floor was opened for discussion. Here’s where the listening came in. In the style similar to those of First Nations or Quaker groups, participants were asked to first indicate if they wanted to make a comment. Once discussion began, speakers had their say and then listened to others. If they wanted to add something, they waited their turn in the queue to speak again. Listeners could show their support, or lack of, through a variety of hand gestures which lent vibrancy to the whole process.
The focused but relaxed tone was all the more remarkable when you realized the diversity in the room. This was not a uniform group. Political opinion traversed the full spectrum. There were clergy, university professors, homeless people, students, pensioners, self-employed, and wage earners. No one dominated the discussions. Nothing was ever rushed.
In fact, the Occupy movement was heavily criticized for not rushing. One of the most common complaints was that Occupy offered no precise or immediate solutions to identified problems. That was deliberate. Occupiers were not going to let themselves be pigeonholed into quick fix propositions that benefited some groups at the expense of others.
For Occupiers, “We are the 99%” meant carefully listening and considering all opinions, and then looking for common ground in problem solving.
The demise of listening
There is a significant difference between my memories of Occupy and how public discussion and discourse unfold today, in 2017. Today it seems we increasingly prefer to bypass listening. Texting, tweeting and Facebook posts are the new norms. The instant feedback of real world discussion, where there is a greater opportunity to interpret and understand the other person‘s perspective—not just through specific words, but through their tone and body language—is disappearing.
This is a radical change, and I wonder to what extent it is transforming how we interact and view the world?
Ten years ago it was widely held that social media would be a fabulous tool for encouraging democratic participation. In some ways it has been. Occupy would never have happened had there not been Facebook and Twitter to get the message out. Today internet posts alert me to Muskrat Falls demonstrations and other events. I’m grateful for what social media platforms have given me.
There are, however, some emerging inconvenient questions about social media’s impact to consider.
The first stems from the sharp contrast between high Facebook and Twitter enthusiasm for a meeting or event, and the much lower attendance at the actual event. More and more people seem to be confining their democratic involvement to brief, feel-good online expressions of solidarity. There’s even a new name for this kind of activism: slacktivism.
The problem with stand-alone online activism is that governments are less and less moved to react. They’ve concluded that Likes, Retweets, form letters, and even on-line petitions don’t signify firm commitment.
The weakening of democratic values
A more worrisome question is whether there might be a causal connection between what we’re viewing and doing in the virtual world, and decreased support for democratic values. Both increased internet use and political disengagement have accelerated in the 21st century, and the trajectories of their ascent coincide.
With respect to democratic disconnect, arguably, our province is leading the way. Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest voter turnout of the 10 provinces in the 2015 federal election, and voter turnouts for recent provincial elections have been among the lowest of any province in recent Canadian history.
The decline in voter turnout is just one example of a growing democratic malaise. According to researchers Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, belief in democratic values throughout rich countries has plummeted dramatically in the 21st century.
The disengagement is most pronounced among millennials, the generation that is most plugged into the web, Foa and Mounk argue in their July 2016 article The Danger of Deconsolidation. For example, only one in three Dutch and 30 percent of American Millennials polled in the World Values Survey, of which Foa is primary investigator, stated that it is “essential” to live in a democracy.”
Even more worrying is that the share of respondents on the World Values Survey who approve of “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections,” has also gone up markedly in many countries.
Again, it’s younger people who are heading the trend. This is in direct contrast to the past.
According to Foa and Mounk, “In the first waves of the World Values Survey, in 1981–84 and 1990–93, young respondents were much keener than their elders on protecting freedom of speech and significantly less likely to embrace political radicalism.”
Making time for real and relaxed conversations is an important part of vibrant activism.
Is it fair to link some of the diminished enthusiasm for democratic values to increased social media and Internet use?
In the virtual world we don’t just get to bypass all the inconvenience of real world meetings. Should we not like what is being said in a particular online group we can effortlessly move on to another virtual community that better suits our point of view, but at our own and collective peril.
“The proliferation of search engines, news aggregators and feed-ranking algorithms is more likely to perpetuate ignorance than knowledge,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in the Guardian in 2014.
“It would seem that excessive social media use may intensify not only feelings of loneliness, but also ideological isolation.”
If we don’t spend time talking and listening to people with perspectives that are different from our own, radical choices can seem more sensible than they really are.
A call for more real meetings
The enormous fiscal crisis we face and the heartless injustice of Muskrat Falls should have sent tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians out into the streets protesting the bad, blinkered decisions of past and present governments. That the turnout was much smaller is in no way a reflection on the splendid efforts of the activists who have tried so hard to mobilize us. They are just up against too much inertia.
How do we address this problem? How do we reconnect people to real world participatory democracy?
National citizens’ advocacy group Democracy Watch recommends coffee parties as a good place to start. Our local Council of Canadians chapter is going to try out their concept. We’ve recently committed to meet monthly or bi-monthly for an hour in the morning before work at a convenient coffee shop. Meetings will not be driven by an agenda of things to do, but rather by an acknowledgement of Occupy wisdom: Making time for real and relaxed conversations is an important part of vibrant activism.
Might the approach catch on with others? Or will the world of Twitter, with its increasingly inflammatory one-liners and simplistic solutions to complicated topics, continue to dominate and grow?
We need to talk about all this.
How about over a cup of coffee?
Marilyn Reid writes from Conception Bay South. She is a member of Citizens against CETA and the Council of Canadians.