So You Say You Want a Revolution: Looking Back at Occupy

It was early fall in 2011 when I first heard of the Occupy Wall Street Movement—those stalwart idealists dug-in to a concrete park in lower Manhattan. I immediately realized the significance. They had somehow managed to synthesize the anger, desperation and disappointment felt by disparate, sometimes hopeless groups across the U.S.—and as it would develop—the world.

I sprang into action, quickly joining the fledgling chapter in my hometown where I assumed the role of press officer and media spokesperson. Suddenly, I was expected to answer the barrage of questions, phone calls, radio and television appearances and newspaper interviews surrounding a movement that had grown so quickly that it quite literally frightened a significant portion of the American public.

The problem was, neither I nor the vast majority of participants had any idea as to how to articulate our concerns properly—or even what specifically those concerns might be. There were some awkward moments and I basically judged the success of an interview on how well I could deflect accusations that I was a knee-jerk leftist. After about a month or so, I gave up my role and returned to my busy life, somewhat disappointed and disenchanted.

What I realize now is that we had struck on something quite a bit deeper than just another social movement. Yes, of course there was widespread co-opting by labor unions, gay rights organizations, Democrats, anarchists, libertarians, veterans, immigrants, organic food advocates and a host of other groups. But in large part, these groups were attracted to Occupy because they realized that our aims might eventually lead to their aims.

Rather than just one of these groups, Occupy was, I think, a violent flailing-about, a difficult birth of a new consciousness. It was the first sprout of a seed of change that, rather then seethe underground or in “fringe” thinkers on the internet, it poked its little bud out of the dirt to encounter a hostile, difficult environment—an environment it was not prepared to survive.

These angry youth had (perhaps inadvertently) touched on a root of societal dysfunction so deep and entrenched, we didn’t even know what to call it, or how to properly articulate a description. We had touched on—and forced a confrontation of values.

Long have people realized in America that the explicit values of freedom, equality, democracy and justice are not implicit and what we truly value is, instead, the slow erosion of freedom, polite totalitarianism, rule by elites, a coddling of the aristocracy and above all, the idea that money buys power and power equals money. We saw that the values we had grown up hearing about, the values that made America so great—hard work, education, civic engagement—usually amounted only to underemployment, frustration with a paralyzed society and a pile of debt with no recourse to anyone or anything that cared. Essentially, our supposed values were not being valued.

Occupiers were not inherently virtuous. They weren’t necessarily heroic or more intelligent than anyone else. They came from across the political, economic, racial and social spectrum and you would be hard-pressed to categorize them in any way other than to say that they had been brought up to value things that weren’t being reflected in their society, things like respect and tolerance and a kind-hearted view toward their fellow man.

As a result, they advocated radical, earth-shaking, overly compensatory, sweeping and (some might say) ridiculous reforms, which didn’t help to dispel any of the fear that society was experiencing over them. They fractured and fragmented and bickered, regressing quickly back into disparate social movements.

But the conversation has changed and I see many more incarnations of Occupy (or whatever it might be called) in the future. These incarnations might not be so violent. They might come as this new generation slowly comes to power or they might come as our societies and economies crumble around our ears. But, if nothing more, we have been awakened to our values and the disparity between them and the values of those more powerful members of our societies.

My plea: don’t give up on democracy and don’t give up on those values. Great changes rarely come in a matter of months—or even years. It took American women over 70 years of campaigning to get the vote. Freedom and respect for black people in America is still an ongoing struggle—even 150 years after the Civil War. You will likely never see your perfect society, your utopia. But you can take comfort in the fact, yes fact, that people are good and would mostly rather make good choices than bad ones.

A Postmodern Science

I’m a big fan of architecture. I’m no good at it. In fact, I probably couldn’t design a chicken coop to save my life. But it’s a fun thing to look at and learn about. Architecture can be a window to history.

Art and architecture reflect society and society is a product of its people. Walking through an old city can give you clues about what people valued at a given time in history, and how they approached the social and physical world they occupied. An easy example would be the proliferation of cathedrals in medieval Europe.

Let’s take a look at modern architecture—not modern as in it’s happening right now, but architecture that was a product of the modernist movement in art, philosophy, architecture and a wide range of other social products.

Modernists saw themselves as separate and distinct from history and context. They ignored their historical precursors and opted for what they considered totally new and appropriate for a new, “modern” world transformed by industry, urbanization and booming capitalism. Buildings were made to be functional, not beautiful. You see it in skyscrapers—giant towering boxes, jutting out of the ground and cutting a jagged, unnatural line across the horizon. Or perhaps the Bauhaus “red box” house that is just is what it is—a red box, totally distinct from its surrounding environment with no regard for the people who would be living in it— could typify modernist architecture.

Bauhaus Red Box House

As one architectural critic, Charles Jencks, said: Modernist architecture is “dropped, unceremoniously, like an urban bomb” into its surroundings.

Then, as is natural in artistic movements, a new wave came along in total rejection of its predecessor—the post-modernists. These folks wanted their work to be integrative, to “fit” its surroundings, to “fit” the people who would use it, live in it, work in it. Post-modern architecture became collaborative. Historical movements were synthesized with it with a focus on new materials and creativity. Context became highly important. Post-modern architects acknowledged that what might work for Spaniards in Barcelona might not work for Americans in Denver. One example might be the Denver airport, designed to mimic the surrounding Rocky Mountains. Or recent trends of ergonomic workplaces and Feng Shui homes might exemplify post-modern thinking in architecture.

Denver Airport w/ Mountains

It occurred to me that the post-modern attitude is perhaps more useful to society with its acknowledgement of individuality, social identities and its understanding that people’s emotional and social needs are important. Simultaneously, it occurred to me that many of our social institutions haven’t caught up to what (as is so often the case) artists had already been doing for years.

Take the social sciences for example. Political scientists calculate how certain groups of people will vote. Psychologists designate us “type A’s” or “type B’s.” We are presented as tools, reacting only the stimuli the world provides for us, not necessarily engaged in it. These classifications are supposed to tell us how we’re supposed to act? Behave in a given situation? This might all equate to a deterministic worldview—you’re born a certain way in a certain situation and your future is spread out before you. What about context? What about individuality? What about history and culture and the fact that people create their own realities?

Inch by inch, forward-thinking scientists are coming to grips with these issues. Science can be integrative and contextual. Its job is to present reality, not prescribe a course of action. A new view of science, societies and people can help us create a world fit for people, not people fit for the world. That’s old, modernist stuff. Of course, it must be precise, but universal so that a person in Shanghai can benefit equally to a person in small town Kansas.

THEE is these things. Take what suits you, leave the rest. Apply its principles to your life. Others will apply the same principles differently to their life. Understanding it helps you be dynamic in a dynamic world. You can become the driving force in your immediate context, not the other way around.

The world is changing. You didn’t expect science would remain the same, did you?

Politics and Values

For centuries, there has been a debate over ethics—not just what is and what is not ethical, but where ethics come from, what justifies an ethical position and whether or not there is a universal ethical standard or if its all just relative to your culture or religion or time and place in history.

But let’s be honest, that’s all philosophy. It’s muddy water and has little to do with what happens out there in the real world. I’ll tell you right now that I have a penchant for philosophy and I’ve certainly got my opinions regarding the answers to those questions, but they are just that—opinions.

Sure, when it comes to the fates of plaintiffs and defendants in the courtroom, these debates over ethics become very real and do affect people’s lives in a tangible manner. But for the most part, people are just trying to get by in their given societies.

However here in the U.S., every four years or so, we’re bombarded with ethical debates from all sides. Politicians and their PR/propaganda campaigns try to convince us what is the best sort of society and how they are going to provide it for us. And people get fired up! Suddenly, ethicists and political philosophers start coming out of the woodwork—myself included.

What is ethics really? 

What we’re seeing, in THEE terms, is the relation and interaction of the four highest levels of the hierarchy of values. (This isn’t on the website yet, I’m privy to it through WK’s book: Working with Values: Software of the Mind. There is a simple illustration of it in the Communication framework under A Simple Check for Hierarchy if you click “See the example of Purpose.”) It’s fascinating stuff—and quite important. I’ll break it down:

  • Ultimate Values: These are what we experience or feel/sense within ourselves to be intrinsically good—things like freedom, justice, equality, truth, virtue, beauty, etc. 
  • Value Systems: These flow from ultimate values and are often called ideologies. You might hear an ideologue say something like: “freedom can only be attained through libertarianism where personal choice and responsibility are paramount” or “equality can only be attained through socialism where everyone has enough and no one has too much,” etc. 
  • Social Values: These flow from ultimate values and value systems and describe what needs any community/society should meet. You might hear a politician say something like: “We’re going to ensure security by providing free health care for all” or “We’re ensuring justice by revising the tax code,” etc. 
  • Principal Objects: These are projects, institutions or organizations that flow from the previous three levels of values. For example: “We will ensure security by providing free health care for all by allocating $25 billion to our social welfare programs” or “We will ensure justice by revising the tax code through a flat tax and the closing of business tax loopholes,” etc. 
Smart politicians shy away from principal objects. Too many specifics opens them up for criticism. The most effective orators really work ultimate values. In 2008, America elected their top dog on the platform of “Hope” and “Change,” for example. And Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech is littered with references to freedom and justice.

Of course, there’s always a large discrepancy between what is said and what happens after a politician is elected to office. It might get folks wondering if democracy really works or not.

Well, it does work—just not the way you think it should. One societal axiom we should acknowledge is this: A society’s ethical choices (the ultimate values it champions, the value systems that control the way people think about things (or understand) issues, the social values it actually upholds and affirms, and the principal objects it chooses and pursues) are a direct result of the values held by its participants. It’s up to us! (Not you necessarily—us. It’s too big and you personally don’t really have much control over it.)

Think of it this way. Do you wonder why America always seems to be at war? Look around, we’re a society of violence—from the fifth-highest murder rate in the world to our top-selling films and video games glorifying violence.

Do you wonder why our government is up to its eyeballs in debt? We are a society of debt—from student loans to mortgages to massive credit card balances.

Essentially, you can understand your society’s values by the choices it makes as a society and the way it interacts with other societies. Or, put another way—how does society walk the walk, rather than talk the talk?

Next Steps 

We so desperately want all of this to change. That’s why we elect the next guy who says what we want to hear. It’s “hope” for “change.” Problem is, it’s not going to change until our values change. And no new law or regulation can accomplish that.

It takes more than some protests in the street or ranting on the internet (guilty!) or lip-service to the direction society wants to go. It’s about a change in social consciousness. The good news is, it seems to be happening.

THEE has a lot to say about this. I’ve written quite a few blogs an various aspects of social change, but I’ll give you a little “further reading” section if you’re interested. Just click the links:

Enjoy! And if you have any questions/comments or would like direction in finding further information, just let us know.

What we have here is a failure to communicate!

I study communication in college. I am a part of the communication department. I’ve even been a teacher of sorts in the department. One day, I lectured on THEE. I don’t think it went too well. Maybe that’s a story for a blog on education or something.

The comm department (as we affectionately refer to it) is full of athletes. Why? Well, athletes are in college for other reasons than academics and the comm department has a reputation of being an easy ride. So, amidst the would-be journalists and film geeks are peppered very tall, muscly men who often have to leave class early to work out or run drills. They seem tired as well. You’ll often catch them having a nap during lectures on media law or Kenneth Burke.

Often, we’re faced with the question of what separates humans from the rest of life on this planet. And often, the answer is our ability to use sophisticated methods of communication. Between communication’s less-than-sterling reputation on college campuses and the fact that communication is literally everywhere in our societies, families, relationships, etc., I often get the sense that something big is being taken for granted here.

I think we simply don’t understand communication. Most of my classes revolve around someone’s theory of it or how it affects society or how to use it. But we’re rarely, if ever, confronted with real answers regarding what it is, how it came about, or its fundamental significance. I mean we talk about it, but we never come up with anything really. In fact, one class I’ve taken is simply piles of readings from dozens of communication philosophers attempting to grapple with these questions and none of them really get it figured out. In the end, you walk out of the class quite a bit more confused than you were going in.

Wiio’s laws point out how communication basically fails in practice most of the time. There are several laws, but the overarching point is: “Communication usually fails, except by accident.” Any of you out there who are married are probably intimately familiar with this concept.

Even THEE is currently a bit stumped when it comes to communication. Of all of the posted frameworks, communication is by far the most incomplete (however posting is ongoing). It cries out for someone, maybe you, to come along and work through it. What about you, Tom, you might ask? Yeah.. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

But if you take a step back into the Personal Endeavor framework, you can at least understand the significance of communication. We’ve talked about psychosocial reality (I discuss it in the blog, “Double Reality”). Well, communication is how you create this reality. It’s how humans have always created everything they’ve ever done. If you get to thinking about the sheer scope of that, it can be mind-boggling: everything from the seeds of civilization to our most sophisticated technologies. All of these things had to be communicated before they could come about.

We see that communication serves as a sort of bridge between our thoughts and ideas and the big world outside of our heads. We formulate an idea as a result of our willingness and purposes and when we turn it into words or images, it’s suddenly “out there,” outside of ourselves, waiting to be formed into something that becomes a part of the reality that we all share.

That being said, what does it mean for me? Now that we understand that communication is what created all of our most amazing achievements and our most heinous acts (ie. Goebbels propaganda campaign against Jews in WWII) then maybe it’s something we might take a little more seriously.

Ever heard the phrase: Choose your words carefully…