Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The New Terror: An Occupier Divided By Zero

I'm living two lives right now. I spend the majority of my time split between two environments that are almost as diametrically opposed as is possible in the spectrum of human interactions.

In one, Occupy Richmond, I spend the majority of my time in consultation with other people. It may be five to ten people in a work group or seventy to eighty in a General Assembly. I am, at all times, a fully empowered participant. The degree of my empowerment is limited only to the restrictions on my ability to participate. There's nothing arbitrary about it. My voice carries as much weight as the next person. The amount of information I have to inform that voice is limited only to the amount of time I can dedicate to following the thread of events taking place during any period of time and the understanding of the topic and those things tangentially related to it that I bring to the table. General Assembly's can consist of short discussions where consensus is reached relatively quickly on things as crucial as finance or where exactly this stage of the Occupation is going to occur. It can also be long, heated discussions related to some form of inner group discrimination, sometimes getting down to details like the use of pronouns. It always hinges on the press for the empowerment of the human being to satisfy their needs and to treat them with dignity. It's an environment that rewards the proactive service of the community, which satisfies my personal needs in a way that is extremely rare. I get nothing out of it except community, satisfaction in the understanding of the depth of my own efforts and camaraderie with others who are doing and experiencing the same. What all of this will produce is anyone's guess. I know that in considering this in terms of my own personal well being in congruence with a larger group or organization, nothing has ever been this good. It is the fruition of a lifelong dream to be able to take part in social movement dedicated to human dignity and a profound social and political change. I'm being consistently challenged, resulting in being often frustrated, but having more fun in the actual work of what Occupy Richmond is than I've ever had before. It's certainly not perfection, but it's a better vision of human interaction than I've found elsewhere.

In the other environment, work and school, I'm expected to essentially be a passive observer, servile. Last week, I had an interaction with an individual that ended up with him somehow bringing the topic of conversation around to people's sexual preference. It really came out of nowhere. It had no relation to the discussion at hand, which had revolved around a business transaction. Suddenly, for some unknown reason, he made some off hand comment about "the gays." It was then immediately followed by jokes. "Well, ya know, the only good gay is a dead gay. AMIRITE? AMIRITe?" Unfortunately, I wasn't so much shocked as disturbed, angered and disgusted. Having gotten nothing in return but a blank stare, he continued, "I hear they're starting to bury gay people fifteen feet down, because you know... deep down they're all good people." The sarcastic disdain with which he finished his comic presentation was a miasma in the room. At that point, with the implications of what he was saying starting to set in, I was surprised. It must have registered on my face somehow, because he went on to make some comment about how he had family members "who were like that," and that he "just doesn't understand it." My surprise wasn't that he was a homophobe, unfortunately. Being male with no outward indication of my sexuality in contemporary society apparently suggests you're probably a homophobe too, because homophobe's certainly seem to expect that you are. Racists and misogynists are like this as well. They just expect that you are part of the club. The difference being that in any other environment, it would be perfectly acceptable for me to participate in that conversation and say, "Wow. You just implicitly suggested that you believe that what you don't understand should be destroyed, and depending on someone's opinion of you as a human being, it could also be argued you suggested that killing gay people, for being gay, is perfectly acceptable... so long as you bury them deep enough. Oh, genocide, you so crazy."

In this environment, I'm essentially expected not to participate in my community in the way I honestly believe is the responsible manner. Of course, it's never explicitly stated, but if I were to start making customers uncomfortable about the racist, homophobic and hyper misogynist comments they make, calling attention to the fact that not everyone is in the club, and therefore questioning the possibility that theirs is the dominant set of values, the business I work for would start losing customers, and probably a lot of them. I'd be out of a job relatively quickly in that case because this is far from the first time something like this has happened. Let's also be clear that in the hyper political environment we're living in now, even if I were to leave the sarcasm and disdain out, and simply be clear that this kind of proclamation makes me deeply uncomfortable and that as someone who has helped this individual to find ways to make his business more profitable, I should at least deserve enough respect and human understanding to not be subjected to it now that I've told him, it would still only take one call for my job to be on the line. It's becoming ever clearer that profit isn't at the top of the list of priorities... obedience is, because it is required in order to have profit.

I know there are people who will say, "Why would you possibly work there?" My answer is simple. It's good to eat, and in case you've not noticed, jobs are hard to come by. Right now, the schedule this one affords gives me time to go to school and tend to the other important things in my life with some modicum of success. Essentially, I can make money with the least amount of intrusion on the things that are actually important to me and my future (which, incidentally, isn't just about me because it effects the woman I love, and my ability to contribute more efficiently and effectively to things like Occupy etc.)

In school, it's essentially no different. I spend a significant amount of time attempting to meet arbitrary requirements that have no actual benefit to me, as a member of the student community or seemingly to any other members of the student community at this point. I spend entire semesters in the service of those requirements, in full knowledge they are truly arbitrary in relation to the degree I'm seeking. I know that most employers at this point feel the new graduates they're hiring are unprepared, often in their fields and for professional life. I also know that these arbitrary requirements were put in place either to attempt to make students more attractive as employees or they are the remnants of the classical education model, kept in place to suggest colleges are still attempting to produce well educated, well rounded citizens. It essentially doesn't matter whether I graduate with a C or with honors. The degree is the thing, not the education. At this point, it's not even about creating attractive employees anymore, because the majority of employers believe new graduates are less well prepared when hired than at any point in the history of recording that information. This is not a problem that is specific to the U.S. either.  If you're someone who has developed an appetite for self education, this is not shocking. Having been in the working world and witnessed the economic decline on an up close and personal basis, I'm more than a little alarmed at what's going on in education. Through all of it, I'm not an active participant in those decisions. By every standard of measurement we have, with a few exceptions in the extremely technical or deeply specialized sciences, our educational institutions are failing. The marriage of actual education with degree seeking isn't producing good results right now, and the people that most effects, students, have spent their academic lives being taught obedience before all else, not active participation or critical analysis about the efficacy of the model that's being used to teach them. Long held beliefs are being proven untrue by science. People do not learn in different ways, "learning disabilities" (many of which may have been invented to explain away the inefficacy of the educational system more than they explain any actual disability with the students in question) not withstanding. Interest and engagement are better indicators of success than anything else, and the obedience paradigm demands students somehow magically develop interest and engage through the limited methods available to them, whether they are successful or not is framed as a failure of moral character.

 Consultation, dialog, and understanding aren't part of the equation. At work, the closest thing to a real dialog tends to be with my co-workers, but that is the largely theoretic and ideological conversation that has no desire to see itself made into a verifiable set of actions. It's a stark contrast, a group of individuals attempting to reach some level of consensus related to an action or set of actions they can take that will help to either make very real their beliefs and values or at the least to symbolize the degree to which they have been ignored or unmet by the society and economic structure they exist in. One of these environments creates and supports an open structure for all participants to take part in creating a consensus to take actions that make their values, beliefs and needs real and met while the other demands compliance... above all else. In both school and work, the focus isn't on anything other than obedience. At work, in some ways, I'm relatively lucky. I get along with both of the people I work with on an everyday basis and I actually like them. They're intelligent and genuinely good human beings. We disagree on matters of politics and society in many ways, but they are at least people who haven't come to their conclusions through some specious media outlet leading them by the nose, and they do genuinely care about other people and society. We just disagree about what possible solutions are best to handle the issues that face the individual and society. I've been in employment situations where that was not the case. I'm also the low man on the totem poll in this triumvirate, which adds other layers to the equation.

All of that being true doesn't change the fact that obedience goes before all else, and in some ways that makes it worse. Because I genuinely like the people I work with, because I genuinely care about their well being, I don't want to put them in positions which are going to draw the ire of their supervisors and bosses. I not only want to stay employed, I also don't want to put my boss in the position to be forced to fire me. All the while, I am not privy to or even able to access the information that is directly informing decisions that have a direct effect on me, my coworkers, and my continued employment. It's been a very bad few months in our business. There's been a press on to produce results, using methods specifically dictated, based on information none of us have access to, even when the possibility of a long term slump like this will have a direct effect on our daily lives, and for me, as the low man on the totem pole, my actual employment. If lay-offs begin, I'm in the first line, and that's not a theoretical concern in our current economic environment. Another bizarre twist of casino capitalism is that lay-offs will keep a stock price up, but they contribute to depressing the economy further because those newly unemployed aren't going to have any disposable income, which drives an economy based on services and consumption. Let me be clear here as well, this is definitely not the worst job I've ever had either. My direct supervisors, and their supervisors have so far been adept at walking the line between recognizing me as a human being, with a life beyond the hours of business operations, and being an employee and I appreciate that. I also realize they're just as trapped in this system as anyone else is. At the same time, participating in Occupy has made more stark the reality that I'm a passive observer, subservient to other interests that are not necessarily in any way interested in my well being, as are the people in my direct sphere of interactions.

A life dedicated to the constant toll of the bell for ever more intrusive obedience necessarily produces obedient citizens. Critical analysis doesn't come from nowhere, and like anything else, it develops with practice, and we've become trained by circumstance to use that critical analysis in ways that strengthen systems that don't serve us well, if they attempt to serve us at all. This, as much as the butt sniffing, sniveling, black hole of amorality the mainstream media passes off as "objectivity" have served to create a population that values obedience before critical thinking or valid criticism of the systems they're obedient to. At best, we value the spectacle of argument, more than the actual effort of consensus or the dedication necessary to actually be informed in an environment where information is all pervasive, but rarely reliable, which is a irreplaceable component of critical analysis and effective critique. Critical analysis, questioning and criticism are immediately taken as disrespect or disruption. In an environment like a classroom or school in general, nothing could be further from the truth. If a school or class is wasting the students time by forcing them through a curriculum that neither serves to prepare them for employment or educates them to be better, more active and informed citizens, then that school and the curriculum are wasting the students time, which should be paramount. The institution's time shouldn't be a consideration. We seem to be at a crossroads that asks us to make a decision about which is the aim of these institutions, education or career advancement and training. Do we want to require an education or do we want to require a degree?

At work, that obedience requirement takes another form as well. It involves education because at this point, the one thing I don't have to advance further is education. It's a ceiling that is punitive on more than one level. On the first, it's the blatant fact that ability and effort have no meaning. No matter what your level of ability or your work ethic, there is no advancing beyond a certain point because of the requirement. Also, without being able to meet the requirement, the costs of education can be extremely prohibitive. There's also the very real fear that taking on the debt for that education may not be the most intelligent thing to do as jobs are scarce, and I personally know a number of people who have college educations and have been among the long term unemployed in the last few years. Interestingly, one of the skills most lamented as lacking in today's graduates is the ability to communicate well in writing. That's not a skill I lack, and it's a skill I could probably even teach. Without the degree though, there isn't an opportunity to prove that. I'm required to submit to one system just about everyone agrees is broken in order to then submit to another system which is increasingly proving itself to be unsustainable and disastrously flawed, with no ability to address any of that. In a nutshell, this is why I have completely rejected the "change the system from the inside" mantra and chosen to be involved with Occupy. Once you're inside "the system" it prevents you from having any genuine ability to effect change, much less even present a critical analysis in the hope of creating dialogue, unless of course, you can provide the necessary documentation and accreditation. The process of acquiring that documentation and accreditation then makes you dependent on the continued existence of that exact system. At best, you can tinker around the edges without putting all of the things you have worked for in jeopardy or making them completely irrelevant.

At Occupy, none of this is true. My ability to participate is limited only by the time and effort I have to expend in doing so. Is there a complete lack of any respect for education and experience... absolutely not. If someone is in a particular field or has a degree that gives them the ability to be more effective, it naturally follows that anyone involved, specifically in the working groups, are going to be happy to have them and are going to value that experience and expertise. But not having those things doesn't preclude anyone's involvement in anything either. It's also harder work than I've ever done in my life because of the degree of compromise involved, and because I'm forced to take other people's ideas and perspectives into account in a way that isn't natural to someone who has finally gotten adjusted to the kind of system of unthinking obedience I'm confronting in the other arenas in my life. The truth is that I like to work hard, and enjoy it. My real request is that I'm able to do so in the employ of something I think is worth that time and effort since I only have one life to do it with. Unfortunately, there's a large choir of voices who while calling for each of us to find our place, doing that which we are passionate about, willing to work hard for and love, who also find it impossible to believe that someone can of their own volition, in possession of their conscience, find that making a better world possible is that thing they feel that way about.

In this context, the Occupy movement makes sense. Many of the problems we face as a people are the result of unthinking, unquestioning obedience to various entities. Political institutions, media, academic institutions and certainly corporations have all been allowed to demand obedience from the population they were actually created to serve, and as a result, we've ended up serving them with little to no thought about our actual well being because we've been so busy trying to understand how to make our lives and ourselves fit around that demand for obedience. From this perspective, Occupy Wall Street, and the movement it has inspired are deeply conservative. It's a primal outburst in recognition that we have been denied the responsibility of creating our own destinies because we've been required to submit so thoroughly to these institutions that don't serve us, and a demand that not only do they start serving us, but that it's time we start taking the responsibility of making the decisions about exactly what we have to be obedient to and why. Civil disobedience on this scale isn't the result of some kind of outlying fringe group, it's the logical result of the incivility we've been subject to from the institutions we've obedient to for far too long.

Occupy hasn't brought these things to my attention either, they're things I've known they existed for most of my life. What it has done is give me some hope that all of this isn't irredeemably lost, that maybe, just maybe, since I now know I'm not alone in feeling and seeing all of this as I interface with employment and academics, it doesn't always have to be this way. Maybe, just maybe, we can develop a more human approach to the way we see each other and not demand that the people around us become automatons, dedicated solely to the continued existence of the institution we're dealing with or a part of and can instead start to look at our communities, institutions, neighbors, co-workers, friends and ultimately ourselves in more human terms.

I believe that to the political and financial institutions who have so thoroughly abused the trust and power society has afforded them, that possibility is the new terror.

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