Occupy Wall Street asks “What do we all Agree On?”

The recent Occupy Wall Street movement has been successful because it does something that our political system has been unable to do:  align people around shared beliefs and values.  Unfortunately, our current political system is not very good at aligning politicians and citizens to work together towards common goals.  The focus seems to be exclusively on battling over areas of disagreement.  Our system of elections, for example, virtually guarantees that a centrist candidate, in spite of possibly appealing to the broadest base of citizens, would be viewed as a weak member of their party, and would therefore be unelectable as president. 
Our two party system requires that our political dialogue revolve around differences of opinion and the most important seats in government flip from one extreme to another, never settling in to a comfortable medium that might actually rise above the fray and get things done.
Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, has been able to generate a dialogue around areas of mass agreement.  Sure, describing themselves as the 99% may be an exaggeration or even a misrepresentation, but the majority opinion seems to resonate in their message . . . a majority opinion that none of our political representatives seem to share or be fighting for.

A recent report in the New York Times for example, cited the national distrust of the government at an all time high of 90 percent.  The article goes on to say that “two thirds of the public said that wealth should be distributed more evenly in the country.  Seven in 10 Americans think the policies of Congressional Republicans favor the rich.  Two-thirds object to tax cuts for corporations and a similar number prefer increasing income taxes on millionaires.  Not only do 89 percent of Americans say they distrust government to do the right thing, but 74 percent say the country is on the wrong track and 84 percent disapprove of Congress.” 

So it seems in spite of all the political disagreements, there is a lot that we agree on.  Given the mass appeal of this messaging, it is easy to understand the popularity of Occupy Wall Street.  Most people agree that financial interests have too great an influence on government.  Most people agree that America is moving in the wrong direction in terms of distribution of wealth.  Most people don’t understand why fundamental needs such as quality education and health care are so expensive, and why the U.S. is less educated and less healthy than many of our poorer neighbors.  People are frustrated that tax dollars are used to bail out large companies and financial institutions, keeping corporate profitability and executive compensation at an all time high, while unemployment is also soaring high on the charts.
But Occupy Wall Street has a distinct advantage over our elected officials.  It is much easier to get everyone aligned around what is wrong with our country.  It is a lot harder to get people to agree with how to fix things.  So as long as Occupy Wall Street stays focused on the challenges and vague on the solutions, they will have a big bandwagon with broad appeal.
But I do think there is hope for OWS to rise above just being a protest movement of “change for the sake of change.”  If OWS can model a way of maintaining the dialogue around common areas of agreement while developing real solutions to the problems we confront, then they may show us a new way of governing ourselves.  Barak Obama had promised this kind of government when he ran for office.  With a focus on “the things we can all agree on” and the message, “we are the people we’ve been waiting for,” he promised an inclusive government that would get everyone involved.  But he wasn’t able to make it happen.
Some will say he was sabotaged by the Republicans, others will say he was too weak and too inexperienced.  Regardless, it seems clear to me that there is no presidential candidate who will take America to where it needs to go unless our system of government drastically changes.  And for that, I hope Occupy Wall Street continues to shake the foundation. 
What would the world look like, if every person in government, and every citizen of every state, city and township were to stop debating along lines of disagreement?  If every person were to ask, what do we all agree on?  Imagine if all the energy that we spend on debating political issues were directed towards issues and solutions that are not controversial.  I think we would see a new era of progress the likes of which we have not seen since the renaissance. 

Can Occupy Wall Street be the movement that gets the American people aligned around common values and moving together towards a brighter future?  This remains to be seen.  But I am hopeful, and my support is with the “99%.”

6 Responses to Occupy Wall Street asks “What do we all Agree On?”

  1. Sara Firman November 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    You’re right about witnessing an alignment around shared values or hopes happening here. But I’m not convinced that the answer lies simply or immediately in pressing for solutions. That has been our modus operandi, some would say the more masculine approach: ‘Got a problem? Then lets find the solution.’

    Of all the articles I’ve read on this topic so far, this one made the most impression: Remaining Human: A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street. In particular, the recognition that:

    ‘What’s been stolen from the people is not merely a physical space (their foreclosed homes, for example) but space to rethink how our society operates and what to do about the bottom dropping out. Even the media, looking for a hook, can’t find one. “What are your demands?” the media keep asking. The answer: “It’s too early to say.” Let’ s see how much space we can hold, let’s see what our power is, and then we can begin talking about demands.’


    This need for space came up last month with the topic of ‘taking back your time’. There are actually lots of ‘solutions’ out there but they don’t get a chance to develop or try out or enter into the arenas of those who might be able to make good use of them. We’re too busy doing business as usual.

    No space between the inbreath and the outbreath.

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar November 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    Amen, Jeremy!

    I didn’t get the same feeling as Sara did, when I read your article. I didn’t find it overly masculine, nor that you were pushing towards a premature solution. You’re saying, “let’s talk about what we agree on so we can make progress” – I see nothing wrong with that. I haven’t followed Occupy Wall Street closely, but from what I understand of it, the people on Wall Street have had considerable time to think. What they haven’t had and still don’t have is a way to organize and channel their thoughts. Time to move the conversation to what all this will amount to.


  3. Sara Firman November 2, 2011 at 8:28 am #

    Hi MJ (and Jeremy) – I did wonder after I posted whether using the word ‘masculine’ would be misunderstood. I associate this term not with Jeremy/ gender but with the aspect of consciousness in us all that is more goal- or solution-oriented.

    Whilst acting might well seem pretty urgent right now, so is acknowledging and listening. Then, the answers might begin to take shape in a way that is more deeply rooted in the lived experience of those who are suffering. This takes a lot of trust and likely feels unsettling to those who are still doing OK.

    (I also admire and respect Jeremy for writing on topics like this.)

  4. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) November 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Thanks Sara and MJ, I appreciate your perspective on this and for pushing me to think a little differently. I like what you have to say about giving people space to talk and listen without necessarily trying to fix things. My only concern is that sometimes it becomes all too easy to build a community around all the things that you don’t like. Just like the office watercooler becomes a place for people to gather together and complain about their boss and their job.

    For it to really evolve, I’m just imagining that the discussion has to transcend this and get to a place where people begin sharing stories of what they want the future to look like and not just what they don’t like about the present.

    A good book to reference is tribal leadership which tracks how tribal mentalities evolve. A stage one or two tribal culture is about how “life sucks” or “my life sucks” as opposed to a stage four or five mentality which is around “we are great” or “life is great”. The trick is to get from “life sucks” to “life is great.”

  5. Sara Firman November 5, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I’m wondering if some of what could be called ‘tribal mentality’ here is a reflection of the national or ‘collective shadow’. It’s a complex and hidden issue and as such will be hard to see.

    It requires willingness to watch for any appearance of judgmental attitude toward (or – more mildly – distancing from) others, and ask where is the personal/ societal shadow in that separation?

    One manifestation of the collective shadow, for example, is when people project shadow qualities upon the extremes of both the homeless (whom they might view as irresponsible) and the rich (whom they might view as greedy).

    It’s especially challenging to face this if we are invested in an ideal of purely positive qualities, and if we have been further alienating ourselves from our shadow by succumbing to judgmentalness.

    Jungian thought suggests that we all have a shadow side, and it does not go away if we deny and repress it. It leaps up to grab us with a shock factor in direct proportion to the degree to which individually or collectively we have projected it onto the other.

    That’s why I think time is needed, not only for the ‘others’ out there on the streets to get their act together and work out what to do, but also for those looking on to ask why this is occurring in their country, their town, their workplace, their street, their house …

  6. Eric Stephenson December 1, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    Thanks for providing a forum for this discussion Jeremy. I too have been asking myself where common ground exists for a solution to a host of symptoms that seem to distract us from the real issue. I keep coming back to getting the boundless sums of corporate money out of our political system. In my opinion, this singular focus could wipe out a thousand ills. Elections at every level are bought and sold and it drives bright, honest Americans away from seeking public office.

    If this movement could bring opposing sides together around this one goal, we could clear a path through much of the pointless drama that clogs our current political reality show.

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