Sunday, January 1, 2012

Objections to Calls for Resignation in Occupy Cal

Public humiliation is a powerful tool for mass protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street. It can stimulate change by highlighting the discrepancy between how things should be and how things are. However, it can also severely discredit a movement in addition to cause extensive collateral damage to individuals and organizations.

The Occupy Cal movement used public humiliation in ways that I felt were harmful for the movement and probably unfair to the targeted individuals. In response to police brutality at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, the Occupy Cal movement called for the resignations of the Chancellor Birgeneau, Officer Pike, and Chancellor Katehi. To me, singling out these individuals as being morally bankrupt is a form of public humiliation.

I feel that this was very unproductive because it was a distraction from the real systemic problems of wealth inequality, a distraction from people who are more responsible for the system problems, alienated people who are crucial for systemic reform, and set a bad precedent for the movement.

Wealth inequality is a major cause of many social and economic problems in this country. The causes of wealth inequality are complex. We didn't get this way overnight, and the solutions will be similarly complex. Even if the individuals really should step down, the movement needs to be careful of the message it sends to the public. When the protest movement calls for resignations, the message to the public is that individuals are the primary cause of our problems. This is very wrong. The resignation of Birgeneau would not have any impact on our systemic problems. Locally, we can't even guarantee that the replacement would be any better. The movement will have squandered its energy, resources, and goodwill among the public for little to no gain.

Actually there are individuals who are closer to the causes of our systemic problems such as Grover Norquist, Alan Greenspan, and Rupert Murdoch. In fact, any citizen who is categorically against any government regulations is probably more responsible for our systemic problems than Linda Katehi. I strongly feel it was unfair for full weight of frustrations of a mass protest movement to be channeled towards Linda Katehi, Robert Birgeneau, and the pepper spraying police officer. While these are flawed individuals who all made mistakes, I view their actions through the lens of roles in a larger system. They are not ideologically opposed to the movement. That these individuals took more heat than those who don't think wealth inequality is a problem makes a mockery of the movement.

Calling for resignations alienated people. Members of the 1% who are sympathetic to the movement can be very important allies for implementing reforms. Those who otherwise benefit from the current system may be in positions of power. They may have institutional knowledge about the system that can help us reform the system effectively. Some of them care deeply about wealth inequality, but everyone has done things that are not consistent with their ideals. Birgeneau himself comes from a modest upbringing. Bringing down a 30 year career dedicated to improving higher education based on a single event would cause enormous amounts of harm to the individual while doing nothing for systemic reform. Others in positions of power now have a good reason to distance themselves and perhaps seek to bring down the movement.

The most insidious aspect of the calls for resignation is if it sets a precedent as a success story for the movement. It is certainly easier to destroy the reputations of individuals than reform the education system. In order to maintain momentum, the movement may turn to public humiliation more and more readily. It was very powerful when the students sat silently during Katehi's walk of shame to her car. But no matter how satisfying or thrilling, I would hate for anyone to feel that it was some kind of accomplishment.

These events were very emotional, provoking a strong reaction and urge to escalate. I realize that my concerns are almost inhumanly rational. Even so, I want to appeal to the better angels of our nature. As someone who cares deeply about wealth inequality and the importance of social mobility, I want the movement to keep the moral high ground.

No comments: