Through emphases on dialogue and community, the Occupy movement has displayed a new brand of political and spiritual expression, writes Avi Zer-Aviv.
Up until this morning, I was not sure what to make of the global Occupy movement that began in New York City last month. I was concerned it was the same old posturing of Leftist politics in another guise, with the same tired slogans and anti-authoritarian brand. I felt I had activist fatigue, and going to yet another demonstration seemed burdensome. Nevertheless, something told me to.
I hold nearly two decades of activist experience, having attended countless rallies in various parts of the world. However, the scene today at Day One of Occupy Toronto was like nothing I had ever seen before. I arrived at the intersection of King and Bay Streets in the heart of Canada’s financial district to find a wide assortment of messages, placards, and causes on display. Everything from Palestine solidarity to global warming, from worker’s rights to local municipal issues.
Suddenly, the experiment began. Two thousand people, facilitated by passionate youth, sat down on the street and began a mass conversation. There was no sound system, but rather a “human microphone,” where anybody attending could get up and speak and have his or her words echoed and relayed for everyone to hear. We were directed to spend time getting to know our neighbours on the street by starting a meaningful conversation. The atmosphere quickly grew free-flowing, and what struck me particularly was how deeply engaged many people became throughout the event, discussing relevant issues and arguing fine points.
One youth facilitator proposed a route for the march, and all 2,000 of us had the chance to vote on this proposal by using hand signals. As we marched through the streets amidst the towering corporate buildings, I noticed many people continuing the conversations that had started earlier. Whatever one’s personal agenda or political beliefs, something else was transpiring. This was not “politics as usual.”
As we reached St. James Park in Toronto, multiple “people centers” emerged throughout the park, where everyone could speak and share their perspective. Others chose to sing, some to meditate, and many simply watched and listened. There was no structured plan or agenda, no talking points prepared. This arm of the movement was literally creating itself before our eyes, all of us co-authors and observers. I had never seen anything so organic and trusting of people’s capabilities in the context of modern politics.
My critique of Leftist and liberal politics has been its over-association with its talking points and ideology at the expense of allowing free-flowing, engaging, and honest conversation. The concern “not to offend” and to “be sensitive” has meant many hard and complex conversations have not taken place. Manifestos have been formulated at the expense of so many, who understand that while the Left is incredible in championing so many worthy issues, it often is guilty of thinking in a “choosing sides” kind of way. This approach has turned many people off of politics, and as such, weakened democracy on the whole. The Right and conservative movement are just as guilty in their own particular brand of rigidity, often choosing ideology over open-hearted conversation.
This idea of free-flowing, honest, and complex conversation—and embracing people in their diverging and opposing viewpoints—is an approach traditional politics has, by and large, not embraced. That the Occupy movement does not have a clear message or talking points is the very source of its growing strength—not something to criticize. A space is being created for people to decide what matters. This is a dialogue, a social experiment not concerned with putting together a manifesto as much as being together in the question mark. And that, truly, is the seed for a revolution like no other.
The other important thing to note is that the focus of the Occupy movement has been to do things in community. Activists are cooking for one another, making sure others are being looked after and respected, and checking-in daily, not just with the ideology, but with each other. The supporters of Occupy are asking: “How are you doing in all of this?” This differs from the typical political question: “What do you think?”
One of my favorite rabbis tells a story of the historic, marked difference between liberal and orthodox synagogues. He often hears from many people that they love the progressive, inspirational sermons and services in liberal congregations, but feel a poor sense of community and invitation outside the formal service. Similarly, many of these same people tell him they cannot stand the monotonic and one-dimensional services and sermons in orthodox congregations, but feel very welcome by the community, and are even invited to a meal with someone they do not know.
This is important because it speaks to a spiritual poverty the Left has failed to address for far too long, which may be changing with the Occupy movement. Building and being part of a community that values human potential, while respecting difference, is exactly the remedy to so many of our societal ills that rest in isolation, aloneness, and fragmentation. Occupy’s genius is that it recognizes that no matter how brilliant one’s ideology and beliefs, change really begins at home with the way we are with each other, ourselves, and the planet. Bringing in the spiritual and interpersonal aspects in to the political arena evokes the eras of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., whose progressive politics and spirituality were closely linked. In today’s modern, liberal context, which is proudly secular and anti-authoritarian, we are all leaders in our own right and, as such, all bear responsibility for becoming the change we would like to see in the world. The Occupy movement embodies this reality, and as such, may be a birthplace for an entirely new brand of politics.
We may be on the verge of a spiritual renaissance, with the Occupy movement on the cutting edge. I would have never thought to write these words until a few hours ago, when I saw for myself that a truly new and captivating dynamic was at play. For years, spiritual leaders like Cornel West have called for the Left to embrace a politics of meaning, a coming together of our core spiritual needs with visionary politics. It has actually been the Right and the conservative movement who have sensed the spiritual crisis of meaning. Sadly, they attempted to capitalize on it by appealing to the masses, and used the opportunity to scapegoat “the other,” blaming the woes of the modern world on gays, liberals, feminists, Muslims, big government (though not corporations, interestingly enough), and other groups it claimed eroded “traditional” values. The conservative remedy to the modern spiritual crisis was to create a time warp to “older times” seen as more idealistic. The Right refuses to acknowledge that a relevant spirituality needs to embrace the whole of humanity, adapt to modern times, and be centered in the bedrocks of love, compassion, and justice.
A spiritual political vacuum has been created by the Right’s failure to articulate a politics of meaning. The Left has historically been a place where such politics flourished, the American civil rights movement being the latest modern example. The Occupy movement has tapped into this great desire for meaning and community, and its success will largely be determined by its ability to keep to this process, as it continues to grow as a revolutionary movement that embraces the whole person, including competing points of view between people. The more dialectic and interpersonal it remains, the more flexible and non-ideological it can stay, and the more political and social change we will see. Millions of people will re-engage in a meaningful and energizing participatory democracy, the likes of which we have never seen.
Can we, the people, make room for opposing viewpoints? Can we, the people, be respectful to one another while coming up with solutions to societal inequality? Can we, the people, create communities of love and interconnectedness that feed the soul and spirit? Since this movement belongs to us, it is only up to us to bring our full and total potential to it. The 60s may have been the first push. Forty years later, have we gathered enough collective and cultural wisdom to come together again in ways that go beyond counter-culture? We are being called to become the visionaries and elders of today, and this time our planet depends on it. This time, the stakes are higher than ever before.