Occupy Wall Street is Telling a Morally Compelling Story

(OMG – had the link to Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk wrong! Fixed now.)

One reason the “Occupy” movement has resonated so well is that they are NOT making an “enlightenment-type” argument, with positions and statements and platforms. Instead, it’s a lot of people (group members, “people just like us”), sharing their stories (stories are much better for engaging other people), and showing how fairness has been violated, how authority (such as the Bible and the law, and of course how local police have often been seen as oppressive) has been violated, and showing how purity and sanctity have been violated (e.g., by doing a great job of cleaning up after themselves).

The story of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) – both from the OWS movement itself, as well as the attacks against it  – is totally aligned with Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy of moral dimensions (link to excellent TED Talk) that I talked about in a previous post. (The dimensions are fairness, harm/safety, group membership, respect for authority, and a purity/sanctity dimension – liberals often focus on the first two and give short shrift to the last three). Looking at the OWS story, we see the following:

  • The “We are the 99%” message creates an “us vs. them” situation where more or less everyone can be “us,” and the “them” is a small but immensely powerful and privileged group. It’s a very effective story – nearly everyone can look at their paycheck and say “Oh, I’m definitely not making $1 million per year, and I’m a long way from that, too.”
  • And their own actions – cleaning up after themselves, being non-violent – is clearly respectful and sanctimonious, in the good sense of the word. They are clearly taking care of their environment, playing by the rules, cleaning up after themselves, and all that. So the purity/sanctity thing is happening.
  • Of course fairness is at the heart of the argument, and they’re all over that.
  • Their “respect for authority” is kind of a mixed bag – an area where they can maybe do a little better, honestly, but the underlying things are there. They have been working with the police and city halls – that’s the local authority. I think the Ten Commandments and its “Thou Shall Not Steal” is hugely resonant in this story – depicting the “them” as thieves is incredible positioning. And there are the laws and regulations – “we’re just asking for the laws to be enforced” kind of thing, about the financial regulations.

On the other hand, the attacks on OWS from the right wing can teach us a lot about how the experts on the other side make use of the same dimensions (relatively unsuccessfully in this case). First of all, the OWS people are accused of being hippies (dirty), who are having sex all the time (violating purity and sanctity). Earlier on, there was a movement to create another group, the 54% – to invalidate the “group membership” part of the OWS message, although it didn’t really work at all. Along the same lines, they are trying to portray the OWS’ers as students who can’t get jobs – meaning not members of “our” group, but members of a spoiled elite, which is meant to go against both the group membership aspect and the fairness aspect (“those kids had all the advantages, and now when they aren’t handed a job on a silver platter, they go and sit in and have sex all day”).

And there have been many attempts not only to portray the OWS protesters as law-breakers, but also attempts to bait them into taking unlawful action – which happily have so far failed.

The key point for those of us trying to improve the way progressives talk about our policies is that OWS is being incredibly successful, and very difficult to discredit, exactly because of how well it is aligning with the five moral dimensions, and how authentic that alignment is.

Warning: Bad Is Stronger Than Good But It’s Terrible For Running A Country

A few days ago I promised to start working out some positioning statements for OWS (and progressives in general). The point I made was that the right wing has staked out some excellent (although also horrible in practice) positions such as “taxes are bad” and “government is bad.”

I argued that these are great positions from a marketing perspective because they focus on “bad” instead of good (taking advantage of “bad is stronger than good“). “Bad is stronger than good” is an important concept from a marketing standpoint, but there is a counterpoint. As Simone Weil observed,

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

I ran across this quote yesterday, in Gretchen Rubin‘s The Happiness Project, and it made me realize there are two sides to the “Bad is stronger than Good” meme. While “bad” is useful for marketing, “good” is boring as a marketing message but much better for governing. This is to a large degree the source of the GOP’s big problems, that are just getting bigger – their positions are fundamentally destructive and “gloomy and boring” – they can only take stuff away from us, not create stuff for us. And it points out a critical thing we need to keep in mind as we craft new, stronger positions for progressive policies. Our challenge as progressives is to come up with strong positions – which means they need to reflect the fact that bad is stronger than good, as well as other marketing basics – that also allow us to do effective governing.

I Demand No Demands From OWS!

Let's focus on a message, not demandsCreative Commons License photo credit: Jay Santiago
Let's focus on a message, not demands

So, I keep hearing that a problem with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the lack of demands, and I think this is actually a feature of OWS right now. If they had demands, then their overall message of suffering would get sidelined, I think. OWS should not be (at this point anyway) about demands, it should be about a message of deep unfairness and unbalance in the economy, a structural inbalance that’s caused by excessive influence of the financial and business sectors in politics. So there’s a message, but there are no demands in that. In fact, if you think of the right wing positions, there are not really demands, except stupid simplistic ones that we don’t believe, there are just positions – taxes are bad, government is bad, business is good, states are better than Feds, the government is corrupt. Some demands come out of there, but they are extremely inchoate – Lower Taxes! Smaller Government! But mostly they are just about positions.

So what OWS needs is some good positions – these are what Lakoff calls “frames” in a certain way. And OWS needs its positions to be highly simplified versions of things like “no special treatment for financial companies.” That does not roll off the tongue. Compare it to “taxes are bad.” We need phrases like that, that resonate, that are simple, that overly simplify, but that are simple to say and remember, and get the point across. It’s always harder to do this for positive messages – the right wing is all about negative messages, and those are easy.

But let’s think about the simplest possible trope here, in comparison to “x is bad,” which is the right wing trope. The simplest alternative is “x is good.” What can we say is good without sounding stupid? Or at least having a resonant position? “Police are good.” “Having a police force is good.” “Public education is a good thing.” Not quite as tripping off the tongue as the taxes one. Another possibility is “Government is good.” That sounds way too Big Brother-ish. I wonder if there is a version of that trope, though, that could work?

Tomorrow, a lot more on how to turn the weak-kneed “x is good” into something really compelling.