Getting along, and moving on.

Political passion can be powerful in creating positive change, but it can also be unnecessarily divisive. Today I attended the Occupy Christchurch demonstration, which is in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. There were a huge range of issues that attendees cared about, from specific (fracking in Canterbury) to general (people before profit). While it was great to see such solidarity in our increasingly individualised society, I couldn’t help being concerned about the potential for Occupy to turn into a binary and oversimplified good/evil movement, ending not in consensus and much needed change but indignant defensiveness and bitter disappointment. This concern of mine is not unique to the Occupy movements, nor left-wing political movements more generally – it applies to any political discussion, media coverage, article or simple slogan. The stubborn arrogance I’m talking about has been espoused by people all over the political spectrum, and is often present in many of those contentious issues: arguments about vegetarianism being a prime example. There’s no way everyone will agree on everything, even if you believe that those who disagree with you are uninformed or stupid. However, I think we are missing far too many opportunities to be nicer to each other, find common points of interest despite our disagreements, and solve common problems.

My concern about the Occupy movements is that they have been painted (a bit unfairly, since that isn’t their sole purpose) as protesting against a certain set of people, rather than a certain set of policies. Occupy has been framed as simply being against right-wing political parties, greedy corporations and the financial industry. Understandably so, some would argue, because many of these groups crafted the policies that have caused the problems Occupy are against. However, there is nothing positive or progressive about name-calling. You’re never going to get someone you just insulted to agree with you (you do give them a reason to insult you in turn though). You’re unlikely to inform anyone, or “raise awareness” about the causes of social problems through clever puns on a politician’s name (you do give the opposition reason to paint you as a raving, mean-spirited jerk though). You’re never going to learn anything yourself by point-blank refusing to listen (you might become so absorbed in your own beliefs that people literally ask what you’re on about though). Perhaps worst of all, you’re never going to enrich your own life or the life of others. It’s easy to revolve around criticism, simplify problems, reduce policies to certain individuals/groups – just don’t think you’ll ever get anywhere if that’s all you’re doing.

Of course, it’s easy for me to just criticise, but I also want to suggest a better way forward. I’m glad that Occupy Christchurch has planned to do the latter as well, in the form of an inclusive discussion that will hopefully welcome everyone. Two things stood out today that give me hope. First, a sign reading something like “I’m in the 1%, but I support the 99%.” Second, someone in the movement shaking the hand of a guy in young ACT who got booed for voicing his opinion that the crowd didn’t like, and thanking him for coming to an event which obviously he didn’t necessarily agree with fully. If we all listened to people we disagreed with more with an open mind, we would not only strengthen our own beliefs, but also discover that we have more in common with our “enemies” than we ever thought. Only on precious common ground can lasting and positive change be built.

So here are my suggestions for participating in politics passionately, but also progressively:

  • If you’re going to criticise something, focus on policies and/or outcomes, not people or parties.
  • Really listen to people you normally disagree with – the only way you’ll ever change their minds is if you can genuinely understand why they think the way they do.
  • Be open to compromise on details as long as you remember the bigger picture.
  • Find and foster common ground.
  • Disagree respectfully, with reason.
I’ll admit I don’t always stick to these principles myself, and that I enjoy the odd chuckle over puns on our Prime Minister’s name. I think it’s time to grow up though, and realise our demands for a better society also need to start from within.


Filed under Events

3 responses to “Getting along, and moving on.

  1. Raf

    Hi Zo,

    Yes I was down there as well! I agree with your sentiments. Christchurch is a long way from Wall Street but, at the same time, very much affected by the decisions made there. I think the Occupy movement is very much a protest and so, at first, appears somewhat noisy without any focus. But listening to some of the GA’s, there is some clarity appearing in the discussions (note I don’t say debate). Whilst many would like a clear list of demands, I don’t believe that is a necessary outcome right now or even desirable.

    Politics has been not able to solve many of our intractable problems, which suggests that politics may be part of the problem. The Occupy movement/protest offers a different approach. Who knows what the outcome will be? But it can’t be worse than our official representative chamber 🙂

  2. concerned cynic

    Ms Zo, your post is a very wise one. But it can be hard walking the path you outline. An openness to the occasional germ of truth in all parts of the ideological spectrum means that many movers and shakers treat you as “unreliable” and as a potential “traitor.” Labour loves, and National/Act despise, my critique of tenure review of pastoral leases in the high country. I condemn the cashiering of ECAN, but did not like at all the way Clark and Cullen ran the country either. I like some parts of Gareth Morgan’s Big Kahuna, but also deem some parts of it to be non-starters. I have time for Occupy Wall Street, but no time for Zeitgeist. And how many of you Occupy Christchurch people read carefully everything you could about the public resignation of Greg Smith from Goldman Sachs? This fellow lives in the belly of the Wall Street beast for 12 years. A great problem that very few 20 somethings seem to appreciate is that housing in urban New Zealand and Australia is ridiculously expensive. These high prices have been supported by irrational mortgage lending practices and by harsh restrictions on building new houses. But the way forward here is a drastic reduction in house prices, which nobody wants even though we would all be better off in the long run if houses presently costing 500K would cost only 200K. But no political faction supports this, because most of the wealth of the typical middle aged voter is tied up in his/her house.

  3. “A great problem that very few 20 somethings seem to appreciate is that housing in urban New Zealand and Australia is ridiculously expensive.”

    Actually, I think 20 somethings “appreciate” this fact far more than any other age group, given our limited income! Until they start engaging with the issue though, not much will be done. There’s an interesting forum on youth engagement in politics coming up actually:

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