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.