Initiating a conversation is not always a matter of holding an idea inside of your mind and then releasing that idea into someone else’s mind for a shared time. Sometimes a conversation with its topic and type of participants is already there in the atmosphere, latent and easily brought to the forefront of our minds. It was in this second sense of conversations that I wrote an early little essay in my blog called On Conversations. The words and the ideas were already there and just waiting to be spoken. Someone or something had cracked the code of what people wanted to start talking about but couldn’t quite find the right avenue or opportunity to begin. And then all of the sudden it hits like an EMP, electrifying a crowd of people, and suddenly even timid individuals are transformed into loud-mouths.
It would be easy enough to categorize the moment of Occupy as a kind of unexpected moral bomb that went off in American culture. This would give writers, journalists, and even sympathetic inheritors an original event with which they could point to and say, “there, there is when the people spoke. They spoke with passion and ideals, they gave us the wake up call that we needed. But they were unrealistic romantics doomed to failure. Now it is time to come down from the clouds and survey the possible.” But an event like this does more than remind people to be moral or that our system is fundamentally unjust and needs to change quickly. It demonstrates in real time, with real people interacting with each other in a common and clearly delineated setting, what it looks like to relate with each other otherwise. A living example does more than a protest, no matter how large, ever could: it acts like a virus that infects everyone it touches with a sensibility towards each other that is at once utterly new and mysteriously old, ancient even.
The most noticeable thing about a large movement like this for me (because I don’t want to leave out all of the countries that went through the Arab Spring at about the same time) is the change in the way conversations were held. The rhythm and flow of words coming out of such disparate individuals, who were seemingly assembled at random, harmonized in the most peculiar way. This all took place in a relatively short amount of time. No more than 6 months. But the experience of such events (and this was echoed by numerous individuals) made time feel like it was slowing down to a crawl. The movement of bodies was ratcheted up a notch, possibilities opened up that gaped wider than anyone had seen in their whole lives. Though short in duration, it gave those who were effected by that event an opportunity to talk for a lengthy enough period of time to express themselves or their ideas fully. Due to the set time frame for giving a speech, one had just the right amount of time to have everyone else hear the gist of their idea or proposal; their speaking time was capped so that everyone else had a chance to speak for themselves and nobody went unheard. The time frame could be adjusted, if people felt marginalized then remedies could be found, but there is something fundamental about taking blocks of time and giving them to anyone who comes along.
Everyone suddenly had all of the barriers that are normally associated with casual conversation removed, only the best ideas remained convincing. It was like an extra decisive factor or form was brought on to the deliberation process. Anyone could talk and be heard. Anyone had access to the power of persuasion but none could hold the floor indefinitely. And the people that went through this experience shared it with those that hadn’t, confidently asserting themselves and spreading the word with a simple refrain, a break in everyday discourse and its news-cycle or work-week rhythms: “don’t interrupt me, I’m not finished.”
It was strange, when one person spoke everyone else shut up and listened. I don’t expect this anymore from people because it is not encouraged by the media they consume. The angry talking heads on tv are easy enough to point the finger at, not to mention polemical twitter users and their agendas, but this all distracts us from the true differences that come with conversations of the Occupy type I am trying to flesh out here and the battleground-of-ideas type. The key difference lies in the duration of time with which anyone, anyone who appeared in the flesh could speak on their own terms and then was forced to move on. It completely eliminated overbearing individuals who were able to control conversations their entire lives by interruption or steering it in the direction they preferred. This form reverberated outward and suddenly everyone had a little platform wherever they went. Dumb ideas were filtered out and a tiny meritocracy was formed where it wasn’t so much individuals or force that ruled the day but ideas. Any effective persuasion had to come from the person with the right ideas found in their speech. All others were merely disregarded.
When large groups of people assemble and deliberate, the result is often anger at some injustice done and violence against the perceived perpetrators. The danger of mobs is not something I take lightly. But when you eliminate the ability for someone or some group to act as demagogues or sorcerers and instead give each person a voice in the direction of the crowd, suddenly the will of the body of people is more fully self-represented. The chains of command are loosened, the mob begins to reason and think for itself. [David Graeber] This was no doubt an already educated crowd that had gone through the American school system and not the Parisian crowds of the 1793. But it demonstrates something that cannot be explained by ideals, no matter how important ideals are for expression: the very form of a conversation was altered. The social relations between people were given an electric shock to counter the shock doctrine so near and dear to the neoliberal imperialist playbook. Power was redistributed to the speaker and wherever they stood.