I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the language we use to talk about the things that are important to us. Part of this thinking is spurred by some conversations I’ve been having with smart people about things like gun control and civil rights, and part of it has been inspired by the fact that I’m designing a new film as lit. course that investigates the ambiguous hero but I’m finding that it all comes down to one crucial idea; it’s not necessarily about language. Certainly, the language is important and influential, but I’m pretty sure that the language is secondary to perspective. What you see – and, consequently, what you believe and how you talk about something – depends almost entirely on where you stand.
One of the big problems with this is that perspective is a complex thing. SO much goes into the framing of our perspective; it’s not just demographics, though things like our age and income or education level have a lot to do with how we see things. I really do think that there’s something more, and perhaps deeper, underlying the way we perceive things around us, and I think that has a lot to do with our investment in or attachment to the systems that are being challenged or defended.
I only went to two classes for my last L.U. course before I took off on my own to finish the work as an independent study, but in those two classes, the professor said something that stuck with me; when you’re looking at something, she said, the first question you should ask yourself is, “who benefits from this?” Essentially, she was asking the students to think about who’s invested in the thing – whatever it is – and to recognize that it’s not always the people we may think it is.
I remember thinking about this when I recalled the Occupy movement and the disproportionate response the protesters often received at the hands of the varied police forces involved (both municipal and campus). Watching these clashes play out on t.v. and on my facebook feed (I’m friends with someone who was (and likely will be again, if and when they ramp up demonstrations in the spring) active in the Occupy Oakland movement), I was thinking about how odd it was that the police should be involved in disrupting these actions; it seemed to me that the protestors were acting in the best interests of people like those who work as police and firefighters and teachers and regular working people. That bothered me until the professor asked her “who benefits” question, and I realized that the police – the people in the uniforms – weren’t necessarily acting out of their own interests but were instruments of others who had an interest in putting those demonstrations down (often in decisive and harsh ways).
I mean, sure; I’m willing to concede that there were probably a number of officers who disdained the protesters as insert-stereotype-here and were annoyed with them for being a nuisance. I know at least a couple of cops who are very by-the-book, rules-are-rules kind of people who disapproved of the demonstrations. The thing is, though, I also know one or two (and know of several more) who respected the actions of the protesters and who recognized that they (the officers) were a part of the group that they (the protestors) were advocating for.
I find it interesting, in a bitter sort of way, that the people in Tahrir Square in Egypt and in other places during the Arab Spring were portrayed as righteous freedom fighters by our media, but the people in Zuccotti Park and Oakland were most often characterized as dirty, lazy, unemployed trouble makers. I’m disturbed that the way our power structure looks at peaceful protests may be taking a decidedly dangerous turn. Who decides who’s a ‘terrorist’ and who’s a ‘freedom fighter,’ and what say, if any, do we as citizens have in the making of those definitions?