Sunday, February 12, 2012

The "single demand" myth.

One of the most intellectually offensive lines to have come out of the media in the last year is the utterly pernicious idea that a protest movement needs to have one demand. The "demand for a demand," as I call it, was a beautifully designed piece of propaganda that was never an actual critique of the movement, but rather a line designed to belittle and derail the occupy movement rather than take it seriously.

Article after article over the last six months have presented claims about the Occupy Wallstreet movement that tend to run along the lines of this rather extreme article.  The basic gist the critique that keeps appearing in editorials and in the news is that the occupy was never *really* a movement for anything but anarchy because it failed to ever come up with a single demand.

This is an line of thought was purposely designed as a piece of hostile PR against the occupy movement.

The idea that a grass roots protest movement could or should have had a single demand before it started protesting a problem is utterly absurd. No movement in history has ever only had a single demand. Some movements have had overriding concerns, for example the suffrage movement coalesced around the specific issue of women being able to vote, but the movement itself was much more varied than just that single issue. Every social reform movement is varied, every movement has a plurality of opinions. I have trouble coming up with a scenario in which the idea that the occupy movement could or should have had only one demand could have come into the public discourse naturally rather than maliciously, there is just no reason that anyone reasonably should have expected them to have a single demand.

Which brings me to my main point here, which is that the critique of the occupy movement that went viral through the media was designed as a hit piece rather than being the result of an actual confusion about why the Occupy people were there. The demand for a single demand was an inspired piece of anti-protest reporting because it created a win/win scenario for those who disliked the movement.

If the occupy people listened and tried to respond with a single demand or a list of demands, then the people behind the idea that the movement needed a demand won several victories. The movement would immediately waste time discussing what their demands were instead of raising awareness as to what the issues were. Furthermore, there was a high chance that any attempt to nail down solutions to the problem of income inequality would split the movement into its component parts. On top of these, if they actually came up with a single demand that would have actually hurt the Occupy movement as the demand would have either been too radical, and therefore been ridiculed, or too timid, in which case the movement could be easily curtailed by their demand being fulfilled.

Now, if the occupy movement didn't listen to the demand for a demand, (which is basically what happened) then the people behind it still won. The media line became how those loonies living in tents didn't know what they wanted, how most of them were there just for the party, how the movement wasn't actually a movement and wasn't actually accomplishing anything. And then once that line had gotten traction, the lines switched to how much the movement was costing, how unclean they were, and how they were a public menace that deserved the harsh police reaction it was receiving. The refusal to name a single demand became part of an overall campaign to vilify the movement, one that justifies the excessive use of police force to shut them down.

The most important thing I want to get across here is that the point of these movements in their earliest stages is not to fix the problem, but to make people aware that the problem exists, and that anyone complaining that the occupy movement lacks purpose is propagating a piece of anti-social reform PR rather than advancing a valid critique of the protests. The occupy movement has done a marvelous job at raising awareness of the growing problem of income inequality in this country for a movement that is less than a year old. The rallying cry that highlights the scary income inequality statistics of the post-Reagan era is a powerful one, and one that I truly hope will not go away.

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