What I’ve learned at Occupy Wall Street, or Why ‘Feel’ is Not a Four Letter Word

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There is a lot of talk happening about the people of Occupy Wall Street not being intelligent enough or not being able to articulate what is wrong with American society or what is being created at Occupy Wall Street. But on the subject of marginalized voices (which is a big one at OWS), it seems more that their articulations are not being heard. It is common in American society to for us to tell each other that we need to hone the way we communicate so that we can be heard. The conventional wisdom seems to be that we should not be emotional when trying to communicate in a difficult situation. When trying to make a political, legal, or economic argument, we teach each other to be as rational, logical, and emotionless as possible. We practice this, and we struggle with it as people as we attempt to craft our arguments and our demands in the most precise ways possible. We try to train ourselves to communicate things that may be emotional at their core in a way that will not arouse the feelings of defensiveness, anger, or hostility in our listeners. We put the burden on the speaker to remove their emotions – to soften their voice, to calm their body language – so that no difficulty is imposed on our ability to hear what they ask for.

But rarely are we taught to hone our listening. The burden rarely seems to fall on the listener, be they friend, spouse, teacher, police officer, judge, or politician, to validate our emotions in potentially conflictual settings. If a person is angry that their basic needs are not being met, that they’ve experienced some hardship, and if they present their request or challenge for redress in an emotional way, the listener is validated for not hearing them because they failed to impose the correct rationality on the situation. “How can you expect anyone to listen to you when you’re acting this way,” we say.

Similarly, the accusation is often made of occupiers that they are failing to communicate their message or articulate their grievances and demands. Their emotional speeches, in which perhaps some incorrect fact slips through or is misquoted, in which there are many likes, ums, you knows, and I means, are taken as unintelligent ramblings made worse by the arm waving and the yelling and the tears. And yet, if one were to read the transcripts of their speeches and interviews, where only the substance has been recorded and the ums and likes are left out, one finds very cogent arguments which get right to the heart of the struggles of the American people. These are very articulate expressions of systemic problems which are inherently emotional. We may discuss economics in a rational way in classrooms and boardrooms and chambers of Congress, but in truth we are discussing people’s lives. The food on their tables, the schools for their children, the clothes that they need to be warm in the winter, their sense of security and safety in the world. These are the physical, mental, and yes, emotional issues that we cannot and would not want to live without. So I ask, why is the burden on the speaker to remove her or his feelings from a story of economic loss?

In a recent meeting, in which a group of occupiers were attempting to grapple with the organizational structure of the movement and the challenges they had been facing, an individual made a statement about the process for meeting facilitation and the way that it made them feel. Upon not receiving a wholly compassionate reply, this person asked the group “Are you not going to acknowledge the feelings in that statement? That was a very emotional statement!” This moment exposed one of the key opportunities for learning in the Occupy movement. Occupy’s everywhere are demonstrating that our current structures and habits of communication, on the individual and the social level, are not The Only Alternative. Even in a conflictual situation, this individual felt safe enough in the occupied space to call on their fellow Americans to recognize the importance of emotions in creating a collaborative process. This request for emotional validation created an opportunity for everyone engaged in this new social process to rethink their default of “how can you expect to be listened to?”

Later that same day, a friend of mine who was not born in the Global North pointed out that this is a very “white” thing to do. It is an aspect of American culture, not some universal truth, that we require all communication to be standardized and that we diminish emotional responses to painful situations. This came up because, even after this initial experience, I found myself in two consecutive situations where I was counseling two different people to craft a rational response so that they might be most effective in communicating a problem. Both times my advice made them angrier. But it wasn’t until I began to transcribe hours of interview tapes, in which the less than TV-perfect voices I listened to peppered their speech with incomplete sentences, filler phrases, repetitions, and several exclamation points, not until I put their words on paper without the likes, ums, ands, and you knows, did I realize that it is we, the listeners, who have the problem. We are missing out on some extraordinary voices. We enjoy and feel easy with the eloquence of prepared speeches and scripted responses. But it is not our right to always feel easy when communicating. We need to take responsibility for really listening. People are emotional creatures, and we are beautiful because of it. But we are marginalizing our feelings as a society, and we have now arrived at this place where, amid standardized everything, people screaming in the streets for the future of their lives and their families are being ignored. Is it their fault for being angry? Or is it ours, for refusing to hear them?

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