Everyone has heard of this question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does the tree make a sound?” I like to think that I know the answer—it’s a no. If a tree falls in a forest, it creates vibrations in the air. An ear is needed to receive the vibrations and a brain is required to interpret them as a sound.
The “Occupy London Stock Exchange” protest, currently encamped outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, has become that falling tree in the deserted forest—it is making no sound because its message is not being heard, even though an action has been undertaken. No one is listening to their message, not least the people whom the protesters wanted to listen. That is completely the fault of the protesters.
A protest is a form of communication, i.e. a message that requires a sender as well as a receiver. Some criticise the protest for lacking a cohesive message, but everyone understands that the protesters are sending a message about the excesses of financial capitalism. The intended recipient of the protest, however vaguely, is the people who work in the City of London, many of whom played a part, wittingly or unwittingly, in causing the world’s financial crisis.
Yet this hullaballoo about St Paul’s Cathedral has completely engulfed the protest’s message and changed the intended recipient. Two weeks on from the encampment, the message that the protesters are sending is, “We want to stay” instead of “We dislike financial capitalism”; the intended receiver of this message is the Cathedral, not the bankers.
So why are the protesters continuing to camp outside St Paul’s even though doing so changes their message and the intended recipient? The immediate trigger, I believe, is the “Arab Spring” effect. Mass occupation of public spaces was seen to be key in dislodging the dictators in North Africa. This was most dramatically displayed in the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The current “Occupy” protestors across the rich world are hoping to mimic the Arabs’ success in revolutionising their world simply by getting together and setting up a camp.
But I think a more fundamental and worrying reason is that technology has made “communication” one-sided. People no longer have to have someone to “communicate” to. Blogs, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter all prosper on the basis that people can express themselves without a clearly defined audience. It invites people to publicise whatever they think, however trivial their thoughts are. Others can reply or ignore, but that’s not important—what is important is that a view has been expressed. The questions of “To whom?” and “To what effect?” are no longer relevant (and this blog is equally guilty).
That is where the “Occupy” protest is failing. The protesters seem to be saying that it doesn’t matter that the financial world is not reformed, as long as they have the opportunity to express their views—and it doesn’t matter who is inconvenienced in the process. That is selfish as well as stupid, and will do their message no justice. If the protesters are serious about their message, they should decamp and think of more effective ways of protest.
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