|“I Am the 99 Percent”:
Identification and Division in the Rhetorics of the Occupy Wall Street Protests
Department of English
California State University, Dominguez Hills
Admirers of Kenneth Burke cannot help but wish he had lived long enough to observe the Occupy Wall Street movement in the fall of 2011. Occupy Wall Street, a leaderless, nonsectarian protest against the massive influence of the United States’ wealthiest citizens on its government’s policy, began as an encampment of perhaps 1000 people in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on September 17, 2001 (Writers for the 99% 2011, 16) and rapidly grew to a nationwide and even worldwide movement. In doing so, it—and and the varied reactions to it by the press, by professional politicians and by private individual—tested a number of Burke’s ideas about how human beings define themselves in groups, how they establish borders between their own groups and those of others, and how the symbolic acts that erect borders between groups might be channeled to build a society more congruent with American political ideals of equal opportunity and justice.
Burke’s reactions to the Occupy movement would have been complex, in keeping with his strong philosophical commitment to the idea that no single perspective can render a correct view of reality. Since Burke’s concerns with social hierarchy, rhetoric, and the interfaces between them was lifelong and would be nearly encyclopedic in reference, my brief exposition of those concerns here will necessarily be more than a little reductive. From the many possibilities for Burkean analysis of the Occupy movement, I have chosen his theories regarding identification, division, and consubstantiality, as well as those regarding ontological guilt and the means by which we expiate it, as being most in keeping with the themes of this volume since these theories examine how we establish borders between ourselves and other social entities, and how we dissolve them. To contextualize both those theories and the Occupy movement, however, I will begin with a short analysis of the movement using Burke’s familiar dramatistic pentad.
Scene, Agency, and Purpose in the Occupy Wall Street Protests
Dramatism is simply the idea that any purposeful human action, including any use of language, can most fruitfully be analyzed in terms of the drama, and specifically in terms of the interactions, or as Burke (1969a) calls them “ratios,” among the aspects of the dramatistic pentad: act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose; here, I will concentrate in particular on the last three of these as being most relevant to analyzing the circumstances of Occupy Wall Street. One useful feature of the pentad is that we can specify these aspects in many ways and thus propagate a large number of interpretations. For instance, we can define the “scene” of Occupy Wall Street very broadly as taking place in the context of the American Dream mythos, somewhat broadly as taking place in a political context in which the right has succeeded, since the 1960s, in exploiting racial anxieties (Edsall and Edsall 1992), or very narrowly in terms of its immediate geographic and temporal context—with any number of possibilities in between.
By locating in Zucotti Park—or, as they renamed it, Liberty Square—the occupiers were able to confront multinational capital at its very center. The fact that the park was a "privately owned public space”—its owner, Brookfield Properties, having received a zoning variance from the City of New York to build higher and more densely in the area on the provision that it would provide an open space close by for public use (Gitlin 2012, 19)—gave the Occupiers a tactical advantage because it was legally open to the public 24 hours a day. The space also made a political point in that the Occupiers were therefore able to take as a commons—as being free to all—a space created by the convergent interests between Big Capital and government that they were protesting. The ratio between the scene (the paradoxically private/public space that they took as their own, with “Whose park? Our park!” being one of the protestors’ favorite chants) and the agency (“occupying,” living there as a group) was also powerfully symbolic. Participant Yotam Marom characterized Occupy Wall Street as
a dual-power movement . . . on the one hand—trying to form the values and institutions that we want to see in a free society, while at the same time creating the space for that world by resisting and dismantling the institutions that keep us from having it. Occupation in general, as a tactic, is a really brilliant form of a dual-power struggle because the occupation is both a home where we get to practice the alternative—by practicing a participatory democracy, by having our radical libraries, by having a medical tent where anybody can get treatment, that kind of thing on a small level—and it’s also a staging ground for struggle outwards. It’s where we generate our fight against the institutions that keep us from the things that we need, against the banks as a representative of finance capitalism, against the state that protects and propels those interests. (Klein and Marom 2012)
The Occupy movement asserted itself as a utopian community at the very center of the society they were critiquing, rather than withdrawing to some periphery, and thus being easily ignored. In his earliest book, Counter-statement, Burke describes the artist's task as acting as a counterweight, advocating values that are antithetical to the current values of the particular time in society. Given an American emphasis on efficiency, money, and progress (seemingly unchanged from the 1930s to the 2010s), the artist, he said, must speak for inefficiency and against the motives of property and social organization (Overington 1977, 98). Giving away free social services in an egalitarian community that lived “homelessly” in a celebratory fashion was a means of throwing into new perspective the idea that American life consists of atomized individuals or single-family units that are socially independent of one another. It spoke to inefficiency, as an act of what Burke calls “perspective by incongruity” (1984, 308), a means of gaining perspective through defamiliarization, by metaphorically fusing together previously unrelated concepts.1
As they evoked social and economic inefficiency by living in Zucotti Park, Occupy Wall Street evoked political inefficiency by not asserting specific policy proposals. That the protestors did not know their own purpose was the theme of the first major media notice of the encampment; the September 23 New York Times article, “Gunning for Wall Street with Faulty Aim,” described the movement as “noble but fractured and airy,” an “intellectual vacuum,” and as having a cause that was “in specific terms, virtually impossible to decipher” (Bellafonte 2011). This topos quickly became a media cliché, forefronted particularly by the commentators of Fox News, for instance Kimberly Gullifoyle, who characterized the protestors as “people with absolutely no purpose or focus in life.” Gullifloyle goes on: “No wonder, they have nothing but free time to be down there. They make up a slogan or a cause as they go along. . . . And they really don't have any, like, idea about what they are doing there" (Berrier and Rudman 2011, under “… Who Don’t Know What They Want …”). In some ways, this critique was specious, as the overall point of the group’s demands was clear: the financial and especially political power of the wealthiest Americans must be curbed in the name of democracy, and the financial malefactors responsible for the great recession be brought to justice.2
But the critique was also relevant because members of the Occupy movement itself resisted the formation of specific demands, and for good reason. Mark Bray, a member of the Occupy Press Relations Working Group, stated in a CNN interview that what the movement actually sought was a wide-ranging conversation about the country’s social goals and present conditions, and "making a list of three or four demands would have ended the conversation before it started" (Writers for the 99% 2011, 81). A Demands Working Group within the movement proposed, in early October, that the group formalize a demand for a federal public works program, only to be rejected on the grounds that the group should not be making any specific demands (Gitlin 2012, 106).3 The movement was asking for deep changes to current ways of thinking—not reducible to a simple set of policy options—and to put forward a legislative program would in any case endorse the legitimacy of the current ruling structures. Building their own structure, in the midst of the world’s financial capital but in absolute inversion of that capital’s ethos, was more important; exactly how they tried to build that structure runs directly counter to some of Burke’s root beliefs, as I will now attempt to show.
Hierarchy, Identification, Pure Persuasion, and the People’s Mic
Burke’s famous “Definition of Man” reads as follows:
the symbol using (symbol making, symbol misusing) animal
inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)
separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)
and rotten with perfection. (1966, 16)
Human beings under conditions in which a need for order inevitably leads to hierarchy must work continuously to relieve the goad—to justify their current position in the hierarchy, to move within it, or to replace whatever current hierarchy exists with a new one—using their symbolic (that is, rhetorical) tools. Rhetoric is necessary because human beings are necessarily divided from one another, and not only by the “spirit of hierarchy”; Burke notes that division is a physiological fact prior to it being a political and psychological fact (1996b, 130, 146). Therefore, rhetoric operates through identification, a key Burkean concept which he defines as being “compensatory to division" (22) and exemplifies as ranging “from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, ‘I was a farm boy myself,’ through the mysteries of social status, to the mystic's devout identification with the source of all being” (xiv). "You persuade a man,” Burke says, “only insofar as you talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his" (55). A successful rhetorical act leads the audience into a state of consubstantiality, “the identifying of one's own substance with something larger and more comprehensive" (Henderson 1988, 29), but identification and consubstantiality are never final, because division always reasserts itself.
Or so Burke believes. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, attempted to organize itself non-hierarchically as a matter of fundamental principle. Their means of ordering themselves was one of consensus in decision-making which insisted against any leadership structure, continuous with the long history of anarchist-influenced protest in the United States, and taking many of its specific techniques from Quaker precedents (Writers for the 99%, 2011, 29). The group’s General Assembly met nightly, usually at 7 p.m.; these meetings were run by “facilitators” who effaced their quasi-leadership roles by never taking them two days in a row and by referring to themselves only by their first names.4 Meetings began with a set agenda of announcements, proposals for consensus approval, and reports from various working groups within the camp; afterwards came the “soapbox” period during which anyone who wished to speak was allowed to do so (25-32). Significantly, many occupiers who were asked the inevitable question about the group’s overall purpose evoked the participatory process itself: Gitlin quotes three of them as saying "I think the conversation is one of our goals,” "Just being able to say what you feel is one of the most empowering things," and "The process is the message" (2012, 68).
Due to a police ban on the use of electronic amplification in the park, the meetings were forced to use a technique which became known as “the People’s Mic,” which required the speaker to use a brief phrase, then pause to wait for it to be repeated outward by all those around her, and, in a large crowd, echoed yet again by all those who could hear the first group (Asher 2011). Thus, not only was anyone allowed to speak during the General Assembly, but also all those present were continually speaking each other’s words. As such, the People’s Mic became an important means of building empathy and solidarity within the movement as a whole, as Gitlin points out: "By repeating other people's words we are forced to actively engage with them—to actually hear them" (2012, 78). It was often used, seemingly almost liturgically, when it was not strictly needed (for example, indoors), and was generally used in concert with a range of hand signals (called “twinkling” and derived from American Sign Language) to designate approval, disapproval, and ambivalence without interrupting the echoing discourse (Writers for the 99%, 2011, 28). All told, the People’s Mic worked as a powerful invitation to consubstantiality; as Burke says in his discussion of the enthymeme and its use in identification, "[C]ould we not say the audience is exalted by the assertion because it has the feel of collaborating in the assertion?" (1969b, 58).
If the act of collaboration and the consubstantial dissolution of borders in itself was actually the point, if the process of the Occupy movement was indeed the message, the group seems to have come close to what Burke calls “pure persuasion”—“the saying of something, not for an extraverbal advantage to be got by the saying, but because of a satisfaction intrinsic to the saying" (1969b, 269).5 Dienst believed the tendency toward pure persuasion in the Occupy movement to be a function of agency, specifically of the movement’s debt to online social networking: “Here the medium really matters: the sheer profusion of messages circulating on social media has turned the whole movement into an open-ended experiment in political expression. On the ground and on the Internet, the protestors address their most radical questions to each other: who are we, really? what do we have in common? what do we want?” (2011). A sympathetic reading of Occupy’s pure persuasion might see it as a necessary means of self-assertion in an economic and political climate that was severely alienating, especially to the young, or as a necessary anti-hierarchical statement toward a society in the condition that Burke calls “hierarchical psychosis” (1984, 374), that is, a condition in which alternatives to a particular ruling hierarchy are so taboo as to be inconceivable. Less generously, we might see it as simple naïveté, particularly because the group seemed to be courting its own destruction by encamping itself on Wall Street, in the path of the most powerful members of our society's current hierarchy.
Nevertheless, it asserted itself in a remarkably optimistic way, most notably through a symbolic identification which worked both internally and as external outreach—the movement’s self-definition as being “the 99 percent.” Always a strongly dialectical thinker, Burke emphasizes that our status as “inventor of [and] moralized by the negative” forces us to define through opposition (1966, 16). In the case of the Occupy movement, the “99 percent” definition seems to have been drawn from economist Joseph Stiglitz’s article, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” in the May 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. Here, Stiglitz noted that the wealthiest 1% of Americans earned nearly one-quarter of the country’s income and owned 40% of its wealth, “an inequality even the wealthy will come to regret.” The chant “We are the 99 percent” was adopted early in the Occupy protests (Gitlin 2012, 108) and gained enormous cultural currency in the early Fall of 2011, with Google searches for the phrase “the 99%” multiplying sevenfold between September and October, and with that number being invoked by advertisers and by Democrats in Congress (Stelter 2011). The 99% trope had many powerful advantages for the movement: it was radically condensed (and thus was congenial to posting on social networking sites such as Twitter), but gave a very clear summation of the movement’s goals by invoking a United States not democratically divided almost equally between far-right and center-right political parties, but divided between a tiny political and economic elite and the remainder of the population, and thus fundamentally undemocratic. The phrase acted as an identification trope, inviting and assuming the support of the overwhelming majority of the population, as John Nichols described: “The brilliance of Occupy Wall Street's message, ‘We are the 99 percent,’ is that it invites just about everyone who isn't a billionaire to recognize themselves as members” (2011). The implication of near but not total unity, in turn, reinforced the fundamental optimism of the occupiers themselves; one sign in Zucotti Park read: "99 to One: Those Are Great Odds" (Gitlin 2012, 26-27).
By all accounts, these various means of identification promoted an extraordinary degree of consubstantiality within the movement. A very large number of the participants in the Occupy movement spoke of it as being personally redemptive, in terms of helping them find some sort of meaning to their existence when, as participants in the American Dream ideology, they had been discounted by their own lack of economic success. Many other members of the movement besides Marom believed that they were indeed in the process of building the better world that they wanted to inhabit through their consensus decision-making process, celebratory ethos, and provision of food, medicine, and social services that were monetized ruthlessly elsewhere in the American economy (Writers for the 99%, 2011, 30; Gitlin 2012, 73, 111-112). Cynics, of course, might take exception to that belief, seeing Occupiers’ statements to be saccharine, like those of Naomi Klein, who told the General Assembly on October 6 that the occupation was “the most important thing in the world” and also said: “My favorite sign here says, ‘I care about you.’ In a culture that trains people to avoid each other's gaze… that is a deeply radical statement" (2011).
In fact, as Burke would predict, the movement was not immune to borders within itself. There was a certain class structure reflected in the physical layout of the Zuccotti Park encampment, with the east side of the park primarily populated by white, middle-class protesters of a reformist bent and the west side primarily populated by less affluent people of color, who tended toward a more radical point of view. One Latino occupier noted that the geographical split along ethnic and class lines was “just like New York City” (Writers for the 99%, 2011, 90). There was also continuing, fundamental disagreement in terms of tactics, with some members of the movement convinced that its stubborn adherence to its model of direct democracy at best rendered decision-making “frustratingly clumsy and time consuming" (Writers for the 99%, 2011, 27) and, at worst, ran the risk of turning the entire movement into an exercise in “collective narcissism” (Gitlin 2012, 94). More than one analyst believes that the Occupy movement essentially failed largely because its ethos of full participation and pure persuasion left it unable to find a path forward after the Zuccotti Park encampment was evicted by the New York Police Department on November 15—specifically, unable to reorganize itself due to a very small minority of disruptive voices in meetings, whether intentional provocateurs or those whose personal need to be heard overrode more important business (Gupta 2012; Gitlin 2012, 135-136). Perhaps these observers were too focused on the improbable possibility of a short-term victory for the movement; perhaps they did not sufficiently note the possibility that, in dramatistic terms, the agency/purpose of direct democracy was predicated upon the scene, upon the fact that the encampment was a functioning physical community, living together 24 hours a day.
The 99 Percent, the 53 Percent, Consubstantiality, and Scapegoating
I have to this point concentrated solely on that particular community in lower Manhattan because that encampment was generally seen as first among equals in the Occupy Wall Street movement by the media, the public at large, and members of the movement itself, and as such is most thoroughly documented and discussed. However, the Zucotti/Freedom Park community represented just one aspect of a worldwide and continuing protest, and was in temporal terms not even first among equals. The web page “We Are the 99 Percent” on Tumblr.com took on an iconic status concurrently with the physical protests, but it was actually first posted in late August 2011; in fact, several early postings encouraged viewers to join the forthcoming protest on September 17. As of July 2012 the site consisted of 228 pages with 15 postings on each page; it is thus useful as a large, stable corpus of discourse, contributed by those sympathetic with the Occupy movement and taking up its various themes. Examination of the postings reveals a very large number of ways in which these writers persuade by identifying their ways (in order, attitude, image and idea) with their audience.
Contributions to the page are highly stylized: with very few exceptions, they consist of a photograph of a single individual holding up a handwritten (or, rarely, word-processed) statement which partially or completely obscures his or her face.6 The actual written discourse very often contains direct statements of consubstantiality in which the speaker subsumes his own identity into the 99 percent – typical examples are “I am the 99%. You are the 99%. And together we can create change!” (15 November 2011) and
I’m so happy to know we’re in this together. It’s been so difficult struggling alone, trying to find a way to get ahead and only falling behind.
The 1% took away our
Let’s take it back.
We deserve it. We are the 99% (17 December 2011).
But even more striking evidence of consubstantiality is what Burke would call the “repetitive form” of the postings—“the consistent maintaining of a principle under new guises” or the “restatement of the theme by new details" (1968, 125). Almost every posting describes the writer’s economic circumstances and a few other biographical details, but in generic terms, and ends with the statement “I am the 99%” or a close variation of that phrase.7 The contributors attenuate their individual identities verbally, as well as by hiding their faces behind their words; in terms of the Burkean pentad, each subsumes her or his individual status as agent to become a collective agent. They elide the specific details typical to conversational introductions; identification by first name is quite infrequent, and I have noted only three instances of a writer including his or her surname (2 October, 6 October, 21 November). Most often, the writers identify themselves by job title and/or by age. Location is seldom given in terms more specific than “I live in Central Wisconsin” (17 December).
Furthermore, the stories the writers tell fall, most frequently, into two relatively specific categories correlating with age group. Older writers depict middle-class lives sabotaged by the economic malfeasance of the 1%:
I am 62 years old. I have worked honestly and hard my whole life (since I was 14) because that is how you “realize The American Dream.”
I was a home builder and designer.
In 1980, the “Savings & Loan Crisis” forced me out of work and out of business. (the government helped the banks survive…) I slowly rebuilt my life and business.
In 2007, the “Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis” crushed me again. I lost my business, my home, my wife and my belief in that American Dream. (the government saved the banks again…)
WE ARE THE 99% (3 October)
Considerably less frequently, older contributors describe themselves as still being relatively comfortable, but precariously so, knowing that an unexpected illness or job loss would cause them to lose everything they had.
Younger contributors convey a sense that they will never be able to achieve the American dream of financial independence in the first place:
I am 26 years old. I have worked at the same job since I was 17. The money I earn is not enough to cover my monthly expenses and I don’t even have a car. Dreams of getting a college education have passed as 50+ hours a week working are still not enough to pay for groceries.
I am not a celebrity or star athlete who gets paid millions a year. I am a normal person literally working myself to the bone and still unable to provide adequate food and shelter. There are many much worse than myself, but I am tired of struggling. I am tired of having no voice and watching people suffer, while knowing there are people with much more than what would ever be needed. I work to live and it is still not enough.
I am the 99%! (25 November)
In keeping with Burke’s definition of repetitive form, the postings vary in detail but essentially tell the same story again and again: of slow suffocation under debt, of families dislocated by foreclosure or the need to search for work, of the sense that “I’ve done everything right, and no one will hire me” (10 January 2012), of a promise made to the writers–that if they attained educations and worked hard at their jobs, they would reach the American Dream–which has been revoked. Plaintive and moving, the postings clearly perform psychological work for their authors as well as rhetorical work in promoting the interests of the 99%, but they do so anonymously, by subsuming individual identity into narrative consubstantiality.
The “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr quickly became such a prominent outreach mechanism of the Occupy movement that the right felt an imperative to respond. One such response was a web page which debuted on October 5, 2011, replicating the 99% Tumblr’s design and conceived by right-wing blogger and CNN correspondent Erik Erickson, called “We Are the 53%.” The number evoked in the page’s name is derived from the fact that, as of 2010, 47 percent of American households ended up owing no federal income tax—a fact oversimplified by right-wing commentators to imply that a relatively huge number of Americans were on the dole (Leonhardt, 2010) and one that gained infamy through Mitt Romney’s use of it to an audience he believed to be private during the 2012 Presidential campaign (Rucker, 2012)8. In contrast to the Occupy movement’s assertion of itself as an overwhelming majority, “the 53 percent” seems an odd, rhetorically unpowerful choice, but it does evoke the implication of a precarious majority which must constantly guard its borders against the other, the 47%. In the wake of fifty years of racialized demagoguery against social assistance programs, it is easy for the web page’s intended audience to associate this dangerous, expensive Other with the “welfare queen” mythos (Boris, 2007). Edsall and Edsall (1992) demonstrate how the American Right has exploited racial anxieties to persuade lower- and middle-class white Americans to dismiss their economic circumstances as a basis for voting; Frank (2004) similarly shows how the right uses anxieties surrounding sexuality, religion, gun control, and similar social issues to gain votes for their economic program. Any attempt to have the white lower classes identify with their actual economic interests constitutes an extreme threat to the political survival of the American Right. Although the right did initially attempt to write the Occupy movement off as a manufactured, top-down phenomenon, with Rush Limbaugh calling it “a construct of the media-Democrat complex, industrial complex” (Taibbi 2011), it soon became a clear threat representing a genuine, growing sentiment—and so it became necessary to scapegoat them.
The scapegoating process is a central theme in Burke’s later work; he describes it as a means by which people expel unwanted individuals or groups, by first acknowledging an identification with them and by then purging them to atone for the perceived sins of one’s own community. Scapegoating occurs, Burke says, because human beings are “moralized by the negative” (1966, 16) and because the standards set up by the moral system derived from the negative, from the central imprecation of “thou shalt not” (Burke 1970, 279), are essentially unattainable, leading to universal guilt. The guilt must be expiated, Burke says, either in terms of scapegoating or “purification by disassociation” (1973, 202), or through mortification, scapegoating turned inwardly toward the self (1970, 248). The scapegoating process, Burke says, occurs through three stages: “(1) an original state of merger, in that the iniquities are shared by both the iniquitous and their chosen vessel; (2) a principle of division, in that the elements shared in common are ritualistically alienated; (3) a new principle of merger; this time in the unification of those whose purified identity is defined in dialectical opposition to the sacrificial offering” (1969a, 406).
The “We Are the 53%” page enacts the first stage of Burkean scapegoating through publishing stories that are, in their description of economic hardship, extraordinarily consubstantial with the stories that appear on the “We Are the 99 Percent” page:
I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don't have health insurance.
I worked 60 - 70 hours a week for eight years to pay my way through college.
I haven't had four consecutive days off in over four years.
But I don't blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%
God bless the USA! (5 October)
I was laid off from a great paying job 12 years ago, after 16 years. I went back to work and have been working for another 12 years. Then my dad died, then my mom died, then I got breast cancer and I am still here and still working. For all you whiners,--get off the dole, quit asking for everything to be given to you, get a job. The jobs are out there. Life is not easy or fair! (17 October)
Less frequently, postings convey success stories in terms of the American Dream ideology9, and a very few turn the guilt inward toward mortification.10 The repeatedly shared topos of hard work without economic security make it clear exactly what guilt the 53% is trying to expiate: it is contained in the syllogism implicit in the American dream ideology that if anyone who works hard enough in America will succeed; therefore, if you have not succeeded, you have not worked hard enough.
The exact rhetorical means by which the 99% are cast out often reflect characterizations of the Occupy movement that are familiar from right-wing media and congruent with the long history of racial scapegoating—the protestors are seen as dirty, overly sexualized, and overly fond of marijuana. Elsewhere, an anti-feminist topos is most prominent: “That womyn’s studies major not paying off for ya?” (22 October, with similar imprecations on 14, 18, 20, and 27 October). But by far the most common means of scapegoating the Occupy protestors is through the “whiners” topos shown above; a brief sampling includes examples such as “America is a place for winners, not whiners” (17 October), “bums sitting on the street whining” (11 October), "I am the 53% and pissed off at the whining 99%ers. Suck. It. Up. Wimps!" (20 October), "a few thousand whiny babies mewling in the streets" (13 October), “whiny babies masquerading as adults” (October 14), and “whiny babies crying for socialism” (17 October).
A very clear parallel to this “whiny baby” topos is shown in the ethnographic data that Jennifer Seibel Trainor gathered in a suburban, 97% white public high school in the mideastern United States. Trainor interviewed a large number of students about the considerable resistance they demonstrated against claims about racism made by African American writers, and he found that a majority of the students simply dismissed the claims as being “whiny” (2008, 91) or “complaining” (94), and as such negated by the enforced optimism of the American Dream ideology their school inculcated: “Students were repeatedly told that their destiny was in their hands if only they maintained the right attitude” (97). The ubiquity of this critique, both in the high school Trainor studied and in the “We Are the 53%” text, implies that it is a central topos in American ideology. And in fact the “whiny baby” topos as applied to the Occupy movement enjoyed considerable success in two different ways. First, it became important to the Obama Administration’s (and the political and media elites’ as a whole) response to the Occupy protests. On November 22, 2011, during a speech in New Hampshire, President Obama was interrupted by chanters who, using the “People’s Mic” echoing technique, said: “Mr. President, over 4000 peaceful protesters have been arrested. While bankers continue to destroy the American economy. You must stop the assault on our First Amendment rights. Your silence sends a message that police brutality is acceptable. Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.” Obama responded by saying: “A lot of folks who've been down in New York and all across the country in the Occupy movement, there is a profound sense of frustration, a profound sense of frustration about the fact that the essence of the American dream . . . feels like it's slipping away. . . . Families like yours, young people like the ones here today—including the ones who were just chanting at me—you're the reason that I ran for office in the first place” (Gitlin 2012, 191-192).
Rather than addressing either the First Amendment issue or the issue of bank malfeasance, Obama simply attempted to soothe feelings, as one would try to calm an upset child. Similarly, he had told ABC News on October 18, “I understand the frustrations being expressed in those protests” (Dwyer 2011), a response perhaps strongly influenced by Bill Clinton’s success in telling a member of the audience at the 1992 Presidential Debate in Richmond, “I feel your pain” (Levine 1993, 23). We might also speculate that the Occupy protestors by implying, if not stating outright, that their communicative process actually constituted their protest, left themselves open to this kind of rhetorical ploy.
In addition, the “whiny baby” topos does double service in terms of Burke’s theory of guilt and expiation. It allows the “We Are the 53%” writers to scapegoat the Occupy movement and mortify themselves at the same time, identifying themselves as consubstantial with the American Dream not because they have gained any sort of financial independence, but simply because they can disassociate themselves from the whiners. Many of the posters seem to be welcoming severe financial hardship as a badge of righteousness, mortifying themselves and accepting their suffering as a sacrifice for the greater good.
The Ends of the Occupation
Despite efforts to discredit them, the writers of the “We Are the 99 Percent” page explicitly reject the role of scapegoat, refusing the guilt that would be foisted upon them. This rejection of guilt occurs specifically in response to the accusation of whining—as if they recognize its centrality in the critique against them—with a large number of them expressing the sentiment of the 26-year-old quoted above, by saying: “There are many much worse [off] than myself”; in fact, Konczal’s (2011) quantitative analysis of the “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr, done relatively early in the history of the page, found “lucky” to be the most frequently used adjective and fourteenth most frequently used content word.11 More generally, those who write in to the Tumblr turn attributions of guilt made against them toward the one percent, with discourse like
“I AM the 99 %. I have worked too hard for this to be the end. I am pissed. I’m tired of being screwed over and of attempts to make ME feel bad about it to alleviate YOUR guilt or greed, or to prop up your overinflated sense of self importance. I do not care about being in the 1%” (20 October).
This, of course, raises the question of whether these writers are scapegoating their own adversaries. The answer to this seems to be “no” because their rejection of these adversaries does not begin in a sense of consubstantiality; the one percent is seen as completely Other, both in their circumstances and in their morality:
“The 1% sold my future, polluted my planet, bought my ‘elected’ leaders, looted our treasury, holds our health hostage, wiped out my Grandparents' life savings, made over 1 Million US citizens homeless through foreclosure. No arrests, no prosecutions. 700 peaceful protesters spoke out and were locked up.
I demand JUSTICE. I am the 99%.” (20 October)
In his book-length Burkean analysis of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Bobbit argues that King expiates African American guilt “by transforming the very conditions of that guilt, oppression and socioeconomic inferiority, into a virtue,” taking on martyrdom in fulfillment of Burke’s principle of mortification (2004, 43). The Occupy movement’s use of this principle shows a difficult, but possible means of identification with the mortification of the suffering but uncomplaining 53%, and, in fact, no less of an authority on contemporary American politics than Barack Obama was one of many observers who noted that the Occupy movement shared a large number of economic concerns with the rightist Tea Party movement (Dwyer 2011).
In this, and in many of its other rhetorical tactics, the movement may yet achieve a strategic victory despite its tactical defeat in the late fall of 2011. On the night of November 14-15, police forcibly evicted Occupiers from encampments in Manhattan, Denver, Oakland, and Portland; other encampments nationwide were shortly afterwards removed. Documents later emerged showing these police actions to be coordinated by an entity called the Domestic Security Alliance Council, a partnership between elements from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector—including the selfsame financial corporations whose influence the movement was protesting (Wolf 2012). In the wake of this crackdown, the New York Times stated, "Whatever the long-term effects of the Occupy Movement, protesters succeeded in implanting ‘we are the 99 percent’ into the cultural and political lexicon" (Stelter 2011). This is no small achievement because in Burkean terms our “terministic screens” (1966, 44 ff) determine exactly what it is we see. It’s notable that even the writers of the “We Are the 53%” page occasionally accept it as a frame for contemporary economic reality, saying things such as “I am part of the 99% but you do not speak for me” (18 October) and “I am part of the 99%, but I am NOT ‘the 99’.” (20 October). The larger, and more important, issue of whether the partisans of the Occupy movement can bring their class equivalents among those who call themselves “the 53%” into a truly consubstantial relationship, whether the guilt attendant to failure to reach the American Dream can be consistently redirected away from social, sexual, racial and religious anxieties and toward needed economic and political reforms, remains open. Burke wrote early in his career that “criminality . . . is actually transformed, transcended, transubstantiated, by incorporation into a wider context of symbolic action” (1973, 51-2). That the 99% trope has become a terministic screen for many Americans suggests that a wider context and a more profoundly inclusive community are possible.
Despite the success of the 99% trope, Burke’s theories remind us that, because division continually reasserts itself in human affairs and borders are continually configured and reconfigured through symbolic actions, to create a more inclusive community we must continually reassess the discourses around us, realize that these borders exist within a continuing human drama, driven by human purpose, and take rhetorically cogent actions against division. Burke’s methods also provide us with the means to do this, by fully and flexibly contextualizing these discourses through the dramatistic pentad, by understanding the process that establishes cultural boundaries through the attribution of guilt to scapegoated groups, and by realizing that the opportunities for consubstantial identification “by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea” (1969b, 55) proliferate throughout the entire range of our human identities.
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Henderson’s gloss is useful here: "Perspective by incongruity is a de-familiarization strategy akin to Brecht's alienation effect. Its political genius resides in its ability to co-opt the hegemonic vocabulary of the dominant class—the ideology of the status quo that converts the historical into the natural—and to form it into a counterstatement, a rhetoric of social change. By allowing us to translate back and forth between conceptual schemes that are traditionally kept apart, perspective by incongruity is both a methodological device for giving us a handle on the bewildering dense diversity of interpretations with which we are bombarded and a rhetorical technique for subverting a given hegemonic discourse from within by transvaluing its symbols of authority" (1988, 21).
2 The nadir of the “they don’t know what they want” topos was, perhaps, reached when a correspondent on Forbes’s web page sniffed that the protestors did not know whether they were angry with Wall Street’s retail traders, flow traders, or execution traders (Hirschhorn 2011).
3 In any case, the editorial board of the New York Times—certainly no great enemy of current government structures—pointed out that it was not really the protesters’ job to make specific policy proposals; that was the job of the nation's political leaders, and they had not been doing it. Under those circumstances "the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself.” They continued: “It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge" (“Protestors”). Eventually, on January 3, 2012, the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly did officially adopt the measure that "corporations are not people and money is not speech" and called for public funding of elections (Gitlin 2012, 109).
4 The Occupy Denver encampment performed a trenchant act of perspective by incongruity in regard to the perceived need for leaders when it, upon being told by the mayor of Denver that he would negotiate with the group if provided with a single leader with which to speak, elected as its leader a Border Collie named Shelby (Mitchell 2011, 82).
5 Although Burke says that the idea of pure persuasion is a utopian one, that it is an ultimate rather than normative term, he does allow that it can be an ingredient in persuasion of all types no matter how "advantage seeking such a rhetoric may be" (1969b, 269).
6 The visual rhetoric of the page was evocative enough to be quickly taken up for other purposes—for example, repeated almost exactly in the “Who Needs Feminism” Tumblr started by Women’s Studies students at Duke University, as well as the “We Are the 53%” page that I will discuss momentarily.
7 The web page’s first posting (August 23, 2011) specified guidelines for contributions
, but those guidelines were very quickly overridden. One in particular that was done away with almost immediately was the request that posters restrict their description of their particular circumstances to a single line.
8 According to the Tax Policy Center, only 23% of Americans incurred no income tax because of low income; another 23% had their federal income tax liability cleared by a variety of exemptions and credits (Johnson, Nunns, Rohaly, Toder, and Williams, 2011).
9 “I worked for two years after college at a below poverty wage. I worked hard to grow in my expertise. I took a job making more than double my poverty wage. 4 years later I was upper middle class. I have helped make other people rich. I am grateful for the opportunity” (14 October).
10 “I was careless. I worked but didn't save. I ate out almost every weekend, I had a bar tab in the triple digits. I don't blame Wall Street for my lack of judgment.… Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. I regret nothing!” (20 October).
11 Those more frequently used were “job(s),” “debt(s),” “work,” “college,” “pay,” “student,” “loan(s),” “afford,” “school,” “insurance,” “body,” “money,” and “home.”