October 18, 2011

Demonizing OWS: Beware "the Anger Meme"

I asked (the Washington) Post Managing Editor … if she could shed light on the thinking behind using the tackle photo for the paper’s front page Saturday. She responded that the photo was “the most original and the most newsy” of the options that day.

— from Occupy Wall Street’s struggle for nonviolence (Justin Elliot/Salon)

Aggression is different from anger. Anger is an emotion; aggression is a behavior. There are better ways to deal with anger than behaving aggressively. Aggressive talk, gestures or behaviors belong to the old way of being. Once we tune in to a higher level of consciousness, aggression is as unnecessary as is the hand-held plow in modern day agriculture.

— Gwen Randall-Young, Growing Into Soul

Salon’s Justin Elliott has already done the heavy lifting in terms of fleshing out the context surrounding Saturday’s Washington Post front page photo.

According to Justin’s research, we don’t really know if the protester actually tackled the police officer, nor does the photographer (in spite of the caption crediting him with a tackle). Given the tension in Zuccotti Park last Friday night, with the city and the NYPD threatening to clear the place out the next morning, the brief physical skirmishes that were clearly documented that evening — see the video Elliott also posted — seemed to have primarily been instigated by the police.

What’s so significant about this photo, however (accentuated by the innocence of the Managing Editor), is how it plants the seeds of demonization. Although the OWS movement has been overwhelming peaceful and non-violent so far, even in the face of provocation, my concern is seeing an “anger meme” creep into the reporting.

Besides the selection and labeling of this photo, Justin is astute in also noting the proximity of the adjacent “Wall Street angst” headline. If you read the completely separate article — about “the public’s frustration and anger” toward Wall Street — the juxtaposition with the photo serves, just as much as the photo and caption, to suggest some kind of violent underbelly to OWS. And then, raising the possibility of a theme here, yesterday’s NYT pushed the same thesis, the title of their front-page article, “Countless Grievances, One Thread: We’re Angry.” In this case, the accompanying photo-collage offered peaceful demonstrators — their signs more determined than angry) as evidence, somehow, of a bottled rage. And then, does The Times really feel that anger is the one thread that runs through this movement?

If anything, the volume of imagery so far, opposed to aggression or hostility, speaks loudly in favor of poise and deliberation and almost cringingly-peaceful resistance. I should add, putting my shrink hat on for a moment, that there is a serious deficit in the commons when it comes to the understanding of anger. As stated in the Randall-Young quote above, it might be rare to find agression without anger, but anger, as an emotion, can be as contained, mediated and constructively motivating as it can be the ignition for a swing. But then, when it comes to selling stories, we know there are two sure-fire emotions that will garner eyeballs: one is greed and the other is fear. And in an atmosphere like this, all you need is 1% of one and a few headlines and pictures questioning the temperature of the other 99%, and you’ve got a two-fer.

See Bag’s complete OWS coverage here.

(photo: Andrew Burton/AP WAPO caption: A man affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street protests tackles a police officer during a march in New York. Police arrested 15 people during demonstrations Friday, but the movement gained a victory after a plan to clear people from a Manhattan park was halted.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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