It’s Not About Wall Street

It makes sense that the “Occupy” movement started on Wall Street.  Surveys, including the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, have shown that public trust has eroded more dramatically for the banking sector than for any other industry.   The finding won’t surprise anyone who lived through post-9/11 black-swan events that have demoralized this country — Madoff, the housing bust, TARP, etc.

OWS’s genesis on Wall Street is understandable.  But by now, the movement has obviously achieved broader resonance, setting off a primal scream of dissatisfaction across industries and continents.  These eruptions of discontent reveal far more than a demand to reform Wall Street.  The movement is forcing a more fundamental re-examination of the old metaphors – capitalism and socialism – that still dominate modern-day dogmatism about how best to organize societies.

In my opinion, OWS draws its energy from the same formless, almost pre-lingual, yearning for change that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency.  People feel increasingly hopeless, desperate.  Desperation inspires messianic hopes (Psalm 130: “From the depth of my despair, I call to you, my Lord”).  When hopes of redemption collapse, disenchantment sets in, and political protest inevitably follows.

As OWS evolves, our society goes through the ritual struggle to define the movement — its motives, methods, its basic character.  The targets of OWS (e.g., business and government leaders) have mainly attempted to define the movement with contemptuous caricatures, thoughtless generalizations and mere acknowledgements of the anger.

Some banks have responded with “no comment”.  Others noted that the movement lacks clear leadership and a consistent message, and that it hasn’t articulated specific demands.  These reactions seem tone-deaf, but they are not surprising.  OWS represents the antithesis of the way messaging works in corporate America and in American politics.  The protest reached a pitch not suitable for board rooms, where the custom is to smile serenely as you stab your adversary.

Politicians and CEOs trained and polished by message squads feel naturally uncomfortable when confronted with visceral candor, especially when it bursts out in surprisingly articulate forms.  In my opinion, many of the protesters interviewed by television crews spoke more eloquently and credibly than many CEOs or politicians spewing pre-rehearsed “messages” on cable networks that essentially function as extensions of in-house PR departments.

“Real” often means messy.  Compare a real fight with a choreographed martial arts exhibition.  Compare an awkward impromptu pairing on the dance floor with an impeccably executed ballet performance.  Real movements are never neat.  But they matter.  Usually, they matter far more than the ornate performances in the theater of corporate or political PR.

Corporate and political leaders need to stop reacting to the “Occupy” movement with reflexively dismissive or patronizing platitudes.  This is not how dialog works.  They need to listen.  They need to respond thoughtfully and candidly.  They need to keep it real.

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