Occupy Communication

December 06, 2011

On Friday I participated in a panel discussion at James Madison University for an event called "Faculty Flashpoint: Occupy Wall Street." The event, which included five other professors from various departments, attracted numerous students, professors, and community members for a discussion about the occupy movement. Two newspapers reported on the event. Yesterday, the JMU student newspaper The Breeze ran an article that included several comments from an interview with me. Today, the Harrisonburg newspaper Daily News-Record ran an article that included a couple comments I made at the event. Both articles are good ways to continue the discussion about this movement. The event sparked lively dialogue and I have enjoyed the opportunities to continue talking about the issues with individuals since then.

Among the points I made during the event on Friday were a couple I have articulated in previous blog posts: the importance of the concept of occupation for the movement (see post here) and the problems with limitations being placed on First Amendment freedoms (see post here). I also talked about interesting communication strategies employed by the movement. I started my first presentation with a demonstration of the "people's mic," which occupiers use to amplify speeches so more people can hear them. With the people's mic, someone makes a statement and then the crowd echoes it. I started by saying "mic check," which is what one says to start the people's mic (it took a couple of tries to get the crowd going). Then we entered the speech: "The people's mic [the people's mic] is one of the most [is one of the most] fascinating rhetorical strategies [fascinating rhetorical strategies] of the occupy movement [of the occupy movement]." By the last phrase, the audience was chanting along quite well. I then cut the mic since it takes twice as long to speak and I was on the clock (and had an actual microphone). The adoption of the people's mic is interesting because it not only allows speakers to be heard better but it also seems to symbolize the movement. After all, it creates a scenario where no one really owns the message but it instead belongs to the masses. When I speak and others repeat, my message becomes their message. And when someone else speaks and I repeat, their message becomes my message. This also creates a situation where people are actively engaged with a message and not merely passively listening (since you have to pay attention in order to repeat the statements).

Another interesting communication strategy of the occupy movement is the use of the hand signals during general assemblies. This allows individuals to easily express their perspective on an issue but in a way that does not drown out the speaker (as can happen with clapping, cheering, and booing). After I mentioned these gestures another panelist taught the audience a few key ones (like agree and disagree) and encouraged the audience to use them throughout the event. By the end, the audience was quite active in using the hand signals and it added a nice dimension to the discussion. Rather than allowing those of us who were panelists to merely spout off on topics unquestioned, we were instantly receiving clear feedback on our opinions. This also gave all of the audience members a chance to have their say even if they did not get an opportunity to actually speak during the question/comment time. It made the event much more interesting and a better dialogue. Regardless of what one thinks about the occupy movement, these communication strategies are interesting and warrant consideration.