Why We Disrupt

It is college and university leaders, not Occupy protesters, who have politicized issues of free speech, writes P.J. Rey.


January 3, 2012

Colleges and universities increasingly face tough decisions regarding how to deal with manifestations of the growing Occupy movement on their campuses. We are all now well aware of the intense negative press the University of California at Davis and its chancellor, Linda Katehi, received after a group of peacefully seated protesters were pepper-sprayed by a campus police officer. Since then, new incidents have made headlines: Students associated with the Occupy movement have been disrupting public presentations by academics, activists, and politicians (most of whom identify as conservative). The protesters delivered messages or rebuttals to the person on stage using a practice called "the human microphone." The human microphone amplifies a speaker’s voice by having many people repeat the speaker's words in unison. The speaker initiates the practice by calling out "mic check" and the speaker’s fellow protestors demonstrate that they are ready to act by repeating "mic check." The chorus then repeats the speaker's words one sentence at a time. This practice — which originated as means to communicate at Occupy encampments where electronic amplification was forbidden — has become an important and recognizable symbol of the movement.

A recent news article in Inside Higher Ed reports on several such instances occurring on university campuses. The article’s author, Allie Grasgreen, notes many people believe that the Occupy tactic of mic checking powerful speakers is tantamount to "censorship." This common assertion shares the logic of the demands made by Karl Rove when he was mic-checked at John Hopkins University: "If you believe in free speech and you have a chance to show it ... if you believe in the right of the First Amendment to free speech … then you demonstrate it by shutting up and waiting until the Q&A session … Line up behind the mic…."

But Grasgreen and Rove both miss the point. Occupiers are trying to demonstrate — through the very performance of this act — that "free speech" is not evenly distributed. The point is that only the 1 percent ever find themselves at the podium. The 99 percent are left to fill the seats in the audience, and, if they are lucky, they may have the chance to do as Rove commands and line up behind the mic for a few brief seconds in the spotlight. This is, of course, because the opportunity to speak and to be heard is inextricable from issues of wealth and power. The few who hold these assets in abundance have more purchasing power in the attention economy. K Street is nothing if not an industrialized machine for converting money and power into speech that will be heard. Sure, we all may have "free speech," but as George Orwell quipped in Animal Farm, "some animals are more equal than others."

When universities intervene to stop these protest actions, administrators tend to portray the institution as an impartial moderator attempting to uphold free speech for all political groups. Yet, these administrators fail to grasp the extent to which their own notions of free speech are politicized. Freedom of speech, like all freedom, has many dimensions and gradations. When we say "free speech," of course, we really mean "free political speech." The current discourse surrounding "free speech," as it pertains to the Occupy movement, has been cast in a radically conservative tone: It is backward-looking, toward the white, male, and aristocratic thinkers of the Enlightenment, who did not have to worry about power because they already had it. Yet, without attention and access, free speech is wholly inconsequential. Unfortunately, the contemporary public discourse has inherited a tendency is to assume that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we all somehow have equal access to the public sphere.

For political speech to be meaningful, it requires attention, which is a finite resource — and, a resource that has been highly marketized. Attention goes to the highest bidder — the person with most economic, social, cultural, or symbolic capital to trade. The attention economy is an ever-shifting field where those already in power seek to consolidate their position by establishing exclusionary practices that distinguish them from others and continue to draw attention their way. Those who control institutions get to write the rules and the rules will always ensure that they are heard at the expense of others. Only those at the very top have the luxury of (naïvely) assuming their speech is interpreted on its own intrinsic merits. And, this elite benefits when others embrace this same power-blind ideology. As a result, C.W. Mills observed long ago in The Power Elite, "American men of power tend, by convention, to deny that they are powerful." The world is not flat, and those at the top of the hill have an easier time projecting their voices. And, while universities certainly tolerate a few of what Patricia Hill Collins called "outsiders within" — who speak on behalf of the 99 percent — we should not fall into the trap of confusing the exception for the rule.

The current debate surrounding Occupy’s mic-check tactic is in desperate need of an updated notion of free speech that accounts not only for negative freedom (i.e., freedom from constraints) but also for positive freedom (i.e., freedom to be recognized) as well. That is to say, for the right to free (political) speech to have a practical significance, it must also imply a right of equal access to the public sphere. Of course, there are practical limits to equal access. Attention given to one individual or group usually comes at the expense of attention to others. But what the Occupy movement seems to be rejecting is the current (arguably anti-democratic) reality where distribution of access is left to be determined by market forces. Occupiers are struggling for the democratization of political speech. The primary purpose of Occupy’s use of the human microphone at public speaking events is not to disrupt, but to be heard. It is not an assault on free speech but a tactic for obtaining it.

The logic of this debate over access and control extends beyond issues of free speech and the human microphone. Political opponents have made similar criticisms of the Occupy movement's tactic of indefinite encampment on (often privately owned) public spaces. These detractors have argued that by camping in a public space, Occupiers are, simultaneously, denying others the freedom to use that space. Again, this concept of freedom is blind to power. Like speech, space is not evenly distributed. If the mic-check tactic aims at the democratization of speech, encampments aim at the democratization of space. Occupiers are protesting a society in which the town square has given way to the shopping mall.  The encampments are, in part, a statement about the forfeiture of public space to the private sector — that is, out of the hands of the 99 percent and into the hands of the 1 percent. Absence of public space precludes public assembly. The thought of protests on Las Vegas’ sidewalk-less strips is difficult to entertain. As such, claims that the encampments constitute a denial of their freedom to assemble (especially when articulated by those who already control the vast majority of the space) ring hollow.

Beyond the fact that university administrators are using politically charged interpretations of freedom to justify their crackdown on protests, the underlying motivations of the institutional actors are also suspect. Though administrators have a tendency to try to positively spin crackdowns by valorizing the police who interrupt these mic checks as defenders of free speech, such claims are naïve, if not outright deceptive. The real reason why universities break up these actions is because they want to preserve and protect the routine operation of the bureaucracy; it has little to do with freedom and is, instead, about rationalization (what sociologist Max Weber described as the tendency of Modern bureaucratic institutions to value efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control above all else). Universities are frightened that speakers might back out or avoid their campus if they develop a reputation for disorder. The primary stakes for universities are prestige and profit, not freedom and democracy. We should not conflate the maintenance of order and the protection of institutional reputation (zwecktrational action) with struggles motivated by the pursuit of an abstract ideal of freedom (wertrational action).

Both administrators and journalists will sound hopelessly out of touch as long as they continue to apply to Occupy the very concept of freedom that the movement is criticizing. Occupy affirms what Cicero observed long ago: "Freedom is participation in power." While this aphorism may be a bit simplistic, it is certainly true that a concept of freedom that is blind to power merely serves to reinforce it.


PJ Rey is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park. He currently is working on theoretical issues pertaining to social media, including the blending of online/offline, the cultural implications of visibility and digital labor.


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