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Occupy Psychology

Richard’s off, C.R. writes:  

A series of recent social psychology studies on social class and the news that Occupy has started up again in my hometown (NYC), has got me thinking.

My position? It comes down to this: In the class war, I’m a conscientious objector.

I don’t think Occupy’s accomplishing all that much except perhaps ratcheting up the hate levels in America. Even the very name uses the terminology of war—Occupy—and that speaks volumes.

It’s not all that hard to manipulate people (that’s why over 400 billion dollars is spent on advertising each year). And because most of us naturally gravitate towards groups it’s all too easy to jump on the “us” vs. “them” bandwagon. From there, it’s a short step to viewing “other people” as the problem or the evil enemy, sometimes for the most spurious reasons.

It’s been done with class, race, religion, and ethnicity, and now it’s being done with class once more. Every week there seems to be another news story about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. One good friend who was down there for a month writing about Occupy was swinging between elation, rage, and depression before she finally felt too emotionally drained to continue.

A few months ago, PsychCentral founder John Grohol wrote an interesting article on the psychology of the Occupy movement. He made a good point: Movements like Occupy Wall Street are like a Rorschach Inkblot Test — although it’s just ink on a piece of paper, you can see the future and the past in every blot.

In other words, we each project onto the Occupy movement (and any political movement, party, or group)—what’s in our subconscious, what we fear, who we are. We see what we want to see whether we realize it or not. We do the same with the stunningly named 99 percent and the 1 percent. We project all the good in us onto the group we most identify with (the 99 percent for most of us, obviously, since 99 percent means the majority) and all project all the evil in us onto the group we’re against (the 1 percent, since that is the minority).

To me personally, perhaps the biggest failure I see in (or project onto) the Occupy movement is the seeming obliviousness, even callousness, to the damage the movement has caused to the average worker around the country. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been underemployed the last three years and, like many I know, have been scrambling for more freelance work.

There are dozens of sad stories. Here in NYC we had a small employer (the Milk Street Café), a good guy who was involved in feed-the-hungry programs, have to shut down and let workers go because the protests destroyed his fledgling business. The employers and the owner definitely fit the description of the 99 percent.

I got an email from the same friend I mentioned, which said that sometimes there has to “be a sacrifice for the greater good,” and while it was regrettable that people lost their jobs, the “means justified the end.” I don’t think the “means justify the ends” at all, because I don’t believe anyone is entitled to engineer sacrifices on another person’s behalf. Why do one group of people get to decide what the “greater good” is and who has to pay for it? That’s exploitation, plain and simple.

So are the 99 percent and the 1 percent groups or classes? For the sake of discussion I’d say this is really about class. Despite the fact that belonging to a group may be a healthy expression of humanity, clinging to a class might not. I believe that our recent, national obsession with class is political in the most unflattering sense of the word—the Animal Farm sense. I also believe this obsession, via the Occupy movement, incites anger and hatred and that this isn’t healthy for anyone.

The slogan itself (“the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent”), is particularly manipulative and smacks of bullying. We should all find sloganeering suspicious, no matter who does it—even and perhaps, especially, when people with whom we agree, do so. I’d also argue it’s not emotionally or spiritually healthy to participate in “us against them” groups when a lot of the focus is on hating the “them” instead of focusing on how we, the “us” can do better. We should be able to belong to an “us” without castigating a “them”, especially when the “them” isn’t out to get us.

Let’s face it, entitled (and greedy) rich people abound, but there are also plenty of entitled (and greedy) middle and working class people, too. If we’re deciding who the “them” is, we have to look first in the mirror at ourselves.

Last summer I visited my friend at a couple of Occupy protests here in New York City. One sunny afternoon at Union Square she and I watched about a hundred adults drift into in a circle and begin loudly repeating every sentence each of the various speakers present spoke. Some of the people in the group seemed flat or unemotional, most of the others seemed angry and were raising their voices, and a few raised their fists. I turned to her and said, “This is pretty creepy.” She said I just didn’t get it—that “righteous anger is a virtue.”

Well, I did get it. I just didn’t think this was an expression of righteous anger (and certainly not a proactive expression of righteous anger), and besides, the whole chanting-thing felt cultish.

Don’t misunderstand: I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with belonging to groups (unless they’re violent mobs), or protesting injustices, and I think we’ve got to have the freedom to express our opinions, but the vacant repetition of phrases and slogans unnerved me. Eventually my friend somewhat relented and after she quit Occupy she admitted she “got myself back.”

Meanwhile, to my dear friend who I discussed this with before posting: You asked, “Why do you call this a ‘class war’? It’s not a war.”

My answer: Then why does it use the terminology of war: Occupy, fight, battle, etc.?

And in all humility, I think we should focus on the 100 percent. Otherwise, after we’ve shut-down the 1 percent, we’ll next go after the 2 percent. Then the 3 percent. And so on. In this beautiful, powerful, moving ongoing story of the world, we each have something to offer, no matter which percent we belong to.

More on Occupy, social class, social psychology coming soon.

Occupy Psychology

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2012). Occupy Psychology. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 17, 2018, from


Last updated: 1 Mar 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Mar 2012
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