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Morton Deutsch: Bullish on Occupy Wall Street

In a sit-down with "Views on the News" editors, TC's Morton Deutsch offers his perspective on the movement and the challenges of conducting meaningful political dialogue in our highly polarized era.
The ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, which began at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on September 17, have not only grown into a national movement and spread to other cities throughout the United States, but also have ignited protests abroad against G8 and G20 leaders. Occupy Wall Street also joins the growing list of popular uprisings and mass political movements that include the Tea Party and the Arab Spring. What do these movements and demonstrations portend, and what are its members really trying to achieve?

In a sit-down with “Views on the News” editors, TC’s Morton Deutsch, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, founder of the College’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) and one of the fathers of the field of conflict resolution, offers his perspective on the movement and the challenges of conducting meaningful political dialogue in our highly polarized era.

So what do you make of Occupy Wall Street?

It’s a very positive development. Their distinction between the 99 percent and the 1 percent is important because of the gross inequality developing in the U.S. over the past 30 years, the country has lost some of its democratic essence. The top one percent controls the government, Wall Street and the major corporations. They control government because it costs so much to run for election, and so their contributions largely determine the candidates in both parties.  Republicans get more of their money, but Obama and the Democrats depend on it, too. So wealth determines the agenda of the government.

These people, who started out down on Wall Street but are now in other cities, too, represent a protest against the gross inequality which affects so much of their lives. It determines the nature of the health care we have, of the large loans students are required to take out, and of our depressed economy which has caused so much personal and economic misery. I think Wall Street and large corporations in general have had a short-term perspective. Wall Street has gone for short-term high profits, and so have the corporations. They’ve encouraged people to become indebted, to purchase houses and get overburdened with credit card debt. So now we have a system that’s economically out of joint. So many people are suffering, but not the one percent. The average salaries of corporate presidents have gone up by 20 percent while there’s been a general decrease in the average salary of workers.  So there’s a need to restore more democracy.

As a psychologist, do you think Occupy Wall Street reflects some kind of universal impulse right now, or is it a movement more reflective of one political party? 

It’s not about one’s specific politics. No matter who you vote for, the candidates today are indebted to the wealthy. I’m not trying to demonize the wealthy – it’s natural for them to do that. They live in an environment that in every sense – personal, business – which separates them from what is going on in the actual lives of most of the people. So they don’t have the empathy for the real distress that exists in the world of other people.  It is the uncontrolled system of gross inequality which leads to the disenfranchisement and suffering of “the 99 percent.”

What about the Tea Party? Is that a manifestation of the same kind of reaction against government and wealth?

The Tea Party is also a popular uprising, but it’s been coopted by the wealthy – by people such as the Koch brothers and others who have shaped its agenda to their own ends.  The original impulse was the same as with Occupy Wall Street – to call out how ineffective the government has become. It was a complaint against the banks initially, too, but that’s dropped out of their language now.

The members of the Tea Party movement seem different from the members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Occupy Wall Street protesters seem more representative of the general population.  If you look at a Tea Party protest, the people are almost all white, middle-aged or older.  On the other hand, in Occupy Wall Street, the people are ethnically diverse, much younger, and of more mixed socio-economic backgrounds. 

Yesterday even, doctors went down to Wall Street calling for a single payer system. And I know educators have gone down there as well.  These are groups that are concerned with what’s happening in their own professional worlds.  Because we face very serious problems in the future which are not being addressed at all.

What about the revolutions that have been occurring this year in the Middle East and Africa? Is Occupy Wall Street in some way stemming from a similar impulse?

I think so. People are protesting the gap they feel between themselves and their governments, and the feeling that government is controlled by too few people, it’s an autocracy.  So these mass protests are good. But there’s a need to develop a truly global community, because we’re so far from dealing with global climate change, trade, weapons of mass destruction, the global economic system.  And it’s not just the U.S.  You can’t deal with those problems effectively without a global community. This is just a small part of what we have to do. We have to become more democratic and have more of a global community. And some of that is happening through Twitter and Facebook and other social media. People are more connected. These tools are definitely a facilitating means if they’re used right.

Are the current global institutions we have adequate to the task of capturing the energy that’s out there? As the UN did in the post-war era?

I don’t think they are. The UN is good in many respects, but it has problems. The nations that comprise it have not yet felt themselves a real part of the world. They consider their own interests. And some peopled in Congress are trying to withdraw our financial contributions from the UN.

Do you think people are more polarized than in previous eras?

Yes. As I understand the Tea Party, it has adopted a kind of “cowboy” orientation. Every person for themselves, and if you have the willingness to work hard, you’ll make it. If you don’t work hard, it’s your fault so the government shouldn’t try to equalize things with unemployment benefits and other supports.

The other philosophy, the one reflected more by Occupy Wall Street, is that we’re in a connected world and system, and the government should represent all interests. And when people are weak and they fail, they should be helped. The system should be organized to encourage cooperation and prevent abuse and corruption.  

At the moment, the first orientation is more dominant on the Republican side. The Tea Party captures their primaries because they’re more active than the average Republican.

Are today’s problems worse than in past eras?

No, I don’t think so. There have been very severe problems in the past, including during the Civil War. But there are a lot of issues now that can only be solved by global cooperation.  And we’re seeing the beginnings of that. We try to deal with health issues, with the threat of mass contagion, in a cooperative way, for example, although not enough.

Does the field of conflict resolution have something special to offer right now?

Yes. Any large system has a large amount of conflict, and you have to manage it constructively or the system is impaired. Social justice is a key aspect of a system able to maintain itself and function.

Social justice strikes many people who’d identify themselves as Republicans or conservatives as a cover for redistribution of wealth. So if a movement has social justice as its compass, how do you mediate between them and another, very different philosophical stance?

In 1948, 58 nations developed the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which is a declaration of social justice. That’s pretty universal.  These conservatives and Republicans who object to reducing inequality, if they are not part of the 1% who seek to maintain their dominance over the economy and government, have been led to believe that we live in a “cowboy” world where every person creates his own destiny (no matter whether he or she has had inadequate parenting, poor education, poor health, lack of social support, and lack of opportunity).

But people from different sides of a question often use the same rhetoric to mean different things.

That’s true, and that’s where mediation and conflict resolution can really make a difference.  If you can have a constructive dialogue with people of opposing viewpoints, you can engage them, get them to recognize they exist in a community and share common ground. There are groups who do that, brokering conversations between the pro-life and pro-choice camps. How do you get people into that safe space? I was trained in a psychoanalytic clinic. I did psychotherapy. I often dealt with couples with very intractable problems  – one was a feminist, say, and the other very much in favor of masculine ideology. I tried to help them negotiate, to understand each other’s point of view, to explain how they got to their viewpoints, to each take the position of the other and explain it. To see each other as really honorable, dignified people worthy of respect. Can they come to a common viewpoint that integrates element of each?

You can do that around larger political issues as well – abortion, for instance. The people on different sides don’t have to agree in every respect. Both views can be held by honest, respectable people. And both sides may want to limit the number of abortions and improve the lives of children not aborted. They can develop common objectives despite important differences.

What about people who cynically manipulate arguments?  Who aren’t sincere? Can you negotiate with them?

You’re saying there’s something very like evil in the world – that there people who are psychopaths and sociopaths. You’ve got to bring out the truth about those people. That they change their function to what will bring out their personal gain.  You have to isolate them, reveal them, help people to understand how they function.

You’ve lived through periods of great change in the past. Are you hopeful about the outcomes this time?

Yes, I am. I think these movements are coming out of a democratic impulse, and that’s good. But it’s very hard to produce a coherent democracy that isn’t coopted all over again. I hope wise and efficient leadership  develops out of this. I’m hopeful that it will, because there’s a lot of intelligence now, more sophistication. The issue I’m concerned about, though, is that people must realize it takes time.  The changes they want don’t happen overnight. I was in South Africa just after [Nelson] Mandela came into power. I was in touch with a lot of the groups who were active in bringing him to power. One of the problems was that some people felt everything could be achieved quickly. And some of the leaders weren’t very effective after Mandela.  So having a sense of the time it takes, and having people who are really committed over a sustained period to help move the group to real democratic participation, is really essential. It takes time, planning and effort.

So – I cross my fingers and hope something good will develop.

Published Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011