Sunday, October 23, 2011

A gap in communication and language

I was in Montreal all of last week for a biofuels and aviation workshop. It was a fascinating time to say the least, particularly because I experienced first-hand how large scale technologies, particularly those that are meant to address environmental issues (biofuels are aviation's response to climate change), supported by the government and industry are implemented. At the same time, a block away, Occupy Montreal was growing in strength.

Here are pictures of Occupy Montreal from Square Victoria. The movement there was completely democratic, super peaceful, yet incredibly energetic.


The Occupy movement I have written about in the last couple of blog posts. I appreciate it, especially after seeing a large one such as that in Montreal, because it has been peaceful. And although the individual messages of the movement is changing in time and location, the rhetoric and sentiment expressed is resolute, constant, and resoundingly clear--that people (and the environment by extension) have been treated unfairly, that "the system" is set up in such a way that it maintains a power gap between decision-makers and the larger public, that there is a concentration of power and influence the higher and higher up you get. "The system" is comprised of government, of industry, of military.

More broadly, though, the Occupy movement raises questions that I think all of us need to be thinking about, which are, What's the point of it all? Why do we choose to live our lives this way and be bound to this system? Such questioning is of course social and environmental. The answers to these questions make our lives unfold in ways that affect people and the environment. In response to such questions, take a look at the following picture, which is of a massive poster (six feet by eight feet maybe?) by We Are Beings.

In stark contrast to this is how and where the powerful make decisions that affect all of our lives, our environment. The workshop I went to was put on by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is a UN body that governs all international aviation. The meeting was full of business persons, economists, technologists, government officials, engineers, and so on. As you can tell by the venue, the workshop showed privilege and power--sixty foot ceilings, big, cushy, comfortable chairs, individual microphones in front of every attendee, suits, suits, and more suits.

But the most important difference and gap between the Occupy movement and its demands, and "official" meetings and its way of operation is the language being used. If you take a close look (you can here) at the sentiment being expressed on the We Are Beings poster, it is one of compassion, of care, of respect, of kindness, of empathy. On the other hand, the language that the people at the workshop use is that of economic and technological efficiency, of growth, of money. The point is, the people that social and environmental activists are trying to get to listen to them just don't use language that the activists are using. They probably don't understand it. I doubt that government officials think about compassion, I doubt that they think about power dynamics.

And so, if activism is to have a chance, we must first of all communicate using a language that they can understand. In no way does this mean we "turn into" one of them. Instead, it means that the movement must be adaptable and thoughtful enough to speak to those that really need to listen.


  1. I completely agree with your post. That is my sentiment exactly and has been what I have been what I have been communicating to people I am in contact with who are involved in one way or another with the Occupy movement, both here in Montreal and nationally. This is something I have learned as an artist is to adapt my language use to be relatable to the listener, so when dealing with business & political types, it is true that learning to speak their language will help tremendously in the delivery and absorbtion of our message as activists.

    Thanks for your post!

  2. Hi April-Anna!

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. What kind of art work do you do? Would you be interested in sharing some of it on this blog? Please continue to send me your thoughts.