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Dirty Deeds: The Occupy Movement and the Rhetoric of Disgust

The Durham Resurrection Community, an incipient Nazarene house church that sometimes meets here on Green Street, may meet tonight with the Occupy Durham people downtown, near an iconic civic sculpture of a very well-endowed bull.  I have not written yet about the Occupy movement – for several reasons.  First, I have been busy mothering my two girls, exploring Durham with the bear (see “My Encounter with a Mountain Lion”), and planning upcoming courses.  Second, I am much more comfortable with the form of activism in the IAF model, and I have been waiting to see whether our local IAF is going to become involved.  But it seems time to say something.

One delightful commentary on Occupy Wall Street (and the broader Occupy movement) comes from one of my favorite children’s authors, who writes pseudonymously as “Lemony Snicket.”  He lists 13 observations about OWS, my favorite of which is # 11:

Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

Several of his observations draw on this sense of a barrier between those inside and those outside the buildings – those in the park and those ensconced in the buildings around the park.  This notion of outsiders and insiders has me sorting through a connection that I made recently, after reading this commentary by Cornell’s David Pizarro about politics, smell, “cleanliness,” and the logic of disgust.  Economist Dan Ariely had recently told me about Pizarro’s research (which draws on the experimental work of other scholars as well), showing that there are links between feelings of visceral disgust and the fear of outsiders and/or transgression.  While I have written on this from a moral-theological position (this piece will be out in February with Oxford University Press), and I have taught countless lectures against disgust as a morally useful category, I found it fascinating that psychologists were tracking some of the ways that our brains seem to connect disgust, cultural conservatism, and xenophobia.

Which leads me to my hands-down favorite commentary about OWS so far, from Lee Camp.  Warning: Lee Camp uses dirty words and makes crass references.  In fact, he intentionally uses dirty words to shock listeners into thinking about how dirty and rotten the political system is in the U.S.  (I think that he might like Stanley Hauerwas, if we could arrange a meeting someday, but, I digress.)  Lee Camp went on a tear about how various media outlets were going on and on about how “dirty” the OWS protesters are.  Here is the link – I recommend a listen before you keep reading.   As he suggests, “scrubbing behind our ears isn’t at the top of our list at the moment.”   Camp has been named as the inheritor of George Carlin’s legacy (by Carlin’s daughter, no less) and his form of humor combines offense with painful political truths.  In this rant, he makes a concatenation of provocation, narrating how the bravest witnesses to justice have been willing to risk appearing disgusting for the sake of radical democracy.

Sadly, the connections between political dissent, moral chaos, and dirt seem well established in many minds in the U.S. One friend, when she told an older relative that she might be taking food to an Occupy site here in the Triangle, was warned to make sure that she doesn’t “get raped.”  By a kind of subliminal logic, dirty people protest;  protesters become dirty, soiled with blood, sweat, and tears; people who are unkempt generally are more likely to transgress other boundaries, injuring others.   As Pizarro’s work suggests, these links are more visceral than rational.  If you argue with someone who finds protest unseemly, you are likely to end up in a strange game of non-sense.  Really?  Truly?  Are the protesters dangerous?  Does their lack of hygiene actually betray a willingness to injure others?  Are they encouraging chaos for the sake of more chaos?  Here I am reminded of the impasse that Jack and his father reach at the (often overlooked) crux of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home(page 97).  Seeing on television the obscenity of police dogs attacking Civil Rights protestors in the streets, Jack exclaims “Jesus Christ!”  His father takes offense at this offense, finding in Jack’s words a curse rather than a prayer.  “That kind of language has never been acceptable in this house,” the reverend tells his son.

What do I hope for in the Occupy movement, beyond that they will continue to risk appearing “dirty” and morally transgressive in their local areas?  I would suggest that the movement will become more salient, more true to a history of protest, inasmuch as the young adults involved have their lives intertwined with local sanitation workers, for example.   That is a start, and the intergenerational work that continues in Wisconsin seems like a truly hopeful model for combining young activism with labor wisdom. Such collaborative work will be slower, and more difficult than setting up camps around the country.  There are different rules of listening when young adults without labor organizing experience meet up with workers who have been practicing hard-won solidarity and political tactics for decades.  I should note that this was the blessing of my own time as a young adult in graduate school, organizing for GESO alongside organizers for the janitorial and secretarial unions at Yale.

On that note, I wonder what the Occupy Duke people are up to tomorrow tonight . . . A little mud never hurt nobody.  And, truth be told, cleanliness may be next to godlessness these days.

  • Doug

    Perhaps an interesting exercise is to change focus, from examining the protesters to examining virtually everyone else.  Yes, the protesters live in conditions that seem unhygienic.  However, this is truly the natural state.  When humans exist at all, especially when they exist in very close proximity to other humans, the natural tendency is dirt: mud churned up by others walking around, dirt ground into everything.  To banish all this filth requires a great deal of effort: building solid floors and structures, sweeping the dirt tracked in back out again and again, finding and then purifying water to wash everything that needs to be washed, disposing of the water in a way that doesn’t create self-defeating mud or harbor disease.
    So consider, just for a moment, not what is implied by filth, but what is implied by the absence of filth.  It requires a tremendous amount of sustained effort to keep it at bay.  Stop cleaning your house.  Stop straightening, organizing, and washing.  How long would it take for your own environs to become filthy?  A day?  A week?  So what does this (i.e. the relative lack of filth in our everyday experience) say about our own priorities?

  • Kimberly Bolles

    Thanks for this — great suggestions for reading (listening). Also — your class for masculinity and US Christianity class looks terrific! I’m still working on the Mark Driscoll/sex trafficking ministry project. Maybe we can chat! 


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