"Hippies" and the Occupy Movement
To celebrate May Day, here’s a piece I wrote late last year on Occupy Wall Street. Enjoy…
Calling people in the Occupy movement ‘hippies’ is absurd. But I guess it depends on what you mean by the term.
If you mean ‘hippy’ as in the generation of kids in the 1960s who were hell-bent on personal freedoms (Free love! Free expression! Free hair! Freedom from their parents! Freedom from The Man!) then the Occupy protesters are notably distinct. Those hippies of the 1960s grew up to become the free marketeers of the 1980s and it is no wonder why the transition was so natural: they wanted to live a life free from restraint and to stop being made to feel guilty for following their every hedonistic desire. That ethos lent itself beautifully to an ideology of small government, individualism and rampant consumerism. Not only are those hippies the exact people the Occupy protesters are pitted against (their ‘greed is good’ revamp of society is seen as the root of the problems the Occupy movement are addressing) but what they are fighting for is diametrically opposed. Simply put, the hippies of the 1960s were after less rules; the ‘hippies’ of the Occupy movement are after more – regulations on financial industries, limits on corporate excess, restrictions on big business’ influence in political and democratic processes.
If you mean ‘hippy’ as in the term that has been thrown at the variety of anti-authoritarian activists since the 1960s that changed our views on women’s rights, on racial minorities’ rights, on gay rights, that argued the destruction of the environment has bad ramifications, that the Vietnam War was a terrible idea – well, those are a pretty good class of people to be associated with. History has proven them right. Indeed, the Occupy movement and the wide-spread support it has garnered internationally can be seen as history’s validation of the ‘hippies’ from just ten years ago in the anti-corporatist movement (sometimes problematically referred to as the anti-globalization movement) that reached its zenith in Seattle in 1999. Many did not take their concerns seriously because, during the 1990s, the (American) economy was seemingly chugging along fine. Now that America’s economy (and the large bulk of economies tethered to it) is in crisis it has become clear we should have listened to their warnings back then. It seems a good rule of thumb that if you want to be on the right side of history, side with the people that are being called ‘hippies.’
If you mean ‘hippy’ as a criticism of people who like dreadlocks, drum circles and bare feet then you’re getting distracted from the real issues. If a good point is being made, it doesn’t matter how the person making it is dressed. But if you’re still caught up on it, you should know that there are a lot of people in the Occupy movement that feel you. As was written on one Occupy Wall Street protester’s sign to explain his involvement in the movement: ‘I hate drum circles, but I hate corporate greed more.’
But I guess, when people use the word ‘hippy’ derogatively, they probably mean its most common modern definition: a person who is vague, lazy and left-wing and just ‘protesting for the sake of protesting.’ Vague, lazy, lefties of this ilk do exist and can be pretty insufferable. Some are so clueless that, if stuck in a conversation with one, you have to resist some pretty non-pacifist urges. But it is wrong to think this is the only ‘kind of person’ that populates the Occupy movement or supports it. Those on the side of the Occupy movement come from a variety of backgrounds (young and old, urban and rural, rich and poor). Whilst most of those taking part in the movement are youngsters, this shouldn’t be surprising. This is not only because the form of protest being engaged in (camping out in public spaces) is not for those with sensitive joints. It’s because protest movements are almost always populated by the young: they’re the ones with time on their hands (not yet burdened with kids and mortgages) and they’re the ones not (yet) jaded and complacent with the injustices of the world.
Further, the Occupy protesters are not merely ‘protesting for the sake of protesting.’ For the sake of keeping this reasonably short, this isn’t the place to try and validate each and every one of the movements’ grievances. But, whether they are there selfishly (as victims of this political/economic model) or selflessly (as those that recognise there are too many victims of this political/economic model) there are countless high profile commentators and respected economists that have gone out of their way to provide the intellectual muscle that backs the protesters’ claims (see, for example, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who went down and spoke at Occupy Wall Street a few weeks back).
I think the most concerning thing about using the term ‘hippy’ as a slur, however, is that it plays into the hands of those in power who throw this term at their detractors as a means to mock and delegitimise their movements. Over the last 60 years this has happened consistently (eg. the bigots against the civil rights protests or the high ranking warmongers cheering on the atrocities of the Vietnam War). It’s no mistake of history why the term ‘hippy’ has such negative connotations – such negative connotations served a useful purpose for those who benefit from keeping an (unjust) status quo.
But after all these years, after all the variety of movements where protesters have been labelled ‘hippies’ by those in power and it turned out that these protesters were right all along and did nothing less than make the world a better place, it makes no sense for it to still be considered a term of derision. It should be a badge of honour. However, if we insist on keeping it a term of derision, perhaps it would be more historically accurate to attach the term ‘hippy’ to the hedonistic Wall Street types that got us into this mess, rather than to the activists that are standing up against them.