Waging War against the Poor: Representing Wealth in Activist Blogs

Waging War against the Poor: Representing Wealth in Activist Blogs

Group 17: Jessica Heinmiller, Ali Ladoba, Eric Leung & Erika Samson

Photo By Gretchen Robinette

Introduction

Our topical focus looks at the phenomenon of wealth, which is an important topic to explore because economic inequality is directly tied to other forms of social inequality. Wealth produces many of our common views and stereotypes about social character, power and prestige. Above all, wealth affects everyone. We are mainly interested in the strategies activists use with language to construct representative identities of members of both the 99% and 1% groups, as implicated by wealth. We examined the strategic use of language by activists to position supporters of the Occupy movement in a way that helps them understand who they are and who they are against.

One of the main themes that we found was the activists’ construction of meaning by classifying specific positive or negative attributes to one of the two separate wealth groups. Activists seek to legitimize the 99% by selectively emphasizing differences between the 99% and the 1%, however, they inadvertently reinforce and effectively reproduce dominant institutionalized ideologies of power and wealth, thereby creating vast differences amongst people, perpetuating stereotypes about people of certain classes.

We begin by first looking at the discourse genre of activist blogs and website, and reviewing the strategies that we used in our analyses of the texts. We will then be able to further our examination with a more comprehensive analysis of the patterns that we considered to be the most significant to our thesis.

Methods

Generally, discourse analysis methods are ways for us to understand abstractions and the “reality” of which we live in through language use. We are able to read things through a different lens, as well as on different levels (micro, meso, and macro analysis). The Occupy movement is about how the majority of this country, the 99% middle-/lower-classes, are wanting to close, or at least minimize the class-/income-gap more between them and the nation’s wealthiest people, the 1%. By using discourse analysis methods we are able to take a step further and expand our understanding of the movement by looking at how and why articles and essays are written the way they were, and how those certain strategies connect to the movement.

One strategy we used extensively was qualitative coding, which is the process of constructing “meaningful patterns of facts by looking for structures in the data” (Kelle, 2000). This strategy of coding was the basis for our research. Qualitative coding allowed us to foreground the patterns that came up repeatedly throughout our discourse texts. We also used the strategy of critically viewing the representation of social actors, in order to determine the “socially significant choices in representation of social actors” (Fairclough, 2003). Throughout our research, we were able to find instances where the 99% would represent themselves as the in-group and the 1% as the out-group, emphasizing themselves as the main focus for the movement. Another part of our analysis was to see who was written about through a more personal standpoint, who were active participants in the movement, and who weren’t. This has helped us look further into how wealth has created and enforced characterizations of the upper -and middle-/lower-classes and how it is shown throughout the Occupy movement. We enhanced this strategy by also examining equivalence and difference, which recognizes that “the ‘work’ of classification is constantly going on in texts, with entities being either differentiated from one another, put in opposition to one another, or being set up as equivalent to one another” (Fairclough, 2003). Since we are interested in how activists use language to represent the two different identities of the 1% and the 99%, I employed these two strategies together with the goal of exposing the hidden ideologies that seek to legitimate social inequalities (Rose, 2007).

Since many activists claim to be misrepresented by national and local news media, we wanted to see how the activists represent themselves and their opponents in activist blogs and websites. Activist blogs are extremely important to look at because not only are they politically important, but also they are influential on activists worldwide. Activists are able to express their thoughts and opinions candidly, without anyone from “the outside” to filter their words, showing the public who may be seeking more information what their objective is of this movement. Other activists and supporters of the movement use these texts to understand who they are and who their opponents are.

Our specialized corpus includes texts from a variety of activist blogs and websites, namely, Occupy Everything, Occupied Stories, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, The NeoConArtist. In addition, our group looked at texts from Occupy Seattle, Occupy Oakland and Occupy Boston. We collected a total of 232 texts. All of the texts were produced by activists from September 2011 to May 2012, allowing us to see how the articles have evolved or remained about the same with their language choices. There are a total of 155,960 words in our corpus and a type/token ratio of 0.0842. Our search parameters included the words: Occupy, activist, 1%, 99%, inequality, income and wealth. By having a diverse set of articles that share a common theme of being from activists part of the 99%, we were able to find patterns as to how the activists represented themselves differently from their opponents.

Although activist bogs and websites strive to empower members of the 99% by embodying a call to action, these texts actually reflect the dominant ideology that more wealth is better.

Pattern 1 – Activists use activation and passivation by portraying the 1% as the actors and the 99% as the beneficiaries of the act.

The first pattern that we observed is the activists’ portrayals of the 1% as the actors and the 99% as the beneficiaries of the act. As a result, readers perceive the 1% as the ones with power and the 99% as the powerless ones. I will explain three kinds of activation and passivation techniques which I found to be prevalent. The following is an excerpt that emphasizes activation of the 1%:

(This article, “Why We Need Free Media”, was posted on Occupied Wall Street Journal on April 11, 2012).

“Minneapolis police charged a peaceful march, beating protesters and arresting a dozen people. As described by Occupy Minneapolis: Videos show officers pulling several people off public sidewalks, slamming one violently into the street and deliberately censoring the mainstream and independent press. […] We had hoped to reestablish an occupation to bring attention to social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the foreclosure crisis, but instead were met with a crackdown by the Minneapolis Police Department.”

In each clause, police are the social actors who are acting by beating, arresting, pulling, slamming, and censoring the activists. Here, the police, representative of the 1%, demonstrate their “capacity for agentive action, for making things happen, for controlling others” (Fairclough, 2003). The 1% have the power to act, in contrast to the 99%, who are depicted as powerless. Now, consider an excerpt that portrays passivation of the 99%:

(This article, “Occupy Turns Up The Heat”, was posted on Cynical Times on March 25, 2012 by Victor Epstein).

“A cop grabbed Messiah and dragged her to the sidewalk by her arm, and then I was pushed on top of the cop who was cuffing her. Another cop was holding on to her by her shirt and then dragged her away, which is when her shirt ripped open, exposing her to the crowd.”

Here, 16-years-old activist Messiah is shown in passivation. She is acted upon by the police, who grabbed, dragged, pushed, and cuffed her; her shirt even ripped by itself, further subjugating her. Her subjection to the processes and eagerness to be affected by the actions of others is accentuated so much that she resembles a victim (Fairclough, 2003). Next, is an excerpt that demonstrates simultaneously, activation of the 1% and passivation of the 99%:

(This article, “11/15 And Moving Forward”, was posted on Occupied Stories on November 18, 2011).

“This man demanded, repeatedly and very clearly, to speak with their supervising officers about the actions they were taking. I saw that man pushed by an officer behind a riot shield, and I caught him before he could fall over a fire hydrant and seriously injure himself. I saw that man bent over a nearby car and arrested with zip ties, and then I saw a woman chanting in defense of the Occupation pepper sprayed in the face.”

The strategic use of activation and passivation reveals the power dynamic of the relationship of the 1% and the 99%. As seen in the excerpt, one activist tries to act, but instead receives a push from the officer. Another activist displays her support for the movement, only to be pepper sprayed. Every action from the 99% prompts a reaction from the 1%. And the reaction appears to be justified merely on the basis of possessing more wealth.

Pattern 2 – Activists create a clear separation among the two wealth groups by categorization.

A second pattern that we saw is activists placing people into different categories within the social world, in this case the categories of wealth, in order to create meaning. Meaning is made through classificatory systems. Examine the following excerpt, which exemplifies categorization:

(This article, “Blogging Occupy USA, for October 1-2: Over 700 Arrests in NYC, Protests Spread Elsewhere”, was posted on The Nation on October 1, 2011).

“2:45 Thanks to @DhaniBagels for noting this, which unites my two current main issues, a sign at protest yesterday in NYC:   “I won’t believe that corporations are people until #Texas executes one.”

Here, an activist claims that corporations are not people because they cannot be executed. This statement visibly differentiates the two wealth groups into two categories. In one category, there are the privileged 1% corporations who cannot be executed by Texas’ laws. In the other category, there are the 99% people who unfortunately can be executed by the laws. The process of categorization shows that the wealthy are more advantaged than the poor. Next is an instance of categorization with a similar classification scheme:

(This article, “November 17: Historic Day of Action for the 99%”, was posted on Occupy Wall Street on November 18, 2011).

“Tens of thousands took action Thursday, November 17 to demand that our political system serve all of us — not just the wealthy and powerful”

Classification and categorization can have a great influence in shaping how readers think and act as social agents (Fairclough, 2003). Like the previous excerpt, this excerpt provides a clear separation of the two wealth groups; it says that our political system serves only the rich and not the poor. Thus, it is better to be wealthy. When activists make demands for equality, like in this excerpt, the result is an emphasis of differences between them and their opponents. And the differences usually reflect the institutionalized ideologies of power and wealth.

Pattern 3 – Activists often portrayed themselves in an impersonal way, disregarding the ideological square.

The following excerpt demonstrates the strategy of personal/impersonal representation:

(This article, “Deep in the Heart of Occupy Austin: Chapter 1”, was posted on Occupied Stories on January 4, 2012).

“The occupy group was as serious as any I’d ever seen, and true to Austin’s form, the homeless alcoholics who peppered the crowd were being surly and uncooperative. When a list went around for people to sign up and speak, a shirtless bum named Tommy signed up, but when his name was called to speak-at least five times-he awoke from a drunken slumber, and then slowly and clumsily sat upright. He wiped the slobber off his chin with the back of his hand and mumbled, “You gonna have to give me a minute,” then he fell back and passed out again. His hairless white beer belly was aglow in the slanting afternoon sun. He looked like a dead goldfish floating belly-up in an old fish bowl, dusty and forgotten on the bottom shelf of humanity.”

Here, the 99% occupiers are associated with the terms: homeless, alcoholics, surly, uncooperative, shirtless bum, drunk, slow, clumsy, beer belly, dusty and forgotten, all of which are negative and impersonal descriptors. As a result, the 99% group gets delegitimized. It becomes hard for readers envision themselves in these representations. The following excerpt shows a similar representation of the 99%:

(This article, “Occupy Wall Street Protesters Win Showdown With Bloomberg”, was posted on The Nation on October 14, 2011).

“We don’t win! We’re the ones who get the shit kicked out of us!”

In this excerpt, 99% occupiers are depicted in an impersonal way. This impersonal representation reduces legitimacy for the 99% by drawing focus on them in a negative way. The impersonal representation dehumanizes the 99%, removing the focus from them as people and representing them as elements of institutional structures (Fairclough, 2003). It is important to note, as well, that the excerpt uses the strategy of in-grouping to make readers feel a part of the 99%. But since the 99% group is represented in an impersonal manner, it makes readers less willing to join with the 99% in-grouping.

Pattern 4 – Activists separated the 99% and the 1% through the strategy of in-group and out-group by using pronouns.

The following excerpt demonstrates an instance where activists refer to themselves as part of the in-group, using the pronoun “we” and the 1% as a part of the out-group by using the pronoun “they”:

(This article, “The Unwinnable War on Dissent”, was posted on Occupy Wall Street on March 20, 2012).

“They want to prevent us from making this spring huge. We won´t let them. When they evicted our encampments, we merely went elsewhere, delved deeper into community organizing, perfected our tactics, and built-up our infrastructure. The police use violence to preserve economic inequality, but this will backfire. Every time they attack us, we grow. With every bloodied Occupier and evicted peaceful protest, the number of people who are disgusted with the status quo rises. The war on dissent is inherently unwinnable. Through sustained nonviolent resistance in the face of escalating repression, their legitimacy wanes and our power grows. The whole world is watching. Spring is coming. We are getting ready.”

The activists tended to refer to the 1% with a negative tone attached whereas referring to themselves as peaceful and innocent in comparison. For example, “Every time they attack us; we grow”. The clear use of ‘they’ and ‘we’ represent the in-grouping and out-grouping along with paradigmatic choice by using words like ‘attack’ when referencing the ‘out group’ (the 1%) portrays them to be violent and malicious. This pattern represents how the 99% portray themselves as to be a part of the in group by referring to the 1% as ‘they’ and themselves as ‘we’ or ‘us.” Additionally, this excerpt displays the strategic use of activation and passivation explained earlier, in which the 1% evidently have agency in the excerpt and the 99% are subjected to that agency. This juxtaposes the image of the two groups, where the 1% are violent and capable of acting, and the 99% are peaceful and only receive the effects of acts. Consider the next excerpt that ties paradigmatic choice with in-group and out-group:

(This article, “Occupy Wall Street and the Importance of Creative Protest”, was posted on The Nation on November 21, 2011 by Allison Kilkenny).

“And the one percent find such evolved protest—this kind of global awakening—absolutely bone-chillingly terrifying. If the elites can no longer exploit xenophobia, red state–blue state civil war, racism, sexism or homophobia, how will they keep the underclass bickering while they run off with the country’s wealth?”

Based off of what Wodak and Mayer said about paradigmatic choice, the fact that in this example the 99% was questioning the out-group’s intentions and thoughts, leads you to believe that they are bad and that they plan to act on it. You as the reader are led to this idea by the discourse around the specific words and text we are analyzing, unaware that this language is allowing you to paint a picture in your mind generating ‘they’ as the “bad guys.” In the excerpt, “they” are also marked by the descriptor of “elites”, while the 99% are distinguished as “the underclass”. This was a paradigmatic choice by choosing to portray the two wealth groups in these particular terms. It also reveals which group is valued by society and has power. Once again, the 1% are depicted as the actors with agency in this excerpt. The in-group and out-group clearly show that the two groups are separated by wealth.

Conclusion

Although activists try to legitimize the 99% by emphasizing certain differences between the 99% and the 1%, they unknowingly reproduce the dominant institutionalized ideologies of power and wealth. Each of the patterns that I explored throughout the essay supports this notion. First, wealth enables actions: the 1% are activated, while the 99% are passivated. Second, wealth justifies social groups: the 1% are classified as a privileged group within the system, while the 99% are classified as an excluded group from the system; the 99% in-group is overlooked by the system. Third, wealth legitimates social groups: the 99% are shown in negative and impersonal representations. Now, we must consider the implications of these claims on a broader scale.

We come to understand the phenomenon of wealth by viewing its representations in media. As with any phenomenon, our understanding of wealth is cultivated over time, by our repeated exposure to the same messages. If we continue to see typical representations that mirror the dominant institutionalized ideologies, from traditional news media as well as activist blogs and websites, sooner or later, we may unintentionally adopt those belief systems and come to believe that the wealthy are better than the poor. This study reveals how activist blogs and websites serve as an instrument that conversely strengthens the status quo by positioning readers to embrace the institutionalized ideologies.

References

Fairclough, N. (2003). Meaning relations between sentences and clauses (pp. 87-104). In Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Hien, D., & Honeyman, T. (2000). A closer look at the drug abuse-maternal aggression link. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15, 503-522. Retrieved from http://jiv.sagepub.com/

Fairclough, N. (2003). Representation of social events (134-155). In Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Nielsen, M. E. (n.d.). Notable people in psychology of religion. Retrieved from http://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/psyrelpr.htm

Kelle, Udo. (2000). Chapter 16: Qualitative Researching with Text, Image, and Sound, Computer-Assisted Analysis: Coding and Indexing. Eds. Martin Bauer & George Gaskell, (282-298) London: SAGE.

Robinette, G. (Photographer). (2012). Retrieved from http://www.cynicaltimes.org/articles/occupy-turns-up-the-heat-222.htm

Rose, G. (2007). Chapter 5: Semiology: Laying bare the prejudices beneath the smooth surface of the beautiful. Visual methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials (74-106). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Wodak, Ruth, and Michael Meyer. “Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis.” sagepub.com. Version Second Edition. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2012.

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