In the Garden of Good and Evil

From altruism to violent conflict.

A Vision for Occupy Wall Street

A vision of community that embraces everyone.

Occupy Wall Street protestors, and those they inspired around the country and the world, are doing most things right, but something important is missing: a positive vision that creates hope and engages others. They are peacefully protesting a range of grievances affecting many people: the inequality that has progressively increased in American society, the absurdity of huge financial compensation for people who have wrought havoc and created near disaster on a global scale, the frozen political life in the U.S. that is the result of greed and ideology.

At times of economic deterioration, political confusion and disorganization, and great changes in the world, like our times, people are affected both materially and psychologically. They feel insecure, diminished as individuals, and often become disconnected from each other. They feel helpless to influence important events in their lives. Their traditional world view, their comprehension of reality, is subverted by events.

At times like these people need a vision of the future that gives them hope. Unfortunately, the vision that emerges is often a destructive one. It can be inherently destructive, such as enhancing the group by intensified nationalism, or racial superiority. Even if the vision seems constructive, such as social equality, it often becomes destructive as enemies are identified who supposedly stand in the way of fulfilling the vision. Political opponents, Blacks, Jews, Muslims, members of some other minority ethnic group in a society, people holding a different ideology have all been identified as enemies at different times. As a group turns against this enemy, discrimination and progressively increasing violence may follow.

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The occupy Wall Street protesters have resisted the temptation of destructive visions. But given people's need for a hopeful vision, often leaders emerge who advocate such a vision. And in difficult times, they usually find followers. In addition, without moving forward, movements disintegrate.

The Occupy Wall Street movement needs a positive vision that can embrace everyone, both as actors to work for a better future, and as beneficiaries of this better future. One such vision can be community, reaffirming that we are one people, sharing a common history and common ideals. One of these ideals is a core concept the U.S. has been built on, the vision of a society that ensures the opportunity for everyone of the pursuit of happiness. A central tenet of an ideology of community must be enablement, not as a theoretical concept but as a lived reality.

What do children require to live up to the American ideal, an individual capable to act effectively in his or her interests, as well to act in behalf of the community. They require nurturance, love, positive guidance, the example of good models, good education. Adult require a sense of possibility and hope for themselves and their children if they are to provide their children with all that. They need to feel that their society is just and feel respected in it. It is a caring society, a good community, that enables people to both take responsibility for their own lives and contribute to the social good.

This positive vision should be inclusive, acting on the assumption that many wealthy people in this country can be attracted to such an ideal of community. As with all systems, the way the political/economic system has progressively evolved in the last decades has a life of its own. But it is individuals who maintain that system: politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, people who passively go along. It is individuals joining together who can begin to change that system.

To maintain motivation and commitment and to enlarge the scope of the protests, to protect against the emergence of negative visions, requires a positive vision that people can rally around. Community and enablement is one possible vision. A related one is a vision of a society that fulfills everyone's basic needs, not only material, but psychological as well. These certainly include needs for security, for a feelings of effectiveness, for a positive identity, for connection to others, for some degree of autonomy—to be able to make decisions in one's own behalf-and for a positive world view.

Creating a constructive vision that inspires people is an essential first step. Over time it must be elaborated, values of caring and cooperation promoted, policies and practices that fulfill the vision identified and pursued, institutions transformed or created that bring it to life.

Ervin Staub is Professor of Psychology Emeritus and Founding Director of the Doctoral program in Psychology of Peace and Violence and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His most recent book is Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Ervin Staub, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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