THE BLOG
11/02/2011 05:35 pm ET | Updated Jan 02, 2012

Grandma, Did You Occupy Wall Street?

No, Theo, I didn't occupy Wall Street this time. In my youth we had our own forms of protest against corporate greed and social inequality. Instead of "Occupy," we used the word "sit-in," but the Occupy movement and the sit-ins of my generation are essentially the same kind of phenomenon. They are both symbolic forms of resistance to an oppressive social or economic status quo. By their very natures, occupy movements and sit-ins are not violent protests. They are metaphors for violent protests. When police respond to these occupations and sit-ins with force, they are mistaking a metaphor for the real thing.

When I was a student, we had sit-ins to protest social inequality, and peace marches to protest the Vietnam War and the greed of the military-industrial complex. I was out there peacefully protesting with many of my generation, in the streets of Chicago and Washington, D. C. Our symbols and metaphors were different from those of the Occupy movement, but the roles of the protests in the evolution of American culture are similar.

There will always be "Occupy" movements, because societies need new metaphors and symbols in order to grow and face the future. I don't mean grow in the sense of GNP, but grow in the sense of a movement toward a more enlightened and advanced culture. Societies are highly structured and tend to become rigid and static over time. Anti-structure movements -- such as sit-ins, peace marches, and occupy movements, lead to sociocultural regeneration by providing new symbols and forms of social action. The new symbolic forms eventually diffuse throughout the society and become part of the cultural mainstream. The peace sign, for example, became a central symbol of the anti-war movement, but has been reincorporated into mainstream society. Gold and silver peace signs can be found in the shops of Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive. Today, everyone knows the symbolic meaning of a peace sign, but it was a central symbol of the anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the guillotine, another well known symbol of societal transformation, the peace sign signifies social change through symbolic action rather than acts of violence.

The Occupy movement leads both to individual and cultural transformation by providing a rite of passage for its participants. The tent-campers are temporarily liberated from mainstream societal roles and from status symbols like cars and designer clothes. There is social equality in the Occupy communities. The occupier's social status before he arrived or when he returns home is irrelevant in the space-time of the Occupy zone. The occupier experiences an interstitial way of being, a rite of passage from which he will take new forms with which to shape his identity later on against the backdrop of society's rigid scripts. These in-between moments or passages are as essential to a healthy society as the stable structures which they seek to subvert and transform. They lead to creative, visionary thinkers whose innovations in the arts, sciences and technologies in turn become transformative forces in culture.

Theo, there will always be ancien regimes of obscene inequality and there will always be movements protesting these regimes -- whether through violent or through symbolic means. By the time you are 20, you will have been conditioned into accepting the normative patterns of our society. You will likely look to college, graduate school, and our society's symbols of success. But you -- like every individual -- also have the capacity to stand aside from mainstream paradigms, and innovate new patterns of culture through unique and changing forms of sociocultural performances. You, like the occupiers of Wall Street and the anti-war protestors of an earlier generation, have the capacity to create new forms of symbolic action to counter the rigid categories of mainstream society. I wonder what your generation will protest, where you will sit-in, what cities you will occupy? What new forms of symbolic action will your generation create? I will look forward to them.