Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I Heart the People's Mic

It is not exactly breaking news to declare that America is sharply divided. And this "Red State" versus "Blue State" mentality has been building for decades, but appears to have reached a crescendo of gridlock and apathy just as the bill for our nation's unprecedented chapter of gluttony has come due.

But this entire concept of an evenly divided electorate is yet another false dichotomy sold to us by those that wish to maintain the status quo of the two business party solution. The media loves to show us maps like this, re-enforcing the notion of the false Democrat/Republican divide:

Red State, Blue State

But the truth is that within those red and blue states, hundreds of thousands of people are literally wiped off the map when we talk of "Red State" and "Blue State." As anyone who attempted to dig even a little bit deeper into the numbers after the 2008 election knows, our country really looks a lot more like a sea of purple, more red in some areas and blue in others, but for the most part a full spectrum of political thought, which produces a map that looks like this:

The Spectrum of American Political Allegiance

And from this map a much more accurate picture of America emerges. We are not so much divided as we are diverse, and being diverse is a very different thing than being divided. In a divided system, their are multiple clearly defined opposing truths, and the challenge lies in moving someone from their truth. In a diverse system, there are many similar truths but the challenge lies in decoding differences of culture in order to line up the similarities.

Many groups spend far too much energy solving the wrong problem, and as long as we continue along the false dichotomy of choosing between Republican and Democrat, our American democracy will remain stuck. When we begin to re-frame our problem and see the truth about where we are, the solutions are actually not too hard to find.

From my study of Intercultural Competency, I have come to understand that one of the essential skill sets one must learn in order to navigate diversity is the ability to communicate. Most of us are good at only one half of communicating, and usually it is the talking part. As the old saying goes, we are born with one mouth and two ears and we should probably use them in that ratio as well. But most of us, myself included, are much better at talking than listening. So often, when we do listen, we are merely listening to respond, not to really hear. We are listening for the few words that connect to what we already want to say next, so that we can continue to make the conversation about us, rather than deeply listening to the words of the other simply for their own sake, so that we can help another feel heard.

Hearing each other, truly hearing what we think and feel, is the most important thing we could do right now. I really believe that the more we share our stories in an unmediated way, without allowing the media and its corporate interests to shape them into their narrative first, is the antidote to all that ails this country.

I know that sounds a little overly simplistic- that a country with our economic mess just really needs to hear each other. No doubt it feels a little touchy feely. And of course what we also need is to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizen's United and making it clear that a corporation is not a person and money does not equal free speech. And of course we need to erase the lobby culture in Washington D.C. that ensures the interests of a few are more important than the many. And of course we need to establish an election system that keeps all candidates on equal footing so that we can pick our leaders by their true abilities rather than by their checkbooks. But believe me, if we are going to do any of that, we need to hear each other first.

We need to share our stories, share our hopes and dreams and share our fears too. We need to get real with each other and stop assuming that we are the caricatures of thought and opinion your local news keeps assuring you we all are. And when we do this we will find that we all have more values in common than we think. Because at the end of the day most people want the same thing, the ability to prosper from our own hard work and protection from the interference of those that are bigger than us and have other financial interests.

General Assembly at Occupy Oakland

Anyone who has been to a General Assembly at one of the Occupy encampments that has sprung up around the country probably knows where I am going with this. Because there happens to be an amazing place to work on just these listening skills, and it is a GA near you.

Most of the General Assemblies I have attended at Occupy Oakland have started slow. The online schedule claims that GA's begin at 6 PM every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, but like my congregation, things tend to be a lot more fluid. I usually arrive early, as punctuality is a big part of my rhythm, and often when I show up it looks doubtful that what I see will become a GA. Because even by about ten minutes of 6 PM the amphitheater at Frank Ogawa Plaza is mostly empty, with at best a few dozen people standing around in small groups talking. But then, without fail, we always easily reach the required minimum for a quorum of 100 by a few minutes after six. And, like the sun rising, it is always impossible to pin point the moment it goes from black to gray to light, I never see a large crowd of people arrive, but within thirty minutes we usually have hundreds in attendance and by 7 PM it is not rare to be over a thousand.

And because of this rolling start, I have noticed another common pattern. Often the General Assembly will spend the first hour or so using the People's Mic before switching to the electric PA/Sound system later that uses a noisy generator. Every time we make the switch, the entire energy of the assembly changes. Nothing holds the group together better than the People's Mic. It is why I say that I heart the People's Mic. I truly love it and I am starting to believe it is the sound of people hearing each other for the first time.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of the Peoples Mic it is a process a crowd can use to ensure everyone hears the speaker when they do not have an electric amplification system. Basically the main speaker changes their speech pattern to shorter sentences and pauses after speaking each distinct sentence so that it can be repeated by everyone that is close and can hear, which is then in turn heard by the next furthest group and repeated and so on until it reaches those furthest from the speaker.

I love it for many reasons, and if you have never heard it in action, the sound is worth a GA attendance all by itself. If you stand a little distance from the GA you hear a slow gentle wave of thought that begins in the middle and slowly rolls out to the sides. Here is a video that captures it pretty well:

A Great Example of "The People's Mic"

But the main reason that I heart the People's Mic is because it really forces us to listen to what some else is saying. The magic comes from the process of repeating each others words. It forces everyone to listen deeply in order to be able to repeat, and then because you say another person's words with your own voice, you own them in a different way. You are forced to engage with them actively and even though only one person is talking, it is immediately a dialogue. And when you speak another person's words you are more likely to consider their position, something that our current climate makes difficult, if not impossible.

It has already become popular to push the false narrative that the Occupy movement lacks a focus. It is important to note that even in its anti-propaganda the media misses the entire point of the movement. Because it is in the process of gathering and talking to each other that Occupy will best contribute to a better future for democracy in America and beyond. We may very well push this country to accomplish some specific and quantifiable changes like overturning Citizens United, but these little incubators of democracy, that echo with the sound of people hearing each other for the first time, will be Occupy's greatest legacy.

So please, step up to the Peoples Mic and add your voice to the conversation.


Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel

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