Movement Monikers: Occupy Wall Street Name Review



Today marks day 27 of the movement known as Occupy Wall Street. Initially conceived by the Canadian group Adbusters as a modest protest on Wall Street (and heralded with the hashtag #OccupyWallStreet), it has morphed into a “people powered movement …. to end the monied corruption of our democracy.”  (Adbusters’ words.)  And despite being alternately trivialized as nothing more than a Woodstock on the streets of Manhattan or demonized as nothing less than a Leninist uprising, it has proven to be a resilient and burgeoning series of grassroots demonstrations in cities across the country and beyond.

In the process, the hashtag has become the de facto name for this leaderless movement that has ignited as if by spontaneous combustion to capture the public imagination. So what about it?

First, let me say that naming a political movement—or any kind of movement, for that matter—isn’t easy. Ideally, the name will have emotional power (here MADD is a great example) and distill the grievance or goal that unites its members (again MADD—or Mothers Against Drunk Driving—is a great example). And just as with naming a product or company, any movement name should also provide a big enough tent to cover future extensions of its mission and diversification of its constituency.

The name Occupy Wall Street passes only one of these tests.

As a specific call to action, Occupy Wall Street had a lot going for it. It’s strong and clear. It conveys a powerful urgency and an unsettling resolve to disrupt business as usual. (Often effective for a disenfranchised group wanting to get the attention of established institutions.) Plus the use of the phrase “Wall Street” to symbolize America’s financial institutions in general (a naming strategy known as metonymy) is deft, economical, and graphic.

So Occupy Wall Street worked just fine as a rallying cry for the initial protest, whose participants did just that. (Or roughly that: they actually occupied nearby Zuccotti Park.)

But now that the movement has expanded to include other tactics as well as other cities and even other countries, it would be better served by a broader umbrella name. Broader both in its geographic scope, as well as its targeted villain.  For while Wall Street is an understandable lightning rod for outrage over the implosion and subsequent bailout of many financial institutions who’ve emerged unscathed (while the aftershocks of their actions continue to impact the rest of us)—and a potent symbol of the privilege and power of the richest 1% in our country—it’s certainly not the only cause of the economic woes and inequities afflicting the other 99%.

In short, for the movement it has become, the name Occupy Wall Street addresses neither all of its audiences nor all of its grievances.

Also, and perhaps just as important: the name focuses on one particular confrontational tactic the movement has adopted, rather than on its long-term goals. And while I’ve no objections to the tactic—its controversial nature is precisely what has propelled this protest movement into the spotlight—a name that highlights the movement’s larger goals could attract a lot more people who share its outrage, while alienating a lot fewer.

One could argue that the movement has gained enough traction and visibility that any drawbacks to the name have become irrelevant. I’m not so sure. A less narrowly focused and polarizing name might be precisely what the movement needs at this point to continue gathering momentum and participants.

Overall Grade: B-


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