Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Who is eligible to appear in activist circles?

I was thrilled to listen as Judith Butler discussed the Occupy movement during her first lecture at Bryn Mawr. To see her wax philosophical about the importance and profundity of this movement comforted me in that she continuously blurs the line between activism and academia, theory and action. She asked, which people are eligible for recognition within the sphere of appearance? I want to break that down a bit and ask who, exactly, is occupying wall street? What allows them to be there? Who isn’t being heard in this movement?

You don’t have to search very hard to find articles about problems of the Occupy movement, and not just from the right wing. Challenges come in all forms: racism, sexual assault, sexism, anti-semitism, and more. I don’t think Butler was holding up the Occupy movement as perfect, but it’s important to examine the facts. I was surprised to learn that according to some polling done on the OWS protestors here in New York, 33% are unemployed or underemployed (twice the national rate) and only 56% of them voted in 2008. Some say they are majority white and middle class (hence the uprising of Occupy the Hood), some say they are displacing the homeless people who were sleeping in parks before them.

Activism is a luxury. There’s no doubt that it’s easier to take up a cause when you don’t have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck or not having a meal on the table for your kids. How do the Occupy Wall Street protests fit into this? Who is getting policed in their communities? Butler emphasized that they are in the streets demanding to be valued, demanding to have a livable life. But in doing so, are they creating another kind of disposable class of people—those who aren’t able to voice their concerns at an occupy protest?

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