Arab Spring v. American Autumn: What’s in a Name?

The protests, demonstrations, and uprisings that transpired in the Middle East earlier this year, referred to as the Arab Spring, were a groundswell reaction to many social maladies taking place in the region: dictatorships, human rights abuses, and economic difficulties, among others. In a number of cases, these protests were organized via social media – a tool that was also employed as a means of informing the outside world of the local climate. This isn’t the first time that social media have been executed in this manner; for example, the Green Revolution following the 2009 Iranian presidential election has been referred to by some as the Twitter Revolution due to the demonstrators’ dependence on this tool to connect and organize. Regardless of the debates about primacy or effectiveness, it is certain that mobile access to these Internet technologies played a major role in the facilitation and execution of uprisings in the region.

These modes of collaboration and information are still relevant, as Occupy Wall Street takes cues from the Arab Spring in lessons on digital organization. This is, in my opinion, where the similarities start to diminish. Yes, those who are participating in OWS are doing so out of anger at their government and the large institutions that run our economic system, but there isn’t a dictatorship to overthrow. Nor are there widespread human rights violations in our country.

For these reasons, calling this movement the American Autumn, as some media outlets and supporters of OWS have done, trivializes what occurred throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring. The occupying of Wall Street and downtowns across the nation has the trappings of a political stand, yes. But the government is not threatening to shut down social media as a way of impeding the largely peaceful organizations, and the demands that are being made by the dissenters at Wall Street aren’t as basic as freedom from oppression or right to democratic elections. Most outsiders aren’t even aware what the specific demands of the occupiers include.

Nevertheless, the value of branding the movement as the American Autumn holds a lot of sway – not only in the establishment of a collection of norms, but also in historical recollection. Mary Douglas (2011) writes that the reclassification of people and institutions modifies their behavior post-renaming to correspond more accurately with their new classification. Specifically, she cites the philosopher Ian Hacking who describes how in the act of undergoing socially constructed renaming; humans adapt their actions in reflection of the new label, rather than in rejection of it. Socially, we gravitate toward fulfilling the identity expected of, or established for, us. According to Douglas, “life…within human society transforms itself toward (labels) in hope of relief or expecting advantage” (p.100).

This expected advantage associated with naming and fulfilling a name is to a certain degree the impetus associated with categorizing OWS as the American Autumn. There are strong connotations associated with the Arab Spring, and the linguistic coupling of the two protest-oriented events seeks to reflect some of the perceived justness of Arab Spring onto the so-called American Autumn. Unfortunately, in doing so, those who are less inclined to be supportive of the OWS movement are likely perceive this to be a straw-man attempt to fast-track legitimacy for the OWS protesters rather than constructing a strong foundation of their own moral arguments and ethical justifications on which to stand. As opposed to attempting to semantically associate themselves with the Arab Spring in this manner, OWS’ energy would be better spent attempting to construct a cohesively articulated argument and message about their objectives and demands.

Douglas, M. (2011). How Institutions Think, London: Routledge.

Image from www.occupytogether.org.

Hanna Woodburn

Hanna Woodburn is a former CCT student. She found herself in D.C. following the completion of her undergraduate degree from Colorado Christian University in Denver, CO where she studied Human Communication, Marketing, and Business. For three years prior to beginning her graduate studies, she worked for the legislative branch where she specialized in constituent communication and outreach efforts while managing a broad portfolio of legislative issues. In CCT, she is interested in gaining a greater understanding of how communication and technology can impart change on organizations, among other topics. Hanna blogs for gnovis on art, media, and our digital lives. She also can be found on Tumblr where her blog is predominately about her cat.