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Seeing Beyond the Shadows on the Walls Around Us

Prism Break

by RANDALL AMSTER

Social movements, when broadly construed and successfully applied, serve as something akin to elaborate filters. By holding a mirror up to society, a movement causes us to reconsider basic assumptions and structural processes that often exist invisibly yet pervasively in our collective midst. Social movement activities render such practices visible, and subject them to scrutiny in a manner that can become contagious in its breadth and depth alike. Movements make us question those things that we take for granted, assume are unchangeable, or benefit from without repercussions.

In this sense, a movement acts like a lens that sharpens and clarifies the reality we observe and participate in, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange all at once. When this movement consciousness begins to “go viral” and infuse the larger culture itself — as we have seen with Occupy — it has the initial effect of breaking down the facade of “consensus reality” that subsumes a great deal of “normal life” without much investigation or contestation. A viral movement perspective, in short, begins to erode the virtual prism that envelops the larger part of our daily existence.

In this context, we can define a prism as “a medium that distorts, slants, or colors whatever is viewed through it.” We carry this prism around with us throughout the spaces, places, relationships, and business of our lives, over time coming to embrace its distortions — even the obvious ones — as realities. Plato wrote about something quite like this millennia ago in his “allegory of the cave,” in which people conditioned to face only in a particular direction fail to recognize that the images they take to be real are merely backlit projections onto the surface of the walls set in place around them.

A movement asks us to cast our gaze in all directions, to evaluate the source of the images we consume, to critically observe how many are unquestioningly taken to be tangible, and to bring the light of inquiry to bear in order to decide which of them can withstand genuine scrutiny. Despite at times appearing to make “all or nothing” arguments in which every aspect of society is being rejected, movements are more properly understood as intricate sociopolitical filtration mechanisms that are set up to allow people, both individually and collectively, to determine which pieces of the world around them will be kept in some form and which are outmoded and destined to go obsolete.

This selective mechanism is sometimes known simply as process, and it is why the claims articulated by movements are often processual more so than substantive, especially in the early days of a mobilization. People want their voices to be heard, they desire accountability and transparency in governance, and they evolve forms of decision making that model these values in real time. The distance between those deciding and those experiencing a course of action is sought to be narrowed or even eliminated, and perspectives often excluded from the dialogue are brought into the center of it. The central issue often devolves squarely upon who gets to chart the course of societal evolution.

For a long time, we have largely accepted a model in which wealthy, entrenched, powerful, and professional interests control these processes. More broadly, we have failed to exert sufficient popular influence to challenge those interests as they steadily put in place a system that preserves their uncontestable rule seemingly regardless of the particular individuals elected or appointed to manage it. The charade of partisan politics today may not be much different than it was in Plato’s time, blending seamlessly in our modern world with sports, celebrity news, and infotainment to further accentuate its illusory nature. We have been functionally distracted and politically disempowered, with our attention diverted from actual reality to an aesthetic of faux real.

Such a system transcends the eloquence or goodness of specific individuals. It constrains popular debate by filtering all issues through a narrow ideological prism that falsely conveys a two-sided discourse despite the narrow margin of actual disagreement across the aisle. The dominant system reinforces itself at every turn, from politics and economics to culture and education. Our freedoms to express and associate remain reasonably unfettered within these structures — as long as we are engaging in a debate whose terms have already been set, and as long as we accept the validity and authority of the images that are perpetually broadcast on the wall.

And then along comes a movement that asks us to look at the source of those constructed images. First, it suggests to us that there is in fact such a source, which many among the masses will recoil at as being either hysterical or heretical. Then, it begins to reveal the source by physically occupying its more obvious locales and drawing societal attention directly toward it. This has the effect of making uncomfortable those seeking to keep the source cloaked, and they will utilize tactics ranging from artifice to force in order to cast the collective cultural gaze back toward the image-bearing cave wall and away from the shadow-making source that is always just out of people’s field of vision. At this point, there is a contest between those who would uphold the prism and those who would break it.

Some who have seen the source for the first time will express their dismay, yet hope for it to win this contest because they fear the new and do not like the idea of things being broken. Some will try to broker a compromise that allows the dominant prism to remain in place with a few concessions, perhaps including an expansion of the range of images that will be allowed to appear on the walls in the future. Some will sense a long-awaited opening and agitate strenuously to smash the image-producing source altogether. Some will remain firmly glued to the cave walls, undistracted by the mild fracas happening over their shoulders and hoping it stops before their favorite show comes on. And some will hastily be creating new images for public consumption that include the “anti-images” of the movement as part of the spectacle, thus seeking to absorb it into the prism involuntarily.

And then a decisive crossroads is reached. If the movement cannot demonstrate that it is more than merely agitating against the dominant system and its false images, then many — even those who are sympathetic to it — will generally accept the projection of its claims as simply part of the larger spectacle. On the other hand, if the movement continues to remain dynamic, multifaceted, and constructive in its approach, it can resist easy cooptation and make itself interesting and relevant to those who are growing tired of being spectators at all. The aim is not to turn every single head, but to gather enough momentum in a new direction that begins to expand the range of people’s vision.

Ultimately, if successful, the movement will reach a point where a critical mass of the members of a given society is no longer constrained by the prism of false images, values, and ideas. A new prism will be in the process of taking hold, one that works to remain malleable and open to constant correction by the collective power of everyone utilizing it — lest it become but another rigid lens for projecting pictures on the cave walls. Maybe it is actually a multitude of new prisms that gets produced, overlapping and interdependent to an extent yet subject to being determined by the unique individuals and communities that comprise the new society’s foundations. Perhaps, in an even longer while, people may come to perceive reality itself without the need to filter it at all.

Until that day, we have a movement urging us to reevaluate the dominant prism, and with it an opportunity to remake the map of our world — or at least the image of it that is placed before us. That might not seem like a lot, but without it we have little hope of breaking free from the shadows.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor forNew Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).