Modern MAD Libs. What the 'Occupy' and Tea Party movements, and YOU, have in common
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
For all their apparent differences, the Occupy Wall Street protestors and the Tea Party are far more alike than either side, or the punditocracy, would like to admit. There is a profound connection the two movements do indeed share, not only with each other but with anyone who has felt the appeal of Howard Beale’s call to arms in the 1976 film Network, “Open the window stick your head out and yell and say it. ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ “ The question is not who they are mad at, or what they want to do about it, but why they, and so many of us, are mad in the first place.
Network is a fabulous satire (you MUST see this film if you haven’t already) in which Peter Finch plays the aging/fading network TV anchor Howard Beale who goes bonkers on the set one night, and delivers one of the most memorable (and brilliantly written – Paddy Chayefsky won the Best Screenplay Oscar) scenes in all of filmdom, imploring his audience in a nutso/out-of-his-chair/face-in-the-camera rant ; “You’ve got to get MAD. You’ve got to say ‘I’m a human BEING, GODAMMIT! My life has VALUE.’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE’. Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up put of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out and yell and say it. ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ ”
People in the Occupy (fill in the city) protests may be mad at corporations or the rich, and people in the Tea party may be mad at government, but they’re all mad for the same reason…underneath they all feel powerless. Powerlessness is deeply upsetting, even physically stressful, because a lack of control over how things are going, especially when things aren’t going so well, is threatening. (This is true not only for humans but for all sorts of animals on which research about this has been done.) Without control you are vulnerable, at risk. A lack of control is literally dangerous. The desire for control over our own lives is universal, and rooted in nothing less important than the instinct for survival. No wonder the depth of the passion in any “MAD AS HELL’ movement.
But don’t just take my word for it. Play along now with a game we’ll call Howard Beale’s MAD Libs. See if it rings any of your bells, your individual political views notwithstanding.
(You are invited to print this out, or copy and paste it into a word processor, or into the comment stream below, so you can write in your responses. And, if I may play a bit of Howard Beale, send this around. Maybe it will encourage some more people to figure out some way to “Go to your window and yell…” )
The alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and the morning news is the same as it’s been for months. ( Foreign country you’re not so sure you want to travel to anymore ) says their chance of default is higher than ever. Stock futures are lower after foreign markets tanked overnight. A government report says unemployment remains unchanged from last month. The ( cheesy patriotic name ) Act, proposed to help the country deal with the ( take your pick ) problem, is still stalled in Congress, with conservatives saying ( this should be easy ) and democrats saying ( this should be just as easy ) and neither side showing any willingness to compromise. The Supreme Court has refused to hear the appeal by prosecutors who wanted to bring criminal charges against the heads of ( big powerful institution ) for their alleged role in the ( ) scandal that ( verb, past tense ) the American ( critical system for the normal operation of the country ). The potential defendants, who now can not be tried, said from their ( opulent setting ) in ( opulent resort ) “We have renewed faith in the American legal system.” Just another day.
You have your cheap ( food ) for breakfast…you can’t afford the good stuff anymore…while your husband polishes his resume, for the ( th) time, then try again to get somebody on the phone at customer support, more accurately known as ( something facetious for how ‘customer support’ is an oxymoron ) to help you with the issue you’ve been having with your ( ) for 6 months, but you quit after 15 frustrating minutes on hold listening to sappy pacifying Muzak interrupted with occasional promises of “Your call really matters to us.” You wish you could tell that person to ( vengeful verb ). You head off to work. Traffic ( ).
At the office, a small crowd is reading a memo addressed to “Dear Employee” on the bulletin board over the coffee machine. It announces that, due to new federal clean air regulations, the company has to make some changes, so your pay is going to be ( ), your hours will be ( ), and your contribution to your health care benefits will be ( ). The memo goes on to thank you for helping produce record profits for the company for the 6th straight quarter. It’s signed by the CEO, who made ( large amount of money ) last year. Your co-workers stand there, looking ( ). Keith is the first to explode.
‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ he yells, to no one in particular. Maddie (pun intended) joins in with “I’m a human BEING, GODAMMIT! My life has VALUE!” You can’t help yourself, and add “I’m ( negative emotion ). Everything is ( colorful phrase to describe current conditions ), people are worried about
( enter as many as you like ), and those ( plural noun for people you don’t like ) in the ( big powerful institutions – name more than one, if you’d like ) couldn’t care less. All they care about is their ( ) and their ( ) and their ( ). We’re just trying to get by…just trying to keep our jobs or feed our kids or hang on to our savings, or maybe if we’re lucky to have just a little say in how our lives are going, and they don’t give us a chance. That’s the worst part of it all. Everything is going to hell, and we’re drowning, and we can’t do anything about it! We’re so ( opportunity to enter an oath of your choice ) powerless! It feels like we don’t have any ( hint – the word here is ‘control’ ). It all feels so hopeless.”
And on that cheery note, the crowd breaks up and, with slumped shoulders, everyone shuffles off to their cubicles. As you go, you say to yourself “I’ve had it. Enough is enough. I’m going to do something about this! I’m going to ( )!".
What? You’re going to do what? Drive your pick-up with the NRA bumper sticker down to the Tea Party rally to blame “big government” for having too much control over your life? Pack your sleeping bag and granola and drive the Prius over to the “Occupy” protest in your city, to vent against how the rich and the corporations have too much control over your life? Occupy Tahrir Square? Stand and face down that tank in Tiananmen Square? Set yourself on fire the way Mohamed Bouazizi did in Tunisia when the 2-bit bully bureaucrat cop took away Mohamed’s street vendor’s equipment, the final humiliating confrontation with his powerlessness that made him scream from the bottom of his heart what so many in the Middle East, and all of us, are feeling, “I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!!!!”
It really is all the same. Who we blame when things are going bad may vary, and how we fight back may vary, but why we do it really is the same. Research from a number of fields has found that we all need a sense of control over how our lives are going, to feel safe, especially when things aren’t going well. Without a sense of control, we feel threatened, stressed. We either let that stress eat at us – chronic stress causes all sorts of serious health problems – or we fight back, somehow. Either way, it’s about control, the need for which is tied to the most fundamental imperative of all, the drive to survive. And that’s something we all share.
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