“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” declared the longtime news anchor Howard Beale in the 1975 film classic Network. In the picture, people everywhere toss open their windows and repeat the catchphrase with a barbaric yap. They rush to the streets in maddening throng to air their grievances. Not one voice. Not one goal. Rather, a hodgepodge of misfit wishes that would make a list to Santa Claus appear bureaucratic and restrained. Sadly, Howard Beale, symbolic spokesman for the hoi polloi, comes to realize that the system co-opts both social and economic power to its own advantage. In the end, all the drama was really about getting better television ratings. The movie is a parable about how all of our screaming really changes very little and in the act we often lose our voice.
Life imitating art, we are here in earnest now, taking our generative energy, the power of the people, to the streets…and parks. Is this another of our great awakenings? If so, let’s get the preachers and players to work at this revival for surely there are conversions to be had. Or is this more like a political convention? Then let us nominate our champions to take our cause to the powers that be. Or is this more about freeing ourselves from oppression? Then let us stop the work like coal miners or stop buying the grapes or riding the buses.
We are all trying to make sense of the Great Upheaval – Loss of jobs, dignity and our deepest beliefs. We may even characterize these events as if they were driven by Newton’s Law of Motion – For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every Tea Partier there is a Wall Street Protester – ideological Bloods and Crips – the neglected ends of the bell curve. The assumption is that we are rebalancing of accounts a-kilter. But what if we are looking at this the wrong way? Maybe this isn’t anything like what we’ve seen before – something all together different and new– something emotional – not a rational crusade with an intended conquest but rather a great catharsis.
Consider that these events, both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary, may actually be acts of absolution. Anthropologists call these inversion rituals where the drunken revelry of Mardi Gras precedes the abstinence of Lent and the theatrics of Halloween usher in the devotional piety of All Saints Day. In cultures all over the world there are ceremonies where the poor and powerless get to be king of the hill for one brief shining moment – but not here. Maybe that’s what Woodstock really was – not about the war or the Man or even the music – but really a celebration of peace and love. Simply a ritual to express a deeply held feeling we had – together.
We are as a people at least as passionate as we are rational. We optimistically seek a utopia where we can be our best possible Self – inventive, magnanimous and compassionate. But like all pilgrims each generation seeks a new promised land without a map. Therein lies the Howard Beale problem – mistaking an intense personal longing for a movement – a solution – a destination. Standing tall in the parks will not create jobs, win a national election or even change the direction of the Spirit of the Age. We know it. They know it. But maybe it’s really about being valued – about being a somebody – about having a voice that is heard. Maybe if we listen they won’t have to yell so loud.
Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.