Given the massive and probably somewhat brand-destroying lacuna between my last blog post and this one, and given the fact that I’ve spent some of the past hour washing my dishes and sort of muttering softly under my breath about god only knows, I’ve decided to take this occasion as an excuse to get back to blogging.
One of the realities of writing about theatre in the blogosphere is that generally speaking, most of the people doing it have political affinities which are remarkably similar to my own, and while this experience can at times be veritably cockle-warming and sort of affirming, emotionally, it doesn’t always yield the most exciting or useful debates when it comes to politics and theatre. One of the characterizing features of theatre-thinking in this country is that it is dishearteningly echo-chamber-like, especially online. Yeah, we get the odd Twitter conversation about Factory Theatre’s decision to delay the invite to critics, or Kelly Nestruck’s recent (and interesting) article about Equity – but these are concerns about particularities; what’s missing (or at least marginalized), it seems to me, is any kind of fundamental disagreement about what, how, or why theatre is, or ought to be.
I don’t pretend to offer a total paradigm-shift here. But I’ve been thinking a lot about, specifically, the influence of the Internet and the proliferation of a post-New Left vocabulary on theatre artists (at least in Canada), and how these otherwise mostly positive forces might be having a negative effect on not only our artistic practice, but on our ability to talk sensibly about systemic and cultural deficiencies in Canadian theatre.
A warning: this is going to be long, and circuitous. I’m nothing if not verbose. Bear with me – I promise I’m going somewhere with this.
Part 1: In which I check my privilege, then discuss the problems with checking privilege.
According to The New Yorker, the term “privilege” as commonly used in context of “white privilege,” or “male privilege” or “hetero-privilege” was coined in 1988 by a scholar named Peggy McIntosh, in a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” I’m not sure this much elucidates the sudden-seeming catapult of the language of privilege into the mainstream (and it is mainstream – there’s a BuzzFeed quiz on the subject for god’s sake). I for one am pleased and encouraged that more and more people have begun to wake up to what ought by now to be obvious: there are deep and systemic and institutionalized advantages given to white, heterosexual males.
But there are problems with how this language is being used and it’s worth talking about. To be clear: I am not a privilege-denier. I am not Tal Fortgang. Or for that matter, John Tory. So here’s the check: I am white, of Dutch and English heritage (two imperial powers), I’m a cisgender male (for those unfamiliar with that admittedly artless neologism, it means simply an individual who “identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth,” which perhaps begs the question of what is meant by “identify” and “assigned,” but more on that to come), and I’m a heterosexual. I’m an atheist, raised in a secular, middle-class family. Both of my parents worked white-collar jobs. They paid for my education. They would be able and willing, should I ever need it, to lend me money. As things go in today’s society, I have positively won the lottery of life. I’ve never experienced what I could meaningfully describe as true loss or hardship.
So no, I don’t feel “discriminated against” or in any real way traduced; my beef here has nothing to do with my feelings. No one’s ever told me to check my privilege, but I would if they did. But the mostly-positive “check your privilege” phenomenon has been subsumed into a social media-driven culture that has distorted and retarded the conversations it was designed to inspire in the first place (the mouth-frothing over “trigger-warning” pseudo-science is only one symptom of this). As the Torontonian theatre company Studio 180 posted on Twitter yesterday:
Yes, but why also do we keep talking about it as if it were some kind of inalienable property like being tall or having blue eyes, a – forgive me – human stain, instead of what it actually is, which is a system created by people that can also be altered or destroyed by people?
In other words, it seems to me that the imperative to “check your privilege” has, through the peculiar matrix of social media, increasingly become an end in and of itself, divorced from any real political teleology. As this extremely good Rabble.ca article notes, “privilege-checking” ought to be just the modern counter-part to what was once referred to as “consciousness-raising” – i.e., alerting those who have profited from systems of oppression (or privilege, if you prefer) to the very fact that those systems exist, and how that profit might be colouring his or her perception of the world.
This is language that was once used by activists, people who were genuinely concerned with specifically effecting political change. Activists, or at least good ones, think in terms of “goals” and “tactics.” To a person inclined to actually care about changing the lived experience of human beings on earth, principle is not always the point – the point is, what is the best way to make people change their behavior? Sometimes, a protest is a good tactic – other times, it isn’t. But a protest isn’t worthwhile just because it’s a protest, or just because it’s in honour of a cause worthy of a protest. So for example, Occupy Toronto ended the occupation when it ceased to be effective – when public opinion was beginning to sway against them. That’s a good thing. Now they continue their work in subtler, perhaps less sexy ways that are designed to have a more specific impact.
Social media, however, has spawned a generation of what can only be described as “armchair-activists,” people who have been so totally saturated in the meme that they have begun to internalize the language without being, it seems, attuned to the language’s purpose. I am such a one. I admit that freely and to my shame. I have flirted with activism – have attended a few protests – but I do not devote nearly as much time to social justice work as I should.
“How do I know that the majority of people who consistently call others out on their privilege on Facebook and Twitter aren’t true activists?” I hear you demand. “Who the hell are you to make that call?” I know because if they were, there’d be literally thousands of people who take to the streets when a major protest occurs, the ranks of Occupy TO and the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, to name only two, would swell – but there aren’t, and they don’t.
This is hard to write intelligently about, because most of what I’m referring to occurs on social media fora, and so the evidence is almost exclusively anecdotal. Let me provide just one example, culled from my Facebook feed (and I almost never use Facebook, so it’s one hell of a coincidence that I found it). Although it was posted in an extremely public forum (no one using Facebook should have any illusions about “private conversations” unless they’re specifically using the private chat function), I’m blocking out the names (in different colours to differentiate writers) because I don’t know either of the people involved, and frankly, I just feel uncomfortable posting them. I’m also omitting the context of the conversation; it’s really beside the point (if you must know, you can ask me). I’ve highlighted sections I think are particularly worth noting. Bear with me, the “clipping” tool on my outdated DELL means I have to post this in pieces:
It doesn’t matter who’s “right” or “wrong” in this exchange. And I chose this example because (unsurprisingly) it’s a particularly extreme case that illustrates the difference between calling-out privilege as an act to perform for its own sake, and calling out privilege as a tactic to actually make a difference in the world.
Black sets the tone of the conversation by unilaterally deciding which issues are available for conversation, and which aren’t, a theme they end up developing with admirable frankness towards the end. Blue, however we might feel about him, is at least understandably flabbergasted – he’s being told not just that he’s wrong, but that he’s not allowed to participate in the conversation. When he asks, point-blank, for the definition of “cisgender,” he’s told “You can educate yourself. I’m not here to hold your hand.”
This seems to me absolutely characteristic of the attitude of much of the post-New Left, and it’s echoed in every blog post rejecting Emma Watson’s UN speech, or every time one is told, “It’s not my job to decolonize you.” It is the fundamental difference between “raising consciousness” and “calling people out.”
Look: nobody with a brain in their head denies the principle that Blue should have enough of a clue to spend two seconds looking up a word on Google. Nobody denies the principle that men should care about women’s liberation irrespective of its benefit to themselves. The principle that we are individual beings responsible for our own education, enlightenment, and actions is easy to affirm.
But people who care about changing the world in practice understand (or ought to) that as a tactic, leaving others to their own devices and hoping that their consciousness is raised by, what, afflatus is at best ineffective, and at worst, gives those blinded by privilege full permission to put their hands in the air and say, “I tried, but they didn’t want to talk to me.” Far from “calling them out” on anything, it actually lets them off the hook.
A hallmark of the New Left – the political wave that gave us the Civil Rights Movement, that spawned the best of second-wave feminism, that brought us Harvey Milk and Martin Luther King Jr., brought us Friedan, Greer, Alinsky, Steinem, Chomsky, Baldwin, and many more – was typified by activism in the truest sense. Actively going out of one’s way to educate people, whether by hosting talks in church basements or to three people in a living room, writing and disseminating a radical press, or printing and distributing leaflets, was considered the de facto job of anyone interested in effecting change. If it isn’t “my job to educate you” – well, then, who the hell’s job is it?
Don’t misunderstand me – the accomplishments of the post-New Left are many, and admirable. I’ve remarked on a few of them above. But the Internet now has made it so easy for anyone with a keyboard to have a megaphone. It requires virtually no work or effort. I’m aware of the ironies of writing about this on yet another blog – but that’s my point: I’m addressing this blog to the audience of people who read it and others like it. If that seems tautological, that’s because it is – I have no illusions, as so many others seem to, that people in positions of power and influence will read my blog and be swayed by its content. Worse – how radical can you possibly be when BuzzFeed appropriates your language in order to sell you things?
The myriad blogs and Twitter feeds dedicated to the daily commenting (and that’s what it is, not activism but comment) on privilege, oppression, and politics are really fulminating into an echo-chamber; how could it be otherwise? If, like Black, you believe the only people allowed to discuss these issues are those affected negatively by them, how can you possibly believe you’re going to reach anyone other than people who already agree with you?
Which brings me by a commodious vicus to the theatre. But first:
Part 2. A Digression, in which the language of “inclusiveness” reveals itself to be more-or-less broken.
I’m a writer, by trade and by disposition. I get pissed off when people say things like “myriad of,” or “comprised of.” I know this is grade-A certified snobbishness, but then, I’m a total snob, so that oughtn’t to be much of a surprise.
Words matter. So do their definitions. And for a movement as rife with neologism as the post-New Left, the specificity with which words are used is doubly important. The language of “inclusiveness” is something progressives have always embraced, but, in the proliferation of isms and identities and sub-identities of identities, it has been forced to evolve an ever-new and obscure set of colloquia, the likes of which are, to the uninitiated, totally baffling. Some of these make good, common sense; if there is to be “transgender,” it follows logically that there ought to be “cisgender.” Others are not so intuitive.
In the Rabble.ca article I linked to above, there’s another link to something called the Safe Space Network, which I think is as good an example as any of the kind of thing I’m talking about. The site appears to be more-or-less defunct, perhaps because – and perhaps tellingly – one of the moderators resigned her position because she “no longer felt respected.”
Herein is the essential problem with the lexicon of “inclusion”: not the words themselves, but the unavoidable reality that as the number of potential identities increases, the incompatibilities between worldviews begin to make themselves felt. As the feminist wiki GeekFeminism notes in its entry on Safe Spaces:
- Safe spaces often have intersectionality[sic] problems, for example trans women often report that they find considerable transphobia in spaces which are supposedly safe for women and feminists.
- Maintaining a safe space through education and moderation can make the space very challenging and confronting for the owners of the space. Women in particular often find that this work is expected of them and that no effort will be made to make the space safe for them while they maintain it as safe for others.
- Safe space sometimes excludes people with dependents or carers, for example a strict women-only space might exclude carers for boys and men who can’t leave them, or a woman with a full-time carer who isn’t a woman[sic].
Whether one agrees with it or not, there is certainly, for instance, a school of feminism which rejects transgender or transsexual women that is at least as intellectually robust as its opponents; in fact, one can be fully in support of transgender rights while still being unresolved with respect to the philosophy that underpins them. It would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that there aren’t extremely complex metaphysical issues at stake when we talk about what it means to be a “man” as opposed to a “male,” where exactly the construction of gender ends and where sex – as defined by chromosomes – begins. These aren’t matters of politics, but of metaphysics and science, and to discount them on the basis avoiding “challenge” and “confrontation” is simply dodging the issue, no?
Or consider that the Safe Space Network places a ban on “Otherkin hate.” For the uninitiated (as I all too recently was), “[A]n otherkin is a being born into the wrong body. Not just with the wrong parts, but as the wrong species: people who identify as otherkin believe that they are a wolves, or elves, or really any kind of being, born into a human body.”
Now, such views are totally harmless, and I fully support the right of anyone to view themselves in any way they desire. But to say “I am actually a wolf, not a human,” is a metaphysical proposition that can either be supported with sound logic, or not. What does it actually mean when someone says, “I identify as ___”? What phenomenon, or action, is the verb identify actually describing? Is anyone prepared to answer this question? And is it really “hate” to reject unsound metaphysical or scientific propositions? Must I accept the existence of “souls,” “spirits,” or “essences” without any expectation that I be provided with a sensible account of what, actually, these things are? Is it really “hatred” to simply ask how someone can claim to literally be something that doesn’t exist, like a dragon or a video-game character?
These are genuine questions, and they require genuine answers; moreover, they apply to the totality of identity politics – not just the otherkin fringe. But the circular logic of “inclusion” and “safe spaces” not only denies that they are valid questions, but also seem to condemn anyone willing to ask them as engaging in act of “hate” or “oppression,” blinded by their “privilege.” In other words, “inclusive” language is increasingly prohibiting discussion on the very issues with which it most urgently has to do.
Like some kind of eerie post-New Left Fight Club, the First Rule of inclusive language is: Don’t Talk About Inclusive Language.
Part 3. In which I finally get to my point, and explain what any of this has to do with the theatre.
I’m going to break from habit and start this time with a personal anecdote.
This summer I premiered my play Potosí at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Having entered the script on a whim, I’d won the New Play Contest, and there was a certain amount of buzz around the thing that helped a great deal in getting the kinds of houses we got.
I don’t know that I can defend this, but I would contend that Potosí’s success was atypical as far as Fringe shows go; in fact, were it not for the boost in publicity that the New Play Contest gave us, I doubt it’s a production that many would have attended; there’s no self-pity in my admitting that, nor is there any judgement of Fringe audiences. Different kinds of festivals attract different kinds of theatre-goers with different kinds of expectations.
Despite good sales and critical success, there were still people – some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t – who either in public or in private accused my work (and by extension – it felt, though I may be projecting – me) of being racist, sexist, or both. (It might be worth noting that all of the people who leveled the racism charge were white). I wasn’t at all surprised. I had no illusions about the work; in fact, I wrote the script in full anticipation of that debate.
I was disappointed therefore when none of the people who leveled these accusations were willing to discuss the matter publicly, despite repeated invitations to do so. Part of the whole point of script was to encourage dialogue. One individual told me they objected to the staging of rape full stop, and condescended to direct me to an article explaining why. Most commonly, they echoed one reviewer when he asked: “[I]s it exploitation to feature sexualized violence so prominently in a show in which the victims of said violence are either unseen or presented as equally reprehensible as those who perpetrate it?” Their answer, it perhaps need not be said, was in the affirmative.
Enough about me (sort of). As readers of this blog will know, in February of this year, Spider Web Show published an essay by Ottawa-based playwright Darrah Teitel critiquing Michael Healey’s play Proud, a meditation on Stephen Harper. Ms. Teitel found the play transcendently sexist, and described in explicit terms exactly why. Michael Healey responded in the comments section, and I contributed my own thoughts here.
And of course, recently, Spider Web Show, in conjunction with the National Theatre School and HowlRound TV, live-streamed a long-table discussion on the state of Canadian Theatre, with speakers including Sarah Garton Stanley, who moderated, Michael Wheeler, Marcus Youssef, Annabel Soutar, Djanet Sears, Ryan Cunningham, Paul Thompson, Philip Akin, and Mel Hague, along with a group NTS students.
What do any of these things have to do with each other? It is my contention that they reveal a fundamental problem with our thinking about how to conduct criticism in this country – and by criticism, I mean not just discussions of how the art works itself, but also of the place of that art in a broader political and cultural sense.
Much like the phenomenon of “checking privilege,” the theatre community’s increasing propensity to “call out” productions on racist, misogynistic, or otherwise discriminatory content has ceased to be connected with anything resembling a purpose, and has instead become just de rigueur, that which is done for the sake of doing it. Missing from the conversation is the fundamental question: if a play is sexist, what is the specific reason for pointing it out? No one, so far as I know, not Darrah Teitel, not Kelly Nestruck, not the people who objected to Potosí, has ever said that the plays with which they take political issue shouldn’t be staged (any of these people will correct me if I’ve misread their views). So what are they saying?
Again, this is about tactics and goals. Either we should be limiting the number of politically incorrect shows on our stages, or we shouldn’t. Either it’s morally acceptable to stage the filthiest, most racist and sexist trash imaginable, or it isn’t. If it’s wrong for a play to be racist, if it constitutes an act of “hate” or “oppression,” then it ought to be subject to the same debate we have when we discuss any other hate-speech issue. (I’m going to mention in passing here that I’m with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in opposing hate-speech laws altogether.)
Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a theatre community that uses the Oakes Test to assess art. That’s me.
But if – as I suspect is more likely the case – the urge to “call out” content we find politically disagreeable is not an urge to censor that content, then what is it? I don’t at all object to people writing passionately – and in public – that a show is racist, sexist, or homophobic, or whatever. But unless this discussion is framed by a much more specific political objective, it just feels empty. What conversation are we trying to have? What is the specific change we are trying to effect in the world? To raise consciousness? But in this context, what does that look like?
I more-or-less fully support the political agenda of the post-New Left. I believe in an inclusive, just society. But like the fundamental incompatibility of liberalism with fundamentalist religion, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the moral imperatives of “inclusiveness,” and free artistic license that the culture so far has done nothing to address. We have heretofore chosen to Hear No Evil and pretend, like Barbara Hall, that “no right trumps another.” This seems to me an untenable position in the long run.
It’s easy to see how whatever underlying ideology possesses people like Black in the Facebook conversation I posted above has influenced our artistic practice, as well. Consider the enormous proliferation of “confessional” works, or count how many times in the livestream above phrases along the lines of, “I want to do shows that speak to me and my community” are used. It doesn’t matter that plays like The Gay Heritage Project should have effectively killed our ability to talk about “my community” with a straight face; we appear to be approaching an age of artistic solipsism – where the only thing we can present is ourselves, to other people like us – or risk being “offensive.”
How is this much different than hundreds of years of theatre for white people? Is the solution really to balkanize our aesthetics into ever-smaller “communities” and sub-“communities” until, like the broken lexicon of “inclusion,” we collapse into infighting and squabbling and the theatre becomes even more insular and convolved and self-referential than it already is?
Look: theatre is already marginalized; it is absolutely, overwhelmingly dominated by lefty people who – to greater or lesser degree – basically all agree with each other. Is there anyone who seriously thinks that a play satirizing Rob Ford is going to be attended by anyone who would conceivably vote for him? In such a context, it’s no longer “speaking truth to power (or privilege)” to write a play in which Stephen Harper is portrayed as a Machiavellian sociopath, and the major female character as some kind of avatar of feminist truth. The result would merely be a roomful of audience members who are able to nod sagely, in unanimous agreement that they don’t like a politician none of them voted for in the first place, and get to go home and congratulate themselves on how moral they are.
If that’s not what the critics of plays like Proud or Potosí are asking for, what are they asking for?
Another problem: like the endless hordes of bloggers writing yet more posts about white, male oppression, apparently under the delusion that white males in favour of patriarchy are reading them (or even care), the indie theatre community has somehow managed to convince itself that it’s radical simply by virtue of the fact that it’s indie. The great myth of Canada’s indie theatre community is that we are the source of cutting-edge, “disruptive,” or otherwise ground-breaking work; we’re not, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’re not. “Immersive” theatre is done on Broadway. Queer Shakepeare? Please. Recontextualizing Strindberg from Sweden of the 1880’s to England of the 1940’s? Let’s be real: none of these come close to matching the degree of innovation, political daring, or formal experimentalism that characterize works that are regularly put on by World Stage, or Canadian Stage, or even Buddies in Bad Times.
In fact, from a purely political perspective, the most radical theatre companies operating at least in Toronto today are the populist, forum-theatre companies like Mixed Company, who are following the tradition of Augusto Boal and Paolo Freire and actually doing the work of raising class-consciousness in underprivileged communities. But who would deny that these companies aren’t marginalized, treated with the same condescending tone of voice that inevitably gets evoked when someone brings up, say, “community theatre”? These are the jobs that actors take in the interim, until they can get parts in “real plays.” Deny it if you can.
I mean really, when we talk about all the “radical theatre” that the “institutions won’t touch,” what are we talking about? Morro and Jasp?
A caveat: I am not at all saying that indie theatre is bad. I don’t personally think radicalism or innovation are prerequisites for quality in any work of art, and I can enjoy a conventional fourth-wall reality play as easily as an abstract Robert Wilson piece. It’s the indie theatre community at large – given voice by the various “representatives” at, say, the long-table discussion – that seems to be consistently positioning itself this way, to its own detriment.
So when Paul Thompson characterizes institutional theatre – apparently without irony – as “the enemy” while simultaneously confessing to having worked with them regularly throughout his career, I’m just simply left baffled. And nothing at all is helped when, in the livestream mentioned above, Ryan Cunningham makes claims about the realities of theatre that are demonstrably false (no major Canadian theatre company has had the same artistic director for thirty years, with the notable exception of Ken Gass; I believe Christopher Newton’s tenure at the Shaw is the next closest), or goes so far as to dismiss a perfectly sensible remark from Prof. Holger Syme simply because he’s university professor.
As Prof. Syme himself wrote,
When people discuss the theatre these days, I see lots of political anger for the sake of political anger, indie-ness for the sake of indie-ness, overwhelming cynicism, and a crippling sense victimhood. I see no one providing meaningful, specific accounts of what we want the theatre world in this country to be, or why it should be like that. We have few real goals, and, as far as I can tell, nothing by way of effective tactics.
The myth of the supposedly “conservative” institutional theatre and supposedly “radical” indie theatre is counter-productive, self-aggrandizing, and, in short, totally bogus. This isn’t the fault of the Stratford Festival; it’s our fault, and we have to correct it.
So let’s challenge ourselves:
- What do we want theatre in Canada to look like in 10 years, not just in terms of its infrastructure, but also in terms of its content?
- How are we going to get there? What can we do now, in specific terms, to immanentize this goal?
This essay is beginning to implode under the weight of its own length, so I’ll leave off here. I have a few specific Whats of my own, and few Hows as well, but I’ll save them for another post when I can commit the time to adequately cite the research, data, etc.
But for now, I want to hear from you: What are your Whats and Hows? Am I wrong about “calling out” productions? Do you have a defense of “inclusive” language? I write this post not to deliver imperatives, but to instigate a proper and rigorous conversation; I’m not interested in ideology unless it’s informed by specifics.
Let’s all get real.