Criticism and callout culture

Learning from 2017's lessons

Last year was a hard one for theater folks in Philadelphia, and this one is likely to be, too. For some, what feels like a brutal callout culture doesn’t leave room for change or growth and is tantamount to censorship. Others have been made small by sexual exploitation and blatant racism, and find it almost more painful now that these issues are being brought to light.

Theater survival tip: Speak no evil? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)

Criticism is hard within any artistic community, and it’s not something at which we in Philly theater are skilled. We hate one professional critic, forgive the rest, and generally keep our own opinions close. Some of us pay the rent this way — and all of us covet the social capital we build with other artists.

"She likes it, she's a slut."

We are each other’s friends, but also each other’s potential source of employment. Theater people have a reputation for being phony, and this is probably why. Whether we like it or not, every interaction is an audition where being completely honest is inadvisable.

I recall an audition for a show on which I was assistant director. We were hiring a male partner for the female romantic lead, and when the first actor stepped in, the director blithely instructed, “I want you to really let loose for this, do whatever you want to her. She likes it, she’s a slut.” In one brief moment, the woman's eyes met mine. I saw her terror, shame, and vulnerability. They did the scene. The following actors got the same speech.

After auditions, we all had a drink together. I didn’t mention it and neither did she. We never would have. Not just because she was at work and I was trying to build a relationship, but also because the assumptions of confident people are roughly equal to the truth. I think this is the hardest thing to understand about this kind of interaction.

There is personal injury, and then there is injury that fits into a system or pattern. When hurtful things happen to women, queer people, trans people, and people of color, it contributes to a working understanding that the insult is true. It makes more sense to believe we are out of step with reality than it does to think that something terrible is happening and no one cares. Besides, these are our friends.

Not breaking ranks matters on a deep instinctual level. When everyone is laughing, saying “that’s not funny” feels like stepping into traffic. However, more people in the theater community are doing it.

Stopping traffic with truth

We should be ashamed that those who suffer most were first to step out. Allies have moved in the wake of that bravery and stood beside them. In conversations online and in person, it has become less frightening to point out the harm — because when enough people are in the road, cars have to stop.

Still, plenty of confused motorists among us cannot figure out why their commute is being halted. I am certain that if I called out the name of the aforementioned director today, he would be shocked and hurt. He considers himself a feminist and an ally. Unchallenged assumptions are the reality upon which he’s built his career.

When something that used to be fine suddenly isn’t, the result is usually defensiveness and anger. But we need a stronger response than politeness, deference or civility. We need love. Real love is work. It requires negotiating truth and, where possible, reconciliation. Real love can hold hurt and anger. When I didn’t say anything to the director, when I didn’t protect the actor, I was being polite. I wasn’t acting out of love for them or for theater itself.

I wish I could say that this truth has always been obvious to me, but it came from a conversation with actor Carlo Campbell when we discussed solutions to Philly theater’s inclusion problem. Carlo isn’t naive. He spoke about the brutality of white supremacy and the othering silence in our theaters. Still, he said, “I don’t care if it sounds cheesy, because it’s true: We need love. None of us is in this for the money. No one is getting rich. Why don’t we come at each other with love?”

Our artistic community is based on relationships that are trapped in a strange combination of the transactional and the sacred. The transactional can be made to comply with rules and contracts, but the sacred will only thrive with love. 

Our readers respond

Chris Braak

of Conshohocken, PA on January 18, 2018

This is a premise that I think I have a good understanding of, but I kind of struggle with the conclusion. Of course I agree that love is good, and we ought to be approaching things in a loving way, “coming at each other with love." It just seems to me, especially in our culture where we’re all habituated to deploy these sort of bromides whose shape is more important than their actual content, that it’s not altogether clear what this statement means, nor does it, in itself, seem to contribute to a specific way forward.

For example: Let’s say someone performs a play and it’s replete with despicable racism. Naturally someone ought to say *something* about it. But what does it mean to do this in a loving way? What does that mean when I’m writing, or talking to my friends? Is it loving to publish it? To instead write it and share it quietly? Is it loving to talk about it with strangers and discourage them from seeing it, or is it loving to only address my concerns privately with the people involved?

Likewise, what does it mean to *respond* in a loving way? Is it loving to cancel a bad show, depriving actors of their pay? Is it loving to continue the show, racism intact, despite the harm it might do to people who see it? Is it loving to rewrite the show from the ground up and remove the racism, even if that seems basically impossible? I guess we might say that, in a certain sense, responding with love might include acknowledging fault and promising to do better, but decoupled from any specific obligation to act, how is that any different from politeness?

I also agree that politeness doesn’t solve any of our problems, but I understand why people rely on it: politeness, at least, is a known quantity, with formal and informal rules. If I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here or there or in some specific situation, I’ve always got politeness to fall back on.

To say that we need to approach these issues with “love” is to say that we can’t act without an understanding of what “love” means. "Love” is a vast and complex and contestable notion that culture has been arguing about for thousands of years, and the solution may well be beyond the scope of anyone here and now.

This seems like a position that calls for specific, concrete, and particular approaches to both criticism and its response, but I struggle with a conclusion that seems to find an answer in an idea that’s so broad, fluid, and intricate as to put any useful answers beyond our reach.

Author's Response

First, my intention was to differentiate between politeness and love. Politeness is how we treat those with whom we have a transactional or proximal relationship and love is how we treat people in whom we are invested relationally. I did not intend to speak on what is morally correct.  

Politeness is designed to keep our interactions moving smoothly, not morally. When I thank a checkout person, it is rote, and maintains civility. More to the point, when I mumble “Thank you” to a catcaller, it is meant to allow me to keep on walking. I have a societal relationship to the catcaller, defined by hierarchy. I have no relational investment in the catcaller, and I do not stop to tell him how he made me feel. That may or may not be moral, but it is polite.

While thye purpose of politeness is to avoid disruption, love's purpose is to enact real bonds between people. For this reason, love is honest. Ruthlessly so. The loving way to respond to despicable racism is by telling that person exactly how despicable it is, privately or publicly. Harsh words, when they are true, belong in a loving response. If I politely ignore that my sister is shooting up in the bathroom, my action is less loving than if I told her not to do that shit in my house. Acting with love sometimes means risking that the person you love will not listen to or like you anymore.

This cultural moment illuminates two ideas that simply don't work anymore.

The first is that love is passive. This notion misreads what allows us to disfigure Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by waving his calls for love in the faces of Black Lives Matter activists, remembering that what he said about little children holding hands and erasing his radical actions and demands. King’s love, which informed his nonviolence (but was not synonymous with it) was active and honest and it made people uncomfortable.

The second is that meaningful human relationships can be guided by explicitly enumerated rules. As women speak out about their more complicated uncomfortable sexual experiences, men continue to fret about “the rules.” In the same way that white people point to the legal equality of races and claim that discrimination can’t exist, these men cannot conceive of minute-to-minute, engaged interaction that takes individual humans and their feelings and preferences into account. I refuse to accept that without a prescribed and clearly defined set of universally applicable obligations, men cannot avoid reckless harm.

Rules are good, codes are good, and we should have them in our theater-work environments. But we cannot ignore that our interactions with other theater people are not only transactional but also relational. Clear instruction about how to behave will only do half the job. I ultimately cannot offer detailed instructions for specific, concrete, and particular action because love doesn’t work that way. It is a living, nuanced, contextual way to interact with people.

I prefer the honesty of love to the deference and “civility” of politeness. I do not presume say what is moral. My hope, however, is that we will choose to risk the industry for the community, that is, risk the transactional for the loving.

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