Isaac gets upset at Tom's post, because Tom presents no evidence that this is more than an isolated incident. I don't think that was the point of Tom's post. The point was to sound a warning. As someone who has spent the past twenty years on college campuses, I have seen the intolerance of the left firsthand, and it is very unsettling. Tom rightly points out that what made Obama such an inspiring candidate was his insistence that his campaign maintain at all times a civil demeanor. His election night speech, as Tom also points out, was focused on the same theme of one America working together.
Polarization works both ways, and our love of melodramatic good-vs-evil structure is something from which we need to free ourselves. Democracy thrives when there is a rich dialogue represented by many viewpoints. The work of Sojourn Theatre or Cornerstone Theatre, for instance, are exemplary in that they make explicit this commitment to a multiplicity of voices. The description of the conflicts and negotiations involved in Cornerstone's massive Faith-Based Theater Cycle, brilliantly described by Mark Valdez in the Americans for the Arts publication Dialogue in Artistic Practice, shows how the willingness to inclusively integrate multiple viewpoints leads to incredibly rich theatre. Bill Rauch, former artistic director of Cornerstone, said in an interview: "The company's aesthetic is to include the community's dialogue with itself in the script, which calls for opposing voices and layers of meaning and a vital richness. Multiplicity of viewpoints: It's essential to our mission….I think a lot of people stop at the "multiplicity of voices" thing, and interpret it as "Can't we all get along?" – a kind of superficial multiculturalism. But including the voice of the oppressor along with the voice of the oppressed is a very strong political stance." Rob Kendt, in an article on Cornerstone, writes about the discomfort that many feel in actually listening to ideas with which they disagree, while at the same time claiming tolerance as a creed: ”that’s how tolerance works in many circles of public life: Don’t ask, don’t tell. We can all just get along if we stick to sports and the weather – or, in the theatre, to the script and the lighting plot.”
Democracy demands diversity, and that means accepting that there are people in the world whose opinions are objectionable. But a society unable to openly and respectfully engage all viewpoints, a society that swings wildly from pole to pole as ideological winds shift, is a society that has lost its mind, its heart, and its sense of community. I am old enough to remember when the Nazis wanted to march in Skokie Illinois. As the cover of the book When the Nazis Came to Skokie describes: "In the Chicago suburb of Skokie, one out of every six Jewish citizens in the late 1970s was a survivor--or was directly related to a survivor--of the Holocaust. These victims of terror had resettled in America expecting to lead peaceful lives free from persecution. But their safe haven was shattered when a neo-Nazi group announced its intention to parade there in 1977....The debate was clear-cut: American Nazis claimed the right of free speech while their Jewish "targets" claimed the right to live without intimidation. The town, arguing that the march would assault the sensibilities of its citizens and spark violence, managed to win a court injunction against the marchers. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union took the case and successfully defended the Nazis' right to free speech." The book description concludes: "Forcefully argued, Strum's book shows that freedom of speech must be defended even when the beneficiaries of that defense are far from admirable individuals. It raises both constitutional and moral issues critical to our understanding of free speech and carries important lessons for current controversies over hate speech on college campuses, inviting readers to think more carefully about what the First Amendment really means."
We need to reclaim the basic understanding of democracy's foundational ideas, especially the idea of civic discourse and the importance of dialogue. If anyone should understand that necessity, it should be theatre people, whose very art form lives and dies on dialogic conflict between opposing viewpoints, from which comes a rich and complex synthesis.
Thanks, Tom, for the warning.
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