Monday, November 10, 2008

Poor Player on Intolerant Liberalism

Tom Loughlin posts a warning for all of us who might be inclined to turn Barack Obama's much-appreciated election into a cudgel with which to beat (or drum out) alternative viewpoints. Tom describes the arrival on his campus of a preacher who preached conservative, anti-gay sermon, and how many of his students and faculty felt it was acceptable to take action to drown out his speech. Like Tom, I have had such preachers on my campus as well, and like Tom I have defended the right to voice ideas that I find despicable and wrong-headed. What goes around comes around, and if we feel the right to silence others with whom we disagree, we should not be surprised to find ourselves silenced when the ideological worm turns.

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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Anonymous said...

Whereas I am a proponent of free speech, and can agree with the principles of civil discourse, I find his example of the anti-gay preacher to be alarmingly off the mark. It seems to me that in this instance, 1 man exercised his right to speak his mind, and the community responsed in a non-violent manner. I fail to find the defeat in this.

I also wonder about Tom's definition of hate speech. At what point does sermonizing about "sin" cross the line into hate speech? Does the message matter contextually, or is any message worthy of being met with open ear so long as it is delivered "with love" (cough...cough...choking sound...cough)

Moderation in all my mind includes a moderation of tolerance.

I am not going to pretend that liberals are "better" or "more tolerant"

The faculty dialogue on the matter turning ugly? Well that seems to me unfortunate incident... the point when I can back Tom's message here. And if there were reprecussions to expressing the opinion that freedom of speech was in question? Well I can see the catch 22 in that illustration.

But the preacher is less a victim, and more a failure. He wanted to effect his community. He did. He just failed to elict the response he wanted.


Scott Walters said...

dv -- Taking an action that silences the words of another person is not a responsible engagement. It is bullying, no matter where it comes from. It was wrong in the 1960s when campus radicals shouted down speakers who held differing opinions, and it is wrong now. Democracy relies on the open exchange of ideas, and that requires civility. You would be less sanguine if a group of religious zealots shouted through one of your performances.

Anonymous said...


I think that last sentence is a poor poor analogy. This isnt a matter of someone spilling water on Mike Daisey's art at a peformance where audience has paid money.

Jim has no grounds here. I would have no objective ground to protest the drums either (whether it be speech that is religious intolerance or a dada poetry slam). Not if the performance was in a public space. Then I would have to tolerate the response of those folks. This didn't happen on the steps of a church, or inside or even at a speaking engagement on religion and homosexuality. This was a man on a self appointed soap box speaking in a public space where the majority of the community around him did not want to hear what he said. He has a right to speak there. He does not have a right to the silence of those in the space, or a right to expect their acquiescence. The students acted within their right to assemble in the space and to respond.

If the students did the same thing at Jim's home or church, only then would they have acted inappropriately.

Jim is no martyr. Neither is democracy in this matter.

The expression of religious intolerance is protected in this country. Everyone has a right to speak their mind in public spaces... but that does not imply that they have a right to be heard.

Here's an idea, what if the students had all showed up, but rather than drums the all had turned their ipods to full and refused to take their earphones out? Would that have been a blow to democracy.

It is perfectly fine to find this collegiate display distasteful to your sensibility, but what I witness here is actual communal democracy in the face of a signular theocratic vision.


Scott Walters said...

dv -- Apparently, you have a loser idea of democracy than I do. For me, it is more than voting -- it is a process that requires the civil exchange of ideas. The space that the preacher was in was one designated for public speakers, and he had gone through the channels to be allowed to use that space. As such, it is no longer a "public space," but rather a space designated for public discourse. To my knowledge, those who drummed over the preacher did not receive permission to do so. Second, you are assuming that the group of drummers reflected the will of everyone -- that there was nobody who wanted to listen to the preacher, or engage him in dialogue. My experience is that this is rarely the case -- that there are always some people who enjoy hearing ideas, even those they disagree with. These are the truly tolerant. Democracy -- REAL democracy depends on civility and a willingness to allow opposing views to not only be heard, but considered. Not much to consider in this case: the preacher is wrong. But he deserves to be allowed to be wrong as part of the great conversation.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am sure Jim will live to hate another day despite the sound of drums.

I'll conclude in a most civic tone, that I disagree with you and move on to bug another blogger.

BTW, glad you're posting again even though I don't always agree.

I promise never to drum when you blog (hmmm... change never to rarely)



Scott Walters said...

Of course, it ain't about Jim, it is about our society. Which will live, yes -- is that the bar? We've survived Bush's near-fascist abuse of power as well, but that don't make it something to apsire to.

Anonymous said...

"We've survived Bush's near-fascist abuse of power as well, but that don't make it something to apsire to."

Equating the abuses of the Bush administration and student on campus peaceful protest is quite the hyperbole.

Perhaps the real warning issued should be that liberals must understand and educate themselves because an Obama presidency does not negate the necessity for diligence in the face of theocratic bigotry, ignorance, and backmindedness. In fact it will actually highen the need.

Again I applaud these students. Not becuase they impinge on the democractic right of an individual (which I do not agree they did), but rather they exercised their rights and leveraged that right as a (gulp)community.


Scott Walters said...

Well, your self-righteous cocksuredness is exactly what Tom and I are warning against. If you agree with something, you let it get away with violations of actual democratic principles; if you don't agree with it, it is proto-fascism. The only way we can get our country back is to commit anew and with fervor to the underlying principles that make it work. An open exchange of ideas is bedrock.

Ben Turk said...

Scott- i fear that a return to our underlying principles is a lost cause. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, those principles are pretty obsolete. At anyrate, the fact of the matter is there is nothing like an open exchange of ideas in america today, and there won't be one until leftists start shouting loud enough to be heard over all the democrats, republicans and television stations combined.

If these kids drowned out one religious nutjob, it might be a fly buzzing in the face of democracy. Meanwhile the force with which any mention of "poverty" was drowned out by all parties during the election is a sledgehammer in the face of democracy. Taking these kids to task while celebrating the people who weild that sledgehammer is pretty silly.

Scott Walters said...

Well, Rex, you and I disagree on this. I don't happen to think that the original ideas are obsolete, nor do I think a Leninist uprising is a worthwhile goal. As we saw with Stalinism, the tyranny of the left can be as brutally totalitarian as that of the right, and anything that is built on shouting more loudly than others is a step toward totalitarianism.

Ben Turk said...

You've got to be fucking kidding me. Mentioning the existance of poverty in america leads to being branded a leninist or stalinist? That's what passes for "open discourse" these days?

Scott Walters said...

No, the dismissal of all other voices except those of "leftists" leads me to draw a parallel. I agree that the focus on the middle class in the election has totally ignored those who are poor. But I don't see how one thing sanctions the anti-democratic silencing of a citizen. Jim Wallis, who heads Sojourners, a prominent Christian organization that is focused very strongly on the issues of poverty, continues to inject that topic into the conversation. But it is (or should be) a conversation, not a shouting match, and your rejection of dialog doesn't resonate with me.

Ben Turk said...

Rejection of dialog? Shouting? If i've misrepresented you or your position in anyway that even comes close to the association you made between me and lenin and stalin. I appologize.

All i'm trying to say is that in america today many many voices are drowned out by crowds, to focus criticism on overzealous leftists when there are entire networks of media machines designed for drowning out the voices of the left is either hopelessly naive, or it's participating in the silencing of the left.

Scott Walters said...

I have never bought the argument that it is OK for us to do something that is wrong because they do it too or do it more. Your argument about the issue of poverty being drowned out would be strengthened if you would condemn the drowning out of someone you disagree with. I don't condone the lack of time poverty was discussed in the election. Now, will you do the same in this instance?

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