Sunday, November 22, 2015

Identitarians in the theater

It looks like identitarianism has infested the theater. It's true that white people have dominated theater in this country (white men of course). This is the result of white male hegemony in this part of the world generally. But white people dominating theater is also partly through demographics and economics. There are just lots more white people here thanks to centuries of European immigration, and white people achieved economic dominance through various circumstantial advantages, and theater is a luxury that few who are not well-off economically can afford to indulge in.

There is certainly injustice to be found. But the problem with identitarians is that they let their dismay over injustice and their zeal to fix it carry them into witch hunts which only increases injustice in the world. I've previously discussed the methods of professional identitarian Robin DiAngelo. A non-white woman complained to DiAngelo about "white women's tears" and as a result, DiAngelo told a group of employees at a workplace session on police violence against African Americans that she was running that any white person who cried had to leave the room. And she made a white woman leave when she cried, to the woman's dismay. DiAngelo then proudly wrote an article for the Good Men Project about this incident, and she proceeded to justify her (probably illegal) action by blaming white women as a group for the 1955 murder of Emmet Till:
Men of color may also may come to the aid of white women in these exchanges, and are likely also driven by their conditioning under sexism and patriarchy. But men of color have the additional weight of racism to navigate. This weight has historically been deadly. For black men in particular, the specter of Emmett Till and countless others who have been beaten and killed over a white woman’s claims of cross-racial distress is ever present. Ameliorating the woman’s distress as quickly as possible may be felt as a literal matter of survival. Yet coming to the rescue of a white woman also drives a wedge between men and women of color. Rather than receive social capital that reinforces his status, a man of color put in this position must now live with the agony of having to support racism in order to survive. 
Robin DiAngelo decided that a good way to address the extreme racism towards black men and paternalism towards white women that caused the murder of Till was to use the small authority given to her in the workplace to single out an individual white woman for humiliation. And as you can see in the comments under the article, there are plenty of people who think this is commendable.

Scapegoatism is a favorite technique of identitarians. We can see this again in the recent controversy over casting decisions in a small Pennsylvania college. As it says in the NYTimes:
The cancellation of a college production of Lloyd Suh’s play “Jesus in India” over the casting of white actors as Indian characters has prompted a war of words over diversity in theater, with Mr. Suh arguing that the production could send a “dehumanizing” message to minority students and the school countering that the student actors on its rural, predominantly white campus were being “punished for their race.” 
The controversy broke out last week when The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Mr. Suh had withdrawn permissions for the production at Clarion University, a state institution in western Pennsylvania with a student body of about 5,400. It landed amid heightened national conversation about racial exclusion on college campuses, as well as ongoing debate in the theater world about how to promote greater diversity onstage.
Now after reading several pieces on this and arguing with people on Facebook it appears to me that there was miscommunication on both sides. But Mr. Suh made a statement about the issue and it doesn't add up. If Clarion was attempting to abrogate Mr. Suh's rights and produce his play without permission, why is casting even an issue?

And if the only reason why the play was not allowed to proceed was the casting, then why is the permissions status an issue?

It appears to me that what Suh is saying is that he would have allowed the play to proceed if he was satisfied with the casting. So apparently what Clarion did wasn't so objectionable that he would not still have worked with them, if he liked the casting. And the New York Times story reflects that.

At the heart of the matter though, is Suh's identitarianism, which leads him to use a disagreement with Clarion University as an exercise in scapegoatism.

Clarion is clearly a small school in a very white section of the country, and it's perfectly reasonable to assume that Indians were not cast because they were not available in the theater department. But to get around this clear logistical justification for the decision to cast whites in roles for Indians, Suh proclaims that it is not acceptable to him that college theater departments don't behave the way professional theaters do:
This includes university theater programs, which are a crucial part of the way professional theater is born. We are witnessing a moment on multiple college campuses where racial tensions are undeniable and extremely dangerous. I cannot grant university programs an allowance on these matters that I would never grant a professional theater.
If he "cannot grant university programs an allowance" then he shouldn't have allowed them to do his play, knowing that thanks to demographics it was possible there would not be enough Indians to take the roles.

There is a difference between university theater programs and professional theaters for a variety of practical and financial reasons, and Suh's proclamations on the subject won't change that, no matter how much he pushes the notion that lack of Indian students in the theater program is evidence of bigotry or somehow contributing to racial tensions.

But this is the way identitarians argue. When it is pointed out to Suh that theater departments don't work the same as professional theaters, his response is the equivalent of stamping his feet and shouting well they should be the same! And if they aren't changed on my command immediately, then they are obviously racists!

It strikes me as a bit of concern trolling that Suh mentions "racial tensions" when, if anybody has ginned up racial tensions, it would be himself. It's a safe bet the NYTimes would not have picked up the story of a humdrum cancellation over writers' rights. Only when Suh implied Clarion University is a pack of racists did this become noticed by anybody outside of Clarion.

Another item of interest - I pointed out in the discussion thread under Suh's Facebook statement that although Suh objected to casting of "Caucasians" in fact Indians have long been classified as Caucasians. Now of course race is not a biological concept but a cultural construct and "Caucasian" is just a label assigned over a hundred years ago based on the firm belief that humans are justifiably cast as "races". This is an important point - it demonstrates how much identitarians themselves adopt the mindset, assumptions and terminology of the racists. But even my pointing this out was deemed offensive by many people on the thread, including the infamous bullshitter Mike Daisey.




Mike Daisey achieved fame initially when the National Public Radio program This American Life invited him to share his monologue about the dire situation for workers in Apple factories in China, which was running at the Public Theater at the time. TAL took Daisey's work as reportage, and it appears that Daisey never corrected their mistake. And it's likely he didn't because TAL would not have been interested in his story of going to China and meeting 14 year old factory workers, and factory workers who had never seen an iPhone, if it was clear it was mostly bullshit. Or fiction, if you will.


But you can see that Daisey's tendency towards feckless fabrication would make identitarianism appeal to him. He would much prefer a simple good vs. bad narrative, with Clarion University cast as evil racists out to destroy a person of color who was standing up for the rights of all people to be represented in the theater, rather than a messy tale of miscommunication and logistics and peevishness. 

So for me to mention a minor but interesting point of fact that detracts from the simplistic identitarian narrative of "white power and dominance" is highly offensive to Mike Daisey.

Unfortunately what identitarians demonstrate is that the Left is no less susceptible to hysteria than the Right, even if they get hysterical over different boogeymen.

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