Saturday, December 16, 2017
**This piece is part of a larger series of responses to TYA/USA’s Call to Action: Responding to Hate with Art and Action, written by a range of leading voices in the TYA field. Read other pieces in this series here.**

 

This article was born of the invitation to write about art and hate, and how the former may in some small way work to challenge the latter. But in truth I’m reticent to make hate the antagonist here, being so oppositional and absolute as it is. Not because it’s intimidating in its scope, but rather because it’s too easy.

Hate is so clear and definitive an other that nearly all of us can distance ourselves from it. People may display innumerable small biases while proudly proclaiming themselves haters of hate. Indeed, so often its only vocal champions (hiding in pointed hoods or striding in Charlottesville streets) seem so marginalised and unwittingly self-mocking, so needy of acceptance, that one can’t help but pity them.

When I think of true harm, though – of actions that palpably tear at the social fabric, that clearly work to build silos of us and them – I think not of the hate-spouting of a weak few, but of the everyday bigotries exhibited by an emboldened many.

Where Words Once Were by Finegan Kruckemeyer / Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences; Alina Collins Maldonado. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

And it must be said here that no one country is the authority on this – I understand the notion of glass houses and stones thrown. As a nation, mine condones government-run offshore detention centres for refugees, a span of water rendering these victims truly out of sight and mind. As an individual, I write of liberal notions while living in a largely mono-cultural suburb. And as an Australian citizen, I will this week receive a ballot slip asking whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

The exercise, a $122 million non-binding plebiscite, will have no legal outcome but huge potential to marginalize. Because while I and many millions more are voting yes, in a way it feels as problematic as voting no. Either way, we’re commenting on the LGBTQI community’s love, when really it has nothing to do with us. It is gratuitous that we have a vote at all.

And if a citizen of my land were to proclaim their hatred of refugees or multiculturalism or gay people, this would be one form of easily discernible vitriol. And that vitriol would be shouted down, because ultimately I believe all people are good – that most do know right and wrong, and those that don’t are secretly searching for it.

But if a citizen of my land – or yours – chose to be silent, or chose to quietly vote into being a legislation of inequality, chose to accept differing birthrights for different humans, then a society may slowly (so slowly it itself does not even notice) grow unhealthy. And I think it’s these small cumulative injustices, this glacial degradation of empathy, that art does have the power to affect.

I think it’s these small cumulative injustices, this glacial degradation of empathy, that art does have the power to affect.

Because in its basest form, a story is an exercise in placing oneself in the shoes of another. We may (for whatever reason) be reticent to do this in real life, but in a theatre or cinema or library chair the commitment is a selfish one, and that’s okay. We know our viewing experience will be heightened the more invested we are.

And we know this innately, in a hardwired manner that can cut through personal bias or childish naivete – if the offering’s well-constructed enough, the young first-time theatregoer will know what to do. And more importantly, the value-hardened cynic will know what to feel. They may loudly discredit it – which I’d argue is fine, because it’s still entered their conversation. Or they may blankly deny it – and that’s even better, as the story then becomes something more residual, hiding away in a subconscious.

But if the hardening of a society’s ability to care follows one trajectory, then the softening of an individual’s ability to not follows an opposite one. Both are about incremental steps, towards or away from what I think every single person actively treasures or secretly yearns for – which is a sense of community.

And some would rationalize that defining the ‘other’ does achieve this, a knowledge of who we aren’t emboldening who we are. Some would argue the opposite (but must be wary to check our privilege, so as not to discover embarrassing hypocrisies while perched on high horses). But this little essay is about art and, given its context, the theatrical kind in particular.

And what theatre does manage to do, is actively engage us in a central premise of community – which is a lot of people, caring about the same thing, at the same time.

And what theatre does manage to do, is actively engage us in a central premise of community – which is a lot of people, caring about the same thing, at the same time.

Where Words Once Were by Finegan Kruckemeyer / Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences; Chris Lane and Alina Collins Maldonado. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

Other pursuits do this too of course – such as sport, very successfully. But the distinction in my mind is that standing in a stadium is about a shared investment in people whose talents eclipse our own. The role of an athlete is to be the best at a thing, and what we marvel at is the superhuman. But sitting in a theatre is about a shared investment in ordinary people, being placed in complex situations. So what is marveled at then, is the super humanity.

And (speaking from a biased position as I am) I do believe that this exercise is a worthy one, in contesting not hate (whose displays are so often far more theatrical than this industry’s), but rather the dull brutalities of slow, subtle privilege.

Because what artists seek to do is conjure relatable, fallible humans, whose lives bear the hallmarks of our own. And if we make a choice to maintain all the familiarities, but to then alter the skin colour or physiology of a protagonist – if we make them hold the hand of a same-sex love, or locate them in a different place of worship, or have them utter the most colloquial of words in the most foreign of accents – these seemingly pedestrian choices can have tangible impacts.

They can, ever so slowly, work to disempower an argument of otherness. They can provide a perspective, a voyeur’s glimpse into a stranger’s dining-room, which makes him suddenly seem a bit less strange.

And art may struggle to combat hate – because the task of hating demands so much of its victim that interruption can be tricky. But art can combat ignorance, by showing.

And art may struggle to combat hate – because the task of hating demands so much of its victim that interruption can be tricky. But art can combat ignorance, by showing. And it can combat what is alien, by sharing what is domestic. And I do believe (because why else would one spend a life doing a thing) that art can, in a somewhat magical way, use finite symbols to address infinite audiences.

And this is not because of an artist’s skill in coding. It is because of the inclusive, universal understanding of the code.

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