There is a mental habit formed early in the development of the modern American psyche: the immediate and perpetual recentering of yourself as the underdog. Our prevailing American narrative is one of rising above great (or more usually impossible) odds to achieve our heart’s one true desire. In the narrative the underdog is always right, always righteous, and inherently worthy, due to their status as underdog, of their heart’s desire. It’s problematic enough in our films, teevee programs, and songs but when folks begin doing it in real life it really is a disaster. The dissonance of the intensified discussion of privilege and failed intersectionality of civil rights of the last few years is exemplified in the pivot to underdog and gestalt worthiness; If one believes that they are the oppressed in every situation (regardless of circumstances) how can one ever be an oppressor? Or even simply a negligent ally (centering yourself is the short road to Bad Ally Bayou)?
That narrative is even more prevalent in the arts. The language of the arts of one of holiness and righteousness. The words “God” or “Jesus” are well-nigh interchangable for “art” or “theatre” on most t-shirts. The asks for support are almost identical. Both American mainstream cultural religionists and artists have persecution complexes too deep to ever reliably confront. I have watched various theatre disciplines snipe at one another (unironically) about who was the least respected.
All of which seems like a lot of words to say that as the One True Underdog in any given situation we believe that our rightness is paramount, our cause is just, and any level of pushback at the perceived oppression is appropriate. There is no way that as the perpetually aggrieved, the perpetually unprivileged, the little guy that we could be being unfair. That we could be punching down.
That we could be the bully.
This is a lesson that has taken me all of my forty years (and a lot of patience on the part of those around me) to begin to unpack. My backpack of privilege, a moderately sized platform and a strident voice meant that I was bruising a lot of people unintentionally. Speaking truth to power to Rocco Landesman is one thing, throwing elbows in the paint with random Twitter denizen #4 is another. I treated them all the same. It was a mistake. Mostly I’m better about that now (we all have our bad days).
But this isn’t a lesson everyone has learned and the Great Internet Outrage Engine is no respecter of persons.
Being right isn’t a license to kill.
(on the internet)
The Northland Words Theatre put out a disastrous call for submissions for their 2015 Original Short Play Festival and the horde descended.
To be clear: the call for submissions is a lesson in worst practices for an open call for submissions. I myself amplified the original attention shining post from Donna Hoke and the follow-up overview from Howard Sherman. It was a worst practices moment that deserved to be highlighted, the issues explicated and the conversation had. I felt like both of the posts I amplified were pretty reasonable. Most of the rest of the response I’ve seen hasn’t been. In the post-Bush “with us or against us” formulation, a company that could put out a disastrous call for submission like that is simply the enemy. No nuance or additional thought necessary. Northland Words becomes an analog for every group, or company, or theatre that has ever called our work a hobby or compared it to a third grader’s class project. They get the full blast of vitriol we want to give the nameless other that oppresses us.
We other them to make ourselves feel better.
Our being right doesn’t make our every action right.
Northland Words being wrong doesn’t revoke their humanity.
A parent of some of the Northland Words kids have engaged respectfully about the issues.
The Outrage Machine rolls on because [GENERALIZATION] no one reads everything and no one follows up on comments and conversation.
And because the adrenaline feels good.
Fight the fights where we need to.
And #playwrightrespect is definitely a fight worth fighting for all conscientious theatremakers
But we need to learn the value of proportional response and we need to rehumanize other.
Northland Words Theatre isn’t the enemy, they are us.
They are a scrappy theatre trying to make stuff they love on a wing and a prayer.
They got something wrong. So we help them fix it and help them to understand why we’re so shocked at the call.
We go ahead and believe them when they explain why and how it happened and we move on together.
We’re on the same team.