Saturday, November 19, 2016

I'm Already Exhausted.

Okay, a thing happened. Again.

short version: The cast of Hamilton said the following to the audience after a performance in which they knew VP-elect Mike Pence was in the audience, so at the end, they made a statement.

“You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out, because this message needs to be spread far and wide.

Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do,” We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for (sharing) this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

The president-elect responded with the following.

"Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen! The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!"

Ooof. Okay.

So, hearing the incoming administration talk about harassment and referring to a concept of a safe space, let alone so grossly misunderstanding the definitions of both, shouldn't astonish me.

And yet, here we are. I already did a shit load of pull-ups, now I'm going to write about it because these are ways I deal with frustration.

On Theater

First, on the president-elect's comments: to crib from an expert (Dr. Fiona Harris Ramsby), the theater is not generally a safe space, not when it comes to the actual performance. It can be (like nearly anything), but it isn't typically. What it always is, though, is a rhetorical space, one where difficult concepts and ideas are accessed and discussed, not hidden from.

On Harassment

Okay, so, disagreement and respectful address at all, let alone in public for public opinions, is not harassment. Harassment requires aggression and intimidation. And while both are in the eye of the beholder, it's really hard to say that a wealthy, incredibly powerful person surrounded by armed guards felt intimidated by being addressed by the cast of a musical in regards to his legislative reputation. I'm not Mike Pence, I don't know how he felt, and if he felt intimidated or uncomfortable, I do sympathize. At the same time, this feels more like rhetorical gamesmanship cynically employed by the president-elect, someone who has a track record of arguing against the validity of the concepts he's invoking, so I'm struggling a bit in the empathy department. That said, that's on me.

Safe Spaces and their Public Perception vs. Reality

A safe space is not like declaring "base" in tag.

It is not freedom to say whatever you want without facing disagreement or consequences.

It is not an echo chamber. It can be, but it is not, by default, one.

It is not a "hug-box for the over sensitive." If you think it is, spend some time in a politically active student union some time. There's still screaming there, there's still a ton of arguments, it's just full of people that aren't going to ask to touch a black person's hair or ask a rape victim what she was wearing when she was attacked, implying guilt.

Here's what it is. Also, here's why it's in the news.

First, a safe space is an academic term used to describe an already existent idea, it's just sort of. . .codifying it. That codification of a long-existing human behavior and academic terminology has been working their way into the public progressive discourse for the past decade or so. (That said, it's worth noting the earliest reference I could dig up as a formally described "safe space" referred to LGBT community centers in the late 1980s at a point where being gay was, to put it lightly, still a dangerous proposition).

Safe spaces are old and they're everywhere. They're men's only clubs, it's the weekly bridge game with the ladies, it's a quilting bee, it's a mosh pit at a house show, it's the D&D game with old friends, it's a camping/hunting trip, it's a black student union, hell, it's Cheer's for Frasier during his divorce. It's AA. It's a counselling center or support group of any stripe.

At it's basic level, it's anywhere that (with implicit or explicit description), you can have a conversation where you can trust a certain level of common understanding. Note: this does not necessarily mean total agreement or unilateral support for whatever comes out of your mouth.

Which brings me to the next point: In an attempt to formally define an area as a safe space (especially as it pertains to progressive politics), you have to also define unsafe behavior, which means people will ask, which in turn ruffles feathers because when you're dealing with something like a systemic issue (racism, misogyny that enables assault, etc.) that permeate the concept of acceptable behavior for the unaffected, you create rhetorical combat: the people perpetrating the behavior that people need relief from don't acknowledge its existence and, in turn, feel accused. (I get it, and it's a problem the left needs to get way, way better at. I'm working on it in my tiny, raging at the storm-way).

Back to the Beginning

Look. Neither political ideology nor past behavior precludes someone from having access to a safe space. And as much as it can be uncomfortable to admit, people in powerful positions can experience acute harassment. Dismissing either is asking for trouble but, more importantly, it's a dick move.

That is something we need to remind ourselves of constantly. No matter how much this administration and its supporters may rail against the very idea, they are still allowed to have their own safe spaces. It's human nature to seek them, it's human nature to build them. I won't take it away from anyone. (By the way, this, of course, does not mean they can invade someone else's space under that same position of tolerance).

However, what cannot be tolerated is the dismissal, their devaluation, or their cynical invocation of a safe space, of harassment, to avoid disagreement, dialogue, or criticism, especially for public statements and behavior. And that's what the president-elect did.

It's going to be a long four years, folks.