I am writing to express my outrage at the cancellation of the SCE production of The Foreigner.
I hold a Ph.D. in International Relations, with a focus on creative approaches to conflict resolution. My research centers on the use of theater in societies in and post conflict. I have worked in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, with groups that use performance and storytelling to facilitate discussions of difficult and painful topics across societal divides.
The claim in your November 8th email to parents that “this decision does not diminish the months of hard work, collaboration, emotion, and thoughtfulness that students invested in the production—nor does it lessen all that they have learned through those efforts” is a claim blatantly without merit. Those students are devastated, and while they have certainly learned something from the experience, I doubt it is the lesson you had in mind. The student whose thesis this is has had what was supposed to be the culmination of her college career dismissed, and your refusal to allow the performance – and the planned post-show panel discussion – to go ahead robbed both the project’s participants and the wider community of a chance to openly discuss controversial topics. You missed the broader teaching moment, and furthermore opened up the students involved to accusations of racism which, because the community has not seen the play, they have no way to refute.
The College website states that the College’s enduring values are “critical thinking, effective communication, and moral courage” and claim that these values “move the world”. Setting aside the concept of moral courage, which is a highly subjective claim, this decision has removed the possibility of critical thought and assessment and eliminated the possibility of effective communication by making the conversation about rumors rather than actualities. You have denied the community the agency to make up their own minds and to participate in informed discourse. Whatever your intentions, this was an act of censorship.
While you may be under the illusion that the decision was for the good of the community (isn’t that always where censorship starts?), you should think very carefully about where this path leads. What other projects will you cancel or suppress because the work is upsetting or uncomfortable to members of the community? What sort of education are you providing when you remove the choice to engage in debate or an exchange of ideas?
It is a supreme irony that your decision to cancel this production came a scant week after former President Obama’s speech in Chicago cited the dangers of “call-out culture” and the social media practice of “cancelling” unpopular or controversial views. However well-intentioned your decision might have been, however much you feel it may have been made with an eye towards prioritizing inclusiveness and articulating ones perspective with an effort towards “finding greater understanding, effecting positive change, and strengthening communication among all of our students, staff, and faculty”, your actions have done the opposite.
By canceling both the performance and the post-show panel discussion you have denied the majority of the community the opportunity to articulate – or even form – their own perspectives. How can a community develop greater understanding and positive change if there is no informed debate?
I am fully aware of the challenges involved in university teaching in the 21st century, with the confluence of identity politics and the need for cultural sensitivity. In this instance you and, by extension, the College have failed in your primary responsibility – namely, to educate. There are many ways that this could have become a truly transformative teaching moment. You could have included the students who comprised the cast and crew in the conversation prior to making the decision to cancel the performance. You could have challenged the director and her design team to come up with a creative costuming work-around for the Klan’s white robes, or suggested an adaptation of the play to reframe the villains of the piece. And you could have invited the students involved in both the production and the complaint to meet in a mediated environment to share their perspectives in person, an exercise which would have had a chance of achieving the greater understanding and strengthened communication towards which your email claims you strive.
This is my challenge to you: commit to a campus-wide forum to address what has happened and to work on the divisions in the college community that this experience has brought to light. Draw on the creativity and teaching excellence available to you and devise a way to foster actual communication around difficult topics. Engage the entire college community in this endeavor. Do not look to the students involved in the play to lead this, this is a job for the faculty and staff. Effecting real change takes hard work and imagination and commitment and time. It is much easier to cancel a performance and hope that the ensuing uproar dies down. You now have a chance to transform an experience that has been deeply painful and troubling for many members of the immediate and extended college community, the opportunity to create something positive from a debacle. I hope, for the sake of the college community, and for the sakes of the communities into which your students will enter upon graduation, that you rise to this occasion. You have a chance to “move the world”. Take it.
If, on the other hand, the College truly intends to go down the path of suppression and summarily silence members of the community, it is imperative that you clarify that position on your website and in the information provided to prospective students. Students who are uncomfortable with the specter of censorship and upset by the threat of having their intellectual freedoms curtailed should be able to make an informed decision when choosing an institution of higher education.
Talya Leodari holds a Ph.D. in Politics and an M.A. in International Relations from Newcastle University (U.K.) and a B.A. in American Studies from Bryn Mawr College. She is currently the Director of Programming & Outreach for The Great Barrington Libraries in Barrington, Massachusetts.