Offense-Defense

by Jonathan Kalb

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

Not long ago, malicious hackers and an unrelenting barrage of random, vicious invective and smut forced me to disable the “Comment” function on HotReview.org, the theater web journal I edit. Then a few weeks ago someone posted a HotReview article by one of my writers to the Mabou Mines Facebook page—a passionate and cogent 2,300-word essay criticizing a Mabou production—provoking a breathtaking string of personal abuse skewering the critic, and nary a word in response to the article’s points. (I’d love to quote some examples; alas, the good people at Mabou Mines have removed the whole posting—out of embarrassment, one hopes.)

At dinner last night I was just settling into cruise-control in a tirade about the ruination of the Web by an epidemic of narcissism, incivility and victimhood when my thoughtful son Sam (smart kid—going to Oberlin in the fall) gently held up his hand and essentially told me . . . well, that I was a dinosaur.

“I understand your frustration, but you’re not appreciating the universality of the internet,” he said. “This new medium gives everyone a voice. That’s its central feature. Millions of people who have been suppressed before now, with no means of publicly expressing their feelings of offense and pain, suddenly have one. Of course some of them overcompensate and sound violent when they’re offended. There are a lot of assholes, but they have a right to be assholes, and you can’t take that away without taking away a lot of people’s new freedom.”

I mulled over his point for a moment and then rejoined: “I see what you mean, but I think the abuse is horribly widespread. I feel like you’re saying that trolls should be appreciated as doughty pioneers because they’re bravely stretching the once-policed boundaries of the public commons. You can’t expect Wild West settlers who have been attacked, robbed and raped to view the lawlessness of the new America as an acceptable cost of freedom.”

“Now that’s just an exaggeration to make restrictions and boundaries seem justified,” answered Sam.

“No, it’s not,” I cried. The HotReview article in question, by Magda Romanska, had argued that Lee Breuer’s acclaimed Dollhouse production, in which the female roles were all played by normal-sized actresses (is that okay to say?) and the male ones by actors with dwarfism, exploited disability for the sake of spectacle. “While trying to make a statement on gender relations, ‘playing out an illusion of male power,’” Romanska wrote, “the production takes from disability what it gives to gender.” She went on to explain that she herself is disabled and had struggled her whole life to escape just this sort of voyeuristic and freakish view of disability.

On Facebook she was assailed (as I recall) as odious, cruel, slimy, fascist, stupid, ugly and dishonest. A few posts even questioned whether she was truly disabled. There were dozens of comments but not a single person who seemed to know how to read. The string was an emotional spittoon.

“But you’re not telling the whole story,” Sam shot back. “I read that article because you told me about it, and while it was very moving and intelligent you have to admit that it was also deliberately provocative. It was charged with emotion. Didn’t the author say that this Dollhouse made her nauseous?”

“Yes, but as a critical comment. She compared the experience of watching it to what W.E.B. du Bois might have felt watching a minstrel show, or what Walter Benjamin might have felt watching a Nazi production of Merchant of Venice.”

“No matter,” said Sam. “No one can control the quality of readers, either in print or online.”

“But the internet has fostered a mass addiction to faux-reading, a sort of non-reading masquerading as reading. People glance quickly or skim just to seek out fodder for off-the-cuff emotional reactions. They claim offense as a substitute for discussion, just to cow others and close down conversation rather than continue it. Being outraged and offended is a ploy to change the subject and make everyone have to attend to their feelings instead of the substance of whatever provoked them. They click ‘don’t like,’ then write 50 vituperative words in a blind heat and convince themselves they’ve said something other than ‘don’t like’ when they actually haven’t. Sheeeesh!”

“Okay, breathe,” said Sam. “Didn’t you tell me that article was up on HotReview for nearly a year with no response? All the talk about it on Facebook probably got it hundreds of readers it would never have otherwise had.”

“All right, smartypants, you win.”

“Your face.”


Jonathan Kalb is Professor of Theater at Hunter College, CUNY, and Literary Advisor and Resident Artist at Theater for a New Audience, where he works frequently as a dramaturg. He is the author of five books on theater, is the founding editor of HotReview.org, The Hunter On-Line Theater Review, and has twice received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism—awarded in 1991 for his book Beckett in Performance and his writing in The Village Voice and in 2012 for his book Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater, which also won the George Freedley Memorial Award. Kalb was a regular theater critic for The Village Voice from 1987-1997 and the chief theater critic for New York Press from 1997-2001. His book The Theater of Heiner Müller was the first general study in English about the most important German playwright after Brecht. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Salmagundi, Modern Drama, Theater Journal, Theater, Performing Arts Journal, TDR, Theater Heute, The Threepenny Review, Salon.com, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New German Critique, TheatreForum, American Theatre, and numerous other publications. Two book collections of his work have appeared: Free Admissions: Collected Theater Writings and Play By Play: Theater Essays and Reviews, 1993-2002.