On sexual assault, Steven Galloway, and radical visions of ethically self-governing community

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ubc-march-29-2016On November 14th, Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, and dozens of other celebrated Canadian authors published an open letter to the University of British Columbia. It was an act of protest against the university’s mistreatment of one of their CanLit luminary peers, Steven Galloway, the novelist and former UBC Creative Writing Program chair at the centre of a sex scandal. It’s now known that Galloway had an affair with a middle-aged student in his department, who later accused him of sexual assault; a number of his students also allege that he played favourites, created a sexualized environment, and engaged in horseplay that crossed lines of decorum at the least.

None of these details were available to the public last November, when The Globe and Mail and other major news outlets ran the story that Galloway had been suspended from his job in light of unspecified “serious allegations.” An internal investigation at UBC followed, conducted by a retired provincial Supreme Court judge. Her report found most of the complaints against Galloway, including the sexual assault one, couldn’t be substantiated. Still, whatever was in the report was enough for UBC, and Galloway was fired in June, without severance. There was extensive media coverage, with varying degrees of sympathy for the different parties. Galloway tried to kill himself.

In The Walrus magazine, Margaret Atwood likens the business to the Salem Witch Trials, total reputational annihilation on the basis of whisper campaigns and a guilty-because-accused standard of public judgment. She’s right. Many others on Twitter express concern for the complainants, de-centred in favour of Galloway in the heavyweights’ letter. They’re right. Dorothy Palmer, a union leader and activist, argues on Facebook that the open-letter CanLuminaries are bourgeois stars of the neoliberal gig economy and their weaponizing the media is a form of union-busting: the controversy should be settled through unions’ established protocols, better able to ensure fairness and privacy. In principle, she’s right.

Except the fairness and privacy ship sailed last November, when UBC failed both Galloway and his accusers by allowing his suspension to leak to Canada’s daily newspaper of record and thus to social media. What anybody embedded in the neoliberal gig economy knows is that your union grievance rights are worth shit once your personal brand is dead. Whether you’re a bestselling author or a desperate MFA grad watching your bank balance dwindle (or both), you are your name—or, to be precise, your name’s globally accessible Google search results.

Employment depends on them. Housing may depend on them. Future friendship and romance most certainly depend on them. Someone whose name has been wrecked online must wonder, each time they meet a new person: Do they know the shame my name now holds, and will they abandon me when they find out? To be sure, many victims of sexual assault feel a parallel version of this loneliness when they wonder, each time they meet someone new: Can they tell I’m traumatized, and will they abandon me when they find out? The open-letter-writers may have felt the former horror more acutely. Or they may have felt, as they imply, that Galloway has gotten a rawer deal than the complainants in light of the circumstances that are known. I can’t tell if the CanLuminaries’ demand for a public inquiry into the events is all that coherent; it’s not clear to me that such a thing would benefit the main stakeholders at this point, though unmuzzling Galloway might well benefit his mental health. What I wish is that these exceptional writers had used their collective force of imagination to probe more searchingly the moral, ethical, and legal questions before them.

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The Canadian Theatre is a Lameass Bourgeois Snooze

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karl-marx-peaceLike Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon keep watch for their Godot, I wait for the Canadian theatre—so self-confidently progressive, so sure of its liberal bona fides—to produce something like a class critique, an adequate reckoning with its own economic premises and those of our society. It never comes.

In vain, mumbling and prancing like Beckett’s Lucky, I hold out for some brave fool to say: “Hey, institutional theatres that claim millions of dollars in public funding, you’re still of and for the rich, and courting the brown rich in addition to the white rich doesn’t make you paragons of social justice. How about enacting policies that make your work consistently affordable for patrons who earn near or below the Canadian median income? That, like many European repertory companies, offer wage security to artists and not only or mostly to administrators? That provide childcare so attendees needn’t be able to afford babysitters in addition to show tickets? Most importantly, how about staging work that challenges, and doesn’t just affirm, your audience’s liberal triumphalism?”

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Partisan Magazine: Never an Intruder, Always a Guest

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Anand-Rajaram-Sarah-Dodd-in-Mustard-2-photo-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann_web-1024x716When an important theatre company’s entire eight-play season includes just one (1) actor who unambiguously couldn’t pass for an ethnic European, and that actor is cast as a non-human in a jester’s hat, can that truly be seen as a positive, progressive example of “colour-blind casting”?

If racial and ethnic “colour-blindness” isn’t a genuine human possibility, tribal and prideful as we are, but is instead a bourgeois myth that allows the lookers to feel morally righteous instead of confronting their own prejudices, what’s the artist’s responsibility in relation to it?

For Partisan Magazine, I asked these and other questions in a discussion of Mustard at Tarragon Theatre: http://www.partisanmagazine.com/reviews/2016/2/14/never-an-intruder-always-a-guest

On Doubt

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“Christmas Morning,” Andrew Wyeth (1944)

Zadie Smith’s essays are so great. They’re collected in a book called Changing My Mind, a phrase that beautifully captures the tentative quality of the essay form: a literary gamble, an attempt, child of the French word essayer, “to try.” I’ve spent a year and a half essaying, on this website and sometimes elsewhere, and I’ve never changed my mind so often or been so full of doubt.

In the spring of 2014, I launched a dangerous little experiment on this inch of online real estate: I began to write long-form critical essays about dramatic art and mainly about the work of my own theatre community in Toronto. Soon after I started the project, I decided to package those essays as open letters to the theatre artists about whom I wrote, with the guiding principle that I’d include in the essays only such thoughts as I might otherwise share with those artists directly and privately — over e-mail, say. The letters would be overheard speech, governed by roughly the same social rules, the same codes of omission and inclusion, that mark any frank but respectful conversation with a peer.

Though the initial public reaction to the project was largely positive, in the spring of 2015, almost exactly a year in, it received a fundamental critique from a local artist who argued that it, and I, as a straight white man, take up too much space in the Canadian theatre landscape. That critique, which took the form of a discussion of the aesthetics and ethics of one of my own plays, positioned me at a distinct point along a spectrum of ideas about the politics of identity. The critique staked out political territory, drew a line, and located me on the other side of it. To be fair, it did invite me to reform my views and switch camps. But in the process it established, by implication, that there were camps, and that I was, at least for the moment, in the wrong one.

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How To Save the Canadian Theatre in a Few Not-So-Easy Steps

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A Possible Roadmap to a Less Pale, More Prosperous Future

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I caused some distress a few weeks ago when, in the rowdy virtual pub that is Facebook, I offered a possible explanation for why the Canadian theatre is so damn white.

My claim, which I made way too glibly, was that the vast majority of new Canadians from Not-Europe seem more inclined to seek lucrative work in mainstream sectors like finance and technology, for instance, than to hurl themselves down the economic rabbit hole that is the arts. Whether that observation is true or not, it was wrong of me to speak of race-related matters in the flippant, generalized way I did. It was a mistake — lazy, facile, distracting — to approach such a complex issue with quips instead of rigour.

This essay, then, is the product of research and reflection to which I was compelled by my own dissatisfaction with my careless words. It’s an attempt to move past glib politicking, test intuitions with data, examine some of the economic forces at work in the Canadian theatre, and propose a speculative but potentially revolutionary model for change.

 

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