The Tension of Speech

userpic=soapboxHere are two situations for you to think about:

  • Arts Integrity Fires Bitter Lemons: «LA Bitter Lemons, an outspoken Los Angeles theatre site which Arts Integrity’s director challenged over its pay for review strategy about a year ago, has posted a short piece by editor Colin Mitchell which seems, in essence, to “blame the victims” of Profiles for not speaking up sooner. Read it if you must, but given this manner of engaging with a serious problem at one theatre that, unfortunately, is likely happening at other theatres and in the arts at large, Arts Integrity believes Bitter Lemons has gone from bitter to vile, and will no longer give further consideration to writing that appears on the site again.» [Note that since Colin Mitchell’s piece has been posted, Colin has been fired as Editor-in-Chief by Publisher Enci Box, who has apparently assumed editorial function; Colin still seems to be part owner of the site, as no statement has been made to the contrary.]
  • Donald Trump Revokes Press Credentials from the Washington Post. «Donald Trump announced on Facebook yesterday that he would rescind The Washington Post’s press credentials. Reporters from the paper will no longer be able to cover his campaign events in person.» Essentially, the Washington Post has been barred from Trump events because they made comments pointing out where Trumps statements were in error or had unsubstantiated accusations.

In the first situation, the community wants to tar-and-feather an entire site because its editor said something very controversial. You see few speaking up for the site’s right to publish, and even fewer (if any) speaking up for the clown that made the offensive statement. In the second, you have people up in arms about the revocation of the “press credentials”, arguing that the paper should be able to say what it wants. As for me, I see hypocrisy if one is acceptable and the other isn’t. (In case you can’t figure it out, I don’t like either)

Now, I’m not defending at all what Colin said. But I do defend his right to say it. Just as the ACLU was right in defending Nazis when they wanted to march. A hazard of our rights to have free speech in this country is that sometimes there is uncomfortable and painful speech we have to hear. About the only good thing about such speech, indeed, is that it is out in the open and you can identify who is saying it. That same freedom of speech permits those who think the speaker is wrong to pummel them for it, to point out the errors of their ways, in hopes that reason will prevail and they will learn and change (of course, we tend not to accept that change when we see it, but that’s a different rant — just consider, if Colin were to apologize today, and indicate that the comments had made him see the error of his ways — would the community accept it?).

It is also perfectly acceptable for a press outlet, such as Bitter Lemons, to fire a columnist if their speech does not fit within what the site considers the bounds of their editorial position (or what their advertisers will accept, more often, alas). Freedom of speech does not mean I have to publish what you say, only that you have the right to publish it somewhere. Presumably, Colin is free to go to WordPress.Com and create a free blog of his own for anyone to read. [That’s what I’ve done, although I’m self-hosting.]

What bothers me more is that people are tarring-and-feathering the Bitter Lemons site just because of Colin, just like Trump is revoking the credentials of the Washington Post because he doesn’t like that reporter. Enci, as Publisher, has removed Colin from his editorial role (and presumably other roles, except perhaps ownership). Enci has stated she wants the site to have a new direction, working with the community. We should be giving her the benefit of the doubt, and helping her to right the ship. Independent of Colin’s missteps, the Lemon has been a good site for the community: aggregating reviews, getting commentary out there, getting news out there, supporting the publicity efforts of the community when the large print media has been pulling away. We can’t — and we shouldn’t — throw away that good because of the bad editor. Let Enci restaff, refocus, and rebuild. Further, let’s help her distance herself from the Colin era so we can make the community stronger.

We need to be very careful here: In the Chicago incident, people were afraid to speak up because of the reaction it would engender. We need to let people know that it is OK to express an opinion that differs with the community, that might be controversial, that might be shining light in an area where the cockroaches scurry. Hell — we’ve seen Colin do just that with some of the unethical producers in this city. That means, sometimes, we will hear an opinion that we don’t like. But that risk must be there, if we are to have the freedom. Freedom exists in a world of tension. We’ve seen that with the tension between the right to be safe and the right to keep information private. There’s a similar tension with the press. We need to be careful, even as we may tune out a specific speaker, that we don’t eliminate their right to say something in the process, or create collateral damage on those who simply were the conduit.

As a PS, for those talking about integrity and bringing up the integrity of accepting money for reviews. I’m an audience member — not in any way connected with the theatre save plunking my money down at the box office, and sharing my opinion afterwards. I work in an industry that hammers the importance of ethics, and the risk of the appearance of unethical behavior into us. We cannot accept anything from a supplier more than a donut.* I have had theatres offer me comp tickets as a reviewer, and I refuse them for that reason. I will pay what I would pay on Goldstar. So with respect to reviewers, as long as they are accepting free tickets, they are as tainted as money directly going through the site to their pocketbooks. You want integrity in reviewers? Create a site where the reviewers are paid through crowdfunding, donations, and subscriptions (in the model of Consumer Reports), and they are assigned to review shows… and to pay for their tickets like any other audience member. Then I’ll believe the integrity of their reviews. Otherwise, just let me know, for each reviewer, what form of bribe they accepted — comp tickets to pay-to-review — and I’ll judge based on their track record whether I agree with their reviews. Oh, and yes I understand it is “tradition”. That doesn’t make it right.
*: Link is an example, not the organization I support.