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An Equitable Model of the Commons: A Response to Carmen Aguirre's Video Essay on Cancel Culture

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

I struggle to say I’m a marginalized artist when I’ve had a string of abundant work experiences in the theatre in a time when many have faced substantial setbacks. But I do come from marginalized experiences, that is undeniable. It is exactly because of the deliberate equitable efforts in our theatre community that I have found some momentum. It’s not to minimize my hard work or discipline, but if there wasn’t an intentional effort toward centering my marginalization, no amount of hard work or discipline would have lined up with opportunities. I know this in part because no two people worked harder than my parents with so little reciprocation – and they’re a fairly standard experience of racialization in this country. I was lucky to be in my 20s and gay and Arab and in Canada in the 2010s. But any modicum of success I’ve achieved is not the point.

And that’s exactly my point in writing this, Carmen.

My singular momentum is not the momentum I am after. As you say, my activism is inextricably tied to my art. And what spurs my activism is a self aware naivety that is unwavering and unflinching in its dream of transforming the world to a better place for all of us.

Surely, you must believe this too.

You made it, but don’t forget who didn’t.

While your essay is commissioned by Push International Performance Arts Festival…mine is literally on a blog that has two subscribers.

And of course, I don’t actually believe you’ve forgotten everyone else in such a declarative way. I see your activism through your work and legacy. But it really hurts when I see the sight of BIPOC elders, who have made it, become opaque to the new ways which activism has evolved.

First off, I need to address the Big-Blog-Post in the room. Why are we afraid of saying Sky Gilbert? I had to re-read Sky’s blog “I’m Afraid of Woke People” to see whether my feelings then were over-enflamed. They weren’t. Further, he had no hesitation of using Vivek Shraya’s name right from the outset.

So this “A.D. who shall not be named” cloud of respect feels like something consistently granted to the powerful and denied to the marginalized.

Let me be clear: “We send them to the right” is a rhetoric and logic that flirts with gas lighting. I don’t think it was your intention. But its impact is most certainly that. Re-read Sky’s post. it makes sense why multiple communities inferred that he was side eyeing the right in that post, and it has very little to do with his “cancelling” that he marched away from the left. Why are we hung up on protecting the emotional safety of those who feel "rejected by the left" but less disturbed by the extreme harm their words cause the targeted marginalized individuals or communities? Please notice that I'm not talking about anyone being "offended." Words extend far beyond offended sensibilities. They have economic, psychological, and physical ramifications. Certainly, there is a defensiveness in activist communities right now around the protection and safety of Trans people and Black and Indigenous people. These also happen to be the most vulnerable groups – we are finite in human resources and we have to delegate our energy toward the most urgent needs. I won’t belabor this point, people from all those experiences can and do advocate for themselves in better ways than I can. Have the courage to hear their calls and prioritize their needs.

But regarding the task at hand: your claims of cancel culture in the commons is unfounded and unfair.

Sky can’t be cancelled. His name is permanently in the records of the Gay and Queer history books of Canadian theatre. He continues to be a comfortably tenured professor at the University of Guelph, his ideas and impacts seeping into the minds of several more generations of scholars and writers if he sees his tenure all the way to retirement. Sky can’t be cancelled because even in the same year his play reading was replaced with a community conversation around the harm that took place (which he declined to join), he was the keynote playwright and his play reading was the main event of a queer theatre festival that took place in Toronto just a few months later.

Sky is sticking around. And since he is, I wish he would be open to the calls of accountability around the harm he caused Trans and BIPOC people by writing what he wrote in his blog (amongst the other things that scaffolded to that watershed moment) – a post that is still up for all to see.

Words are magic.

They cast spells.

If we dilute this fact, then, absolutely, we on the left look like rebels without a cause – a legion of self-righteous morons.

In terms of the Jordan Peterson video coming from a playwright who has literally reaped the benefits of decolonial work with a Metis collaborator, the ignorance can’t be understated. I actually gave it a lot of thought when that video surfaced as it did. I thought, ‘what could compel this young playwright to do something with ramifications that, to me, felt so obvious? It wasn’t as if he posted the video with a caveat, with questions, with a public wrestling of thoughts. It was like he dropped a bomb on the hearts of the Black and Indigenous people who were finally seeing a rhapsody of the awakenings against the police violence which they’ve decried, unsuccessfully, for decades. Now would not have been the time to drop that video and intellectually flex or play the devil’s advocate. All it felt was like a cry against the receding power of white people in a cultural moment asking for accountability.

Your request for a commons where we are openly able to talk about conflicting and contradictory ideas is well founded but misses a vital piece of emotional reality. Those of us emergent in our careers or unable to even begin our careers in the theatre because of supremacy may not have the patience and the wherewithal to talk through the harm in the commons. I don’t need to tell you this – you know we do not all come to the table evenly.

But I actually believe in your sentiment, Carmen. I believe that we should have a place where we are able to intellectually and emotionally reckon with complicated, controversial, and conflicting ideas. Trust me, any of my close friends know that I spend hours poring over Jordan Peterson videos. I follow Fox news, I turn my ears to the likes of Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Candice Owens, and Bret Weinstein. All of them are cultural outcasts of the left. I believe in nuanced and complicated conversations. I don’t like slogans even though I understand they have their political functions. On the flipside of all this, I also spend hours poring over Edward Said, Kimbrele Crenshaw, Brene Brown, Cornel West, Angela Davis, and others who are the rigorous trailblazing thinkers of much of the political movements we are seeing in America and Canada today.

A place for intellectual discussion, an arena to parse through controversial ideas, a space for growth, transformation, and curiosity – those are the values I deeply believe in and embody as an educator. And there is a time and place for those values to take root. Sometimes its in an anti-oppression workshop where we are directly working through these ideas. Sometimes it’s with our homophobic parents or racist relatives around the dinner table. We all pick the domain where we feel prepared to take on these heavy burdens of justifying our humanity to those who purport ideas that lead to harm, erasure, and violence against us.

The commons cannot haphazardly be that place. We need an equitable model of the commons, and by extension, the theatre, to have bold ideas and dignified conflict. But no, not all ideas should run rampant.

Do we need to get to storming the Parliament before we recognize not all ideas are created equally? Do we need to elect a fascist white supremacist leader in order to recognize that unfettered free speech is not free speech at all and that, indeed, the most liberated of speeches is one that is erudite and equipped to fold in the areas of our society that circle the margins – which is to say the area that we are least intuitive in understanding. Unfettered free speech unconsciously prioritizes the center. This privilege is taken for granted.

However, I think there’s another symmetry in our values. And I think we agree with the need of making the commons a place for dignified disagreements. Contemporary theatre can feel predictable and obvious much of the time. My own writing can even feel that way. Dignified disagreements in an equitable commons means we are able to exercise complicated ideas while holding the emotional truths of everyone in the room. What are the words, concepts, and ideas that harm and erase other groups? It’s our task to know those answers and to ensure we don’t reproduce those harms when we enter a dignified disagreement. What a dignified disagreement asks for is deep sensitivity and empathy. Something that both those examples you shared in your essay demonstrated a lack of.

If someone comes to you and tells you (or suggests/implies/amplifies voices that say) that they believe Latinx-Women are subhuman, you are well within your humanity and right to tell them: This is not a conversation I will ever have. And if you do choose to have that conversation, that task is above and beyond your duty as a theatre artist. I, of course, as a gay Arab man, have many of these conversations with people who feel and think dehumanizing things about me.

However, I don’t always.

And I can’t always.

And I shouldn’t always be expected to.

Least of all, when I’m going to my work at the theatre as a director, writer, or actor.

Dignified disagreements and contradictory ideas must be a necessity of theatre. But oppressive disagreements cannot be if we are acting in good faith to overcome legacies of supremacy. The commons have primarily gone to supporting white histories, straight narratives, Euro-centric and Christian logics, sciences, and understandings. We, the eclectic marginalized, have banded together, in our strange differences as far ranging as the gay Palestinian to the disabled and trans black woman, to fight against the suffocating grasps of supremacy.

An equitable commons must maintain a deliberate and intentional effort that centers the dignity of those most marginalized. Will there be mistakes along the way when we translate values into actions? Of course. Should we throw the proverbial equity-baby out with the bathwater? No. A commons that is not equitable in its nature is not a commons at all but only a tool for the powerful to maintain supremacy. But I can understand the seduction of an unregulated public sandbox. An equitable commons is hard and intentional work; it is active, present, and asks a lot of us.

To further this point, let’s take a powerful example from our Jewish kin. In my home province of Alberta, in 1984, there was a case with the public-school system where a teacher instructed his students in holocaust-denial lectures. The teacher was fired and stripped of his license on the basis of hate speech. This story was shared with me alongside my entire class when I was in the second year of my Education degree – a cautionary tale. We decided, in the commons, as embodied by the public-school system, that holocaust denial was a jagged scaffold toward the pernicious dangers of Antisemitism. This hard-won understanding was achieved by unwavering visionaries; Jewish leaders understood that words were magic and phrases cast spells. They enshrined their safety and dignity in law until the culture caught up. Fast forward to 2021, several generations removed from WWII, and in this particular time no less, it feels absolutely ridiculous to deny the atrocities of the holocaust.

Surely, the law is only one barometer of moral adjudication. But just because some things aren’t upheld in law, it doesn’t mean that they are morally acceptable. And even when the political movements of Palestinian liberation or Trans rights begin to move towards our legal systems, we have resistant advocates like Jordan Peterson stunting progress and change. Where do we draw a line?

So, while I advocate for dignified disagreements, I’ll also always advocate to minimize the harms caused by dangerous words and ideas like the ones reasonably inferred from Sky’s blog. I’ll advocate for accountability. Because his words caused transphobic harm much like lectures of holocaust denial cause Anti-Semitic harm. Much like Jordan Peterson’s rhetoric can nurture the mind of a young white terrorist who murders 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. You say, someone can be wrong, that doesn’t make them evil. I think I agree with you that very few people are “evil” or “good” and that sort of binary thinking is not useful in tactful social change. But when the discussion is around moral principles, then yes, “evil” and “good” become useful hermeneutics that we can use to parse out our ideas. We need to hold people accountable for their harmful and oppressive (or “evil”) ideas before they germinate into overt violence. If we get hung up on the words “evil” and “good” then fine, let’s stop using them. My priority is to minimize the harm only.

If we aren’t collectively considering the dignity of all of us, then the commons becomes a misnomer.

An equity model of the commons prioritizes the safety of those most marginalized. Men are welcome, yes. White men are welcome, absolutely. But we need to make space for the emotional truths of our engagement. And I agree with you, we need it on all sides. White men may feel turned off or “afraid of woke people,” and my pragmatic activism tells me I need to hold space for that. But my emotional understanding of how these systems of oppression operate instructs me that this is an unfair use of energy when we have to divert our efforts to white men instead of nurturing the safety, honor, and dignity of those marginalized BY white men.

Perhaps that’s where we can find common ground – if you are willing to take on that work and bridge us together, then let’s begin building. But don’t ask us to dilute our tactics; work with them to lessen their harms.

But even as I write this, I hear “us” and “them” echoing in my mind and I don’t believe, on some core sentimental level, that there is an “us” and “them.” But politically, materially, culturally, there most certainly is. We have to emotionally live in these contradictions yet firmly take action against harms that manifest.

So finally, I’ll advocate that I keep a lot of space for grace and kindness for we will all be in Sky’s position one day, whether its so overtly public or not. This isn’t really about Sky or the inevitable others that will follow in this kind of behavior. What this is really about is the need to be firm in calling for accountability, whether it feels nice or not. But also to hold kindness and grace for all of us as we process substantive changes needed to center the dignity of those most marginalized.

My wish is that you, Carmen, and others like you who are our BIPOC elders, be nimble in your activism. I wish for you to embolden young ideas and ignite our fresh eyes on old problems with courage, fearlessness, and legitimacy. You were the wide eyed, stargazing activists of your generations. What you did to achieve what you achieved took a loud and disruptive tenacity. If the playing field looks even from where you’re standing now, then you’ve forgotten the long shadow of supremacy that looms over the rest of us. And its shadow is even darker in the world that I’m inheriting as a young adult – an overwhelming economic situation where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a select few, a decaying environment in process, and political decline against the ideals of the true tenants of democratic organizing are seizing our geopolitics.

Come, let’s all sit at the table.

Especially those outcasts who have never had a chance.

Let our activism have the vision and tenacity of revolution with the tact and strategy of reformation.

There’s a wisdom in all of us.

Thank you for starting this conversation.

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