This may seem like the most random title with a view to what’s happening in the world. It’s not – the strong divisions within societies, be it within the American, the British, the European, or in fact any other society with simmering tensions, are a product of “us” denying the reality “they” are proclaiming as correct. And denying vs accepting realities is the most basic principle of improvised theatre. I believe it is high time we started putting that rule more into everyday practice, on- and off stage.
Since the Brexit referendum, much has been written about the “echochamber” we all live in on social media – hearing only the stories and opinions the algorithms have decided will be of interest to you. That is a major threat to social divides, which I believe goes much deeper than social media. Opposing “us” and “them” in public debate and private thinking is the recipe for more serious, if not violent conflicts based on identity.
Improv theatre: the importance of “Yes, and”
In a randomly drafted previous post with an even more random example, I explained what improv theatre is like. In short, it is a form of theatre with no script, no props, and absolutely no rule on what is or is not possible on stage – apart from this one principle: Whatever suggestion someone comes up with, your response is “yes and”. That means you are accepting the reality the other person has established, and you add something to it – the one thing you never ever do in an improv scene is rejecting a piece of reality someone has proposed. That is a hard thing to learn when you start, and it is the one thing that most frequently brings a scene to a deadlock.
Reality is actually an improv theatre scene
What is reality, actually? Philosophical question, but it comes down to whether or not you believe humans have the ability to perceive reality as it is. I believe we don’t. There is a lot of research from social scientists and psychologists suggesting we perceive a very narrow selection of reality, and the judgements and conclusions we make based on that are biased in a number of ways. And even “hard science” like quantum physics is based on the principle that we can never with any certainty measure where a certain particle, or bit of reality, happens to be.
As a consequence, let us say that there is no objective reality everyone can agree on. Of course there are bits of reality that large parts of the population agree on – such as the fact that it is dark at night, though that is only the case because our language calls the time when our part of the world is turned away from the sun “night”.
Everyone has his or her very own version of reality. You don’t have to like another person’s reality, you can – and as, I will a lot in this post – disagree with their view of the world, but that calls for active engagement with it, not for denial.
Denied realities: what went wrong before the Brexit referendum
It won’t be news to you that the months leading up to the UK’s referendum on staying in or leaving the European Union in June were dominated by “facts” and “counterfacts”, with both the leave and the remain campaign accusing one another of tweaking reality as it would befit their aims. Here is a list of some examples – most of these tweaked facts were no outright lies, but big statements that deliberately ignored a connected bit of reality that would make them less convincing.
This picture sparked considerable outrage on the part of the remainers, due to the obvious racism in this picture, and the tweaked representation of the UK’s situation within the European refugee crisis (the country received only 3 % of all asylum applications in the EU in 2015, thus in no way “a flood” or “wave” as the picture suggests). However, while the remainers were perfectly right in pointing this out as factually and ethically wrong, the picture was chosen by the opposing campaign because it struck a chord with a considerable part of the population – yes, some UK citizens did and do actually perceive, or fear, the world to be like this.
Especially when fear is involved – and both the Brexit and the Trump campaign played with people’s fears a lot – it often is not enough to throw some “hard facts” back at people and simply declare them wrong. That is not how you devolve fears. That is rejecting their reality.
Reality to brexit voters was or is very uncertain, worrying, and filled with conflicting predictions for the future. People chose to believe that bit of reality presented to them in tones they could identify with – which, in this case, meant blaming the EU and the immigrants for everything wrong with their situation.
Denied realities: the case of Trump’s election
The all too dirty details of this election campaign have been analysed in more detail elsewhere, so here are a few general points:
- After Bernie Sanders dropped out, the decision was between a continuation of the current government direction and something radically different. That would have meant that people happy in the current American society would vote for Clinton, and people who were unhappy for Trump. Most analysts thought that was not going to happen because the change Trump proposed was frightening from a liberal perspective – persecuting minorities and women, deporting immigrants, breaking international alliances, locking up political opponents. As it turns out, there were enough people unhappy with “the establishment”, as Clinton was painted, and with her assertion that “all was well” to vote for the much riskier alternative. The reality many of them were perceiving, i.e. that all was definitely not well, was ignored by the Clinton campaign.
- Realities of left and right mixed up: People who want radical change away from neoliberalism are typically left-wing. Funny enough, Trump’s opposition to neoliberalism and free trade is prominent, speaking to all the Americans who feel like globalisation benefited only the rich. (Whether or not they actually are disadvantaged by it in pure economic and opportunity terms is another matter – fact is that quite a lot of people, like in Britain, felt left behind). Conversely, as my brilliant friend Isabel put it: “In its support of the repeal of fundamental civil liberties, the erasure of the welfare state, fossil fuel infrastructure, perpetual war, and ruthless imperialism overseas the Democratic Party flies on the right wing, but speaks from the left.”
- Yes, there are a lot of pretty serious racists in America. And sexists, too, probably. Here are some of their opinions made “acceptable” by having a racist as president elect:
- Conversely to what you might think, some minority members actually favoured Trump precisely because of that. “Lay bare the racism, lay bare the arrogance, lay bare the lies and the brutalities. Face yourselves, see yourselves, and then maybe, maybe, things will change…” – they felt like there was a darker reality of the US, that needed to be exposed, not hidden beneath another “acceptable” face of a President.
Why does this stuff matter ?
Precisely because of the tweets I reposted above. This is serious. This is dangerous. For millions of people both outside and inside America who are not white, straight men.
Both Brexit and Trump were popular votes in which a majority of voters expressed their frustration with having their reality rejected, constantly. Both of these votes are likely to have negative (to say the least) consequences for both the people who voted and who didn’t. What will come out of the Brexit negotiations is actually unlikely to solve the issues thrown up by the referendum campaign, they may find that “taking back control” meant giving control to a government that still rejects their reality and serves its own class. What will happen under Trump is a mystery, but it is unlikely to bring about better life chances for those who did not think all was well this year.
We have to accept the underlying realities that motivated people to vote this way (just to clarify, “accept” means acknowledging that it is “real” or “natural” for some people, not accepting their views as right) – and that means, on the one hand, accepting that politicians of most if not all parties have done a bad job at taking people’s views into account, and finding ways to deal with the underlying problems.
On the other hand, it means accepting that racism and xenophobia is the correct way to view the world for some people, that sexism is for others, and homophobia, too. That calls for questions – how did these people acquire these realities, since no one is born racist? How did these people come to find belittling women and hating homosexuals appropriate? The answers will likely point to stereotypes well established in society – something you grow up with and don’t question. There are ways we can work with this, combat racism where we do and don’t see it. They are not perfect, but it has never been so important to start.
The one thing which will be counterproductive, though a natural reaction, is simply calling everyone with a different reality “stupid”, “bigots”, and turning away. The one thing we shouldn’t do is rejecting the realities that led people to vote for things we disagree with, as ugly as these realities may be.