Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Conversation: Motives

99seats, who I sometimes disagree with but always appreciate listening to, has a post up about the quality of conversation in the theaterblogosphere, which mainly has to do with motives. Money quote:
When Theresa Rebeck writes about the lack of solid structure she sees in young playwrights, the conversation revolves around how it's really about why her plays aren't being well-received or something. When Roland Tec(o) accuses the O'Neill of being a rigged game, it's really about jealousy and sour grapes. When the O'Neill responds, it's really about covering their ass. When I write about the representation of black playwrights, it's really just a plea for more attention. Everyone's motives are questionable and we basically believe the absolute worst of each other. I'd say it's just out here in the blogosphere, but we all know how it is when we meet in the lobby, at the bar after the show, three blocks away from the theatre. (And that's even more gossip, isn't it?) The default is to not take anyone at face value. How do we build communities like that?
The conversation sparked by that piece was responded to by Isaac Butler here (basically, that the motives he's suspicious of are the motives of successful people, and usually he's not a suspicious guy) and by Spencer Ackerman here, who asks:

Would I have opened both barrels on a piece like that if a friend of mine hadn’t written it?

Well, in all honesty, probably, yeah. But that shouldn’t make me beat up on my friend. It should give me pause for when I go all-out on people who aren’t my friend. There should be one rigorous standard — no euphemism, no pulled punches, no intellectual sloppiness, but no unfairness either. Doesn’t mean I have to treat bad-faith arguments as good-faith ones, nor does it mean this blog can’t have fun. It certainly doesn’t mean this blog can’t have friends.

This is another reason I've not been happy about David Cote's "call to arms" for us to engage and enrage. When I look back at the blogosphere as I've been reading it, I haven't seen a reluctance for theater bloggers to spat over the things they feel like spatting over. I've seen all sorts of aspersions cast on the motives or standing of other bloggers--the insults I've seen thrown from Leonard Jacobs towards Isaac Butler or from just about anybody towards George Hunka haven't, in my opinion, served the conversation of theater much at all.

For me, it seems unproductive to question's people's motives when they make statements. For instance, in the example 99seats uses, Theresea Rebeck may be making her comments on the structure of plays because this is her personal belief, or because of her stature as a playwright. Does it matter? When it all boils down to it, even if she has the most corrupt reasoning in the world, if we can't dispute her points on their own weaknesses, then she is correct. If we can't find a cogent and persuasive counter-argument to her points about the structure of plays, then she is correct. If we can, then perhaps she is not. That's the "one rigorous standard" that Ackerman should be applying. That's something we can say to friends, right? "I love you, I respect you, but that last argument you just made has some faults in it."

This is one of the reasons the health-care debate has gone so awry. The Republicans are not debating the plan on its merits. They're simply railing about the "motives" behind the Obama administration. Why? Because it's so much easier! They don't have to make any substantive claims, or battle the Democrats in a forum where winning or losing is left up to the audience. They want to control the debate, so they aim for motives.

Now, I'm not saying we need to pretend that there are no motives. After all, sometimes motives can be part of the argument--if someone is interested in making profit and therefore their prescription for theater is profit-based, and you think that the prescription for theater shouldn't be profit based, then that's a legitimate debate about motives. It's very important to know what people's motives and biases are, as best as you can read them. That's why, for instance, I personally would prefer 99Seats not to be an anonymous blogger (although I can understand why he feels it to be necessary). It would help me understand where he's coming from.

But any argument can be reduced to its motives. If we didn't have motives, why would we speak? The argument itself, however, stands on its own. You can either engage it or ignore it. To fall back to character attacks rather than tackling the argument as put forward itself is not helpful. Liberals failed when they characterized Cheney as evil. When they stick to the rule of law, the systemic demonstration of how and where the law was violated, they can succeed.

In our own private domain, do we weigh other people's opinions based on our perspective on their motives? Sure. When I see a Ben Brantley review of a Richard Foreman piece, I can't help but think that he wants to feel "cool" and "with it" without really understanding the substance of the show at all, and when I see him cooing over a Broadway starlet I roll my eyes. But I still do read his reviews, because in context of his biases I do still often get something out of what he's saying. In fact, that's the power of Critic-o-meter, is that I can get a spread of different biases and imperfect reviews, get a senses to where they disagree and agree, and get a whole opinion.

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