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The Unkindness of Strangers

Thomas Hobbes, you should be alive to see this (Georgios Kollidas/Shutterstock)

Whatever you do, if you find yourself at the theater in the vicinity of Dominique Morriseau, stay far away, or you may be at risk for physical assault. The black playwright tells the tale of how she nearly slapped a fellow theatergoer, and why this is a crisis for the American theatre.

Morriseau found herself in New York and wanting to go see an Off Broadway play. But she didn’t have a ticket, and couldn’t afford one. An elderly white woman going to see the play with her black husband gave Morriseau some tickets, and told her not to pop her gum. Morriseau wasn’t chewing gum at the time.

Then, during the performance, the old lady asked Morriseau to settle down in her seat and quit making so much noise. That was the last straw. Morriseau writes:

Now I know some readers will think: They were just a little socially inept, maybe even crazy. Write it off as a random moment of one crazy person and let’s keep moving. Let’s not indict theatre and the theatre community as a whole, or, even greater, all of society, for the actions of one rude woman. And of course it wasn’t about race, because her husband was black.

Well, yeah, that’s what I think. The old woman sounds codgery. It’s New York City, for crying out loud! Old people can be prickly codgers. When I was a movie reviewers in south Florida, which might as well be the sixth borough, I had to develop tolerance for grumpy old New York and New Jersey expats at the movie theater. It was part of life there.

Anyway, the old lady gave Morriseau free theater tickets. That doesn’t give her a right to be rude, certainly, but this cannot be the first time Morriseau has had to deal with crotchety old folks. Chalk that one up to “people are weird,” yes?

No. Morriseau tells us why we have no right to shrug this episode off:

But we fail to understand the multiple layers of white privilege, elitism, and entitlement when we make such bland rebuttals. We fail to understand that this isn’t only one incident. This is part of an elitist and supremacist culture. But more on that in a minute.

Morriseau recounts how the rest of the evening went from bad to worse. After the show, when the old lady overheard Morriseau griping to her (Morriseau’s) friends about her, she confronted Morriseau — who says she had to restrain herself from physically assaulting the elderly woman, who is an example of the “white privilege and elitism problem” in the American theatre. More Morriseau:

There is an environment that is fostering this kind of behavior. Our collective institutions—artistic staff, marketing departments, etc.—are placating the older white audiences, and are afraid to challenge them, or even educate them. We take their donor money and put them on boards, and we brush their microaggressions off as our old grandma or grandpa who might be a little racist and elitist but are otherwise harmless.

To that I ask: harmless to whom? I am telling you it is not harmless. It is harmful. It further marginalizes audiences of color and tells them they are not fully welcome in the theatre, except by permission of the white audience. It tells the upper-middle-class white audience that theatre is their home first and the rest of us are just guests.

Kluckers Off Broadway! Read the whole thing. Dang, but drama queen Morriseau is a piece of work, making a federal case out of something very minor. What a brittle, unpleasant person she must be.

Note that attendance at the theatre continues to decline, so actors and playwrights can’t exactly afford to be so thin-skinned with patrons — not the people who buy tickets to their shows, nor those who donate money to their perpetually underfunded theatrical organizations. Good luck with that, Dominique Morriseau, spiting the people who keep the theatre financially viable, for not being willing to sit there and have you harass and insult “challenge them, or even educate them.”

So that’s what Dominique Morriseau has done for peace, understanding, and reconciliation this week.

Outside of the rarified world of the arts, and on college campuses, do these kinds of things happen? In my part of the world, black folks and white folks deal with each other every day, without incident. Same deal with old folks and young folks. People seem to be willing to give each other more grace, more room for error. More leeway to be fallible — which is to say, human — without it becoming a culture-war casus belli.

Maybe I just live in a nicer place than many others do, but it makes more sense to think that this kind of hypervigilance about microaggressions is a phenomenon of the educated elite (of all races). Seems to me that you have to be educated into thinking that being a b*tch to a difficult old lady who had given you theater tickets is an act of public virtue. Seems to me that you have to be cultured into thinking that every act of rubbing up against the broken humanity of others, no matter how minor, gives reason to fuel rage against them, and against society. Seems to me that it takes an advanced kind of viciousness to elevate quickness to anger and the robustness of hate to the level of righteousness.

Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Any of us? I can believe our elites do. Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for an angry, despairing book in which he denies that blacks and whites can ever live in peace and justice. In the book, he tells the story of blowing up at an old white woman coming out of a movie theater in New York City, who asked his little boy to move out of her way on the escalator  pushed his little boy coming off the escalator. (I corrected this after a reader pointed out that it was not a request, but a push; I went back to the text and this is true. We don’t know if it was a shove or a nudge or what, but I agree that any responsible parent would remonstrate with someone who pushed his kid. The question is whether or not the incident justified a massive blow-up; according to TNC’s book, this was an example of a white person trying to dominate a black body, hence his rage). This so-called “microaggression” — which most people would call “the condition of being a pushy old lady in Manhattan” — occasioned TNC causing a massive scene in the theater, in the face of which a patron threatened to call the police. He recounts this story as an example of injustice, and how white supremacist society might have called in cops, which might have done terrible things to him. That kind of mindset is what wins National Book Awards and fulsome praise from the cultural establishment these days.

Fine. But I don’t want to live in a world like that, and I will avoid every opportunity to interact with people of any race, or either gender, who are eager to be offended, and who believe that that’s how you treat people. A world like that is, in fact, unlivable. Thomas Hobbes held that the state of nature is “a war of all against all.” Our most civilized (theoretically) citizens are advancing our society back to the Hobbesian state of nature, and calling it progress.

A reader writes to tell me that a top leader in one of the universities that has been at the center of national controversy this fall is telling friends that she’s leaving the university and academia entirely, because the atmosphere is too poisonous to work in these days. I’m not going to say who the person is or which university it is because it’s not yet public. “Another gifted academic abandons academia,” says the reader in his e-mail.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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