My research lead me to the NT Archive a couple of weeks ago to watch Platform events with DV8’s artistic director Llyod Newson on the topic of religion, free speech, homosexuality, and the limits of tolerance. These were in relation to DV8’s verbatim shows To Be Straight With You (2008) and Can We Talk About This? (2012).What I discovered has opened a bit of a can of worms in terms of my understanding of Newson’s politics, specifically his association with the Academy of Ideas.
There’s a bigger cultural discourse to these shows that I hadn’t considered before regarding a kind of ‘muscular liberalism’ that started to become fashionable in the post 7/7 period. This was expressed most vociferously in the context of new atheism, with figures such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens publishing extremely successful books on the dangers religion posed to democracy after 9/11. Harris was particularly explicit in his condemnation of Islam (not just jihadism). I’ll explore the importance of new atheism in the free speech crisis discourse in a future post. Suffice to say for now that the arguments during the DV8 Platform events have a contiguous political and intellectual relationship.
Can We Talk About This? was a verbatim performance looking at what Newson called the ‘landmarks’ over the previous two decades that signalled threats to freedom of speech from within and about the Islamic community. Starting with the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989, the performance argued that multiculturalism had prevented necessary criticisms of Islam from being voiced for fear of being branded racist. Islam was framed as distinctly other; a religion and way of life that sat outside of the liberal mainstream.
The abstraction of a set of religious beliefs and practices from Muslims themselves felt problematic at the time I saw it but I couldn’t put my finger on why. The war on terror discourse had become less prominent by 2012 and so it didn’t feel as much of a live issue as it did in the previous decade. Of course, as a non-Muslim I could say this and be oblivious to the state persecution and racism Muslisms endure daily beyond the what Stuart Halls calls the ‘panopticalist eye’ of universal liberalism. Looking back I can see that the discourse had shape-shifted into a cultural context as opposed to a geo-political one.
Can We Talk About This? is an excellent example of an artwork that articulates a yearning for a confident and robust defence of universalism and pluralism. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that DV8 felt able to align their work with an obstenstively majoritarian politics when this was the period that gay marriage carried enormous public support. The fact that gay marriage became law under a Tory lead government two years after the production perpetuated the narrative that gay rights had transcended traditional partisan divides and had become a foundational principle for all of the main political parties.
Lloyd Newson was thus able, with some justification, to position gay people as members of the ‘insider’ British community in the platform events. Islam in Can We Talk About This? is positioned very much on the outside for it’s hostility to liberal modernity. Free speech is a surrogate idea in the performance for articulating a settled and uncontestable set of principles that maintain a tolerant society. It’s a frustrating piece because of it’s insistence that issues such as gay rights are settled, that we have, in effect, reached the limits of tolerance. No-where in the performance is liberalism, as a political philosophy, questioned or challenged. Nor was there a recognition that not everyone has equal access to the public square to practice liberal conceptions of legitimate free speech.