COMMENT: The outcome of The Colour Purple is a cause for relief for the arts – but we must not allow the organisation behind this to make it into their victory.
I never seriously expected this court case to go any other way, but I’m thankful Leicester Curve won and Seyi Omooba lost. To an outside observer not familiar with the story, you might be forgiven for thinking for believing this was a case about religious discrimination. If it had been that, I would have been on her side. It was not. This was about the right for religious people do engage in whatever form of discrimination they choose just as long as their preferred brand of bigotry is mandated by their religion. Had she won, the precedent would have been catastrophic, not just for the arts, but everywhere. Thanks goodness she didn’t get her way.
And, inevitably, the arts world is making her into a pariah, not that I blame people for feeling that way too much. I’m staying out of the dogpile because I don’t kick artists when they’re down. Seyi Omooba’s career in the arts is almost certainly finished – who’s going to want to employ someone who pulls that sort of stunt? – but I still find career-gravedancing distasteful. Even if she brought it on herself. Even if there was no option but to end her career this way. They other reason I’m not joining in is that I’m uncomfortable with the arts world’s habit of making pariahs out of individuals. Especially here. Seyi Omooba is, at best, an expendable footsoldier, and at worst, a brainwashed victim. The real enemy is the organisation who put her up to this, Christian Concern, and if we do not realise that now, we will regret it later.
This could have been a very different legal battle. This all started of from someone digging into an actor’s social media posts and unearthing an off-colour remark; the motives of that remain questionable, especially the swift insinuation that she should be sacked from a job she was offered. There are a lot of things that should be considered in this kind of situation: the context in which the remarks were made, the intent of the person making the post, what the comment actually said, how relevant this is to the job in question (the play in question didn’t help her case here), whether sacking is proportionate, I could go on. But context, intent, accuracy, relevance and proportionality get little or no consideration in online dogpiles. It is not inconceivable that Leicester Curve or another theatre would claim “reputational damage” as enough to justify termination. It might have been path of least resistance, or the motives might have been maintaining their ideological purity, but all sorts of insidious practices could be packaged as a commercial decision. In a different timeline, this might have been a landmark legal fight over cancel culture. Depending on the details, I might even have backed her up.
But instead, she opted to pick a fight about religious discrimination. It was not immediately clear what grounds she was fighting. Sacking her because she was a Christian would have been wrong (and I say this as someone who’s outright hostile to religion most of the time). Even sacking her for being a member of a Christian sect known for homophobic views would have been wrong. I suppose that Leicester Curve might have had a case that it was untenable to have someone exposed for homophobic views in a play supposed to preach the opposite – I doubt that argument would have worked for her agent dropping her. However, none of those were the case. It turned out Leicester Curve tried to keep both sides happy, but Omooba wouldn’t have it. The deal-breaker, it seems, was that she refused to interpret the character she was playing as a lesbian. Even if you ignore the welfare of the other actors and all the other accompanying moral arguments, refusing to play a character the way the writer and directed intended rendered her unable to do her job. She didn’t have a leg a stand on. She might as well have demanded to play Velma Kelly as starlet wrongly framed for murder, or Cruella de Vil as a fashion-conscious dog-lover.
I didn’t dare say this in advance of the verdict in case I was wrong, but it now looks like the verdict was a foregone conclusion. No sane person could have gone in with that case with a hope in hell of winning. Either she was delusional enough to believe people would agree she was in the right, or she was willing a sacrifice her career to prove a point. But why? Either way, you don’t need to look far to get an answer. She was backed by “Christian Concern”, and advocacy organisation that claims it’s hard to be a Christian in the UK and protect their freedoms. It might be tempting to scoff and lump this in with all the people in comfortable lives who claim to be oppressed, but they’re much much worse than that. Their sole idea of freedom for Christians is the freedom to deny everybody else their freedoms. The right to go to church and pray and live your life how you want isn’t good enough – as long as the rest of us, mostly people who do not share their views, are allowed to have a same-sex partner, have an abortion, undergo gender reassignment, or openly follow a different religion, or no religion at all, we are infringing on their rights to dictate moral codes to us. Their ideology is just vile; it seems (well it’s bleeding obvious) their real problem is Leicester Curve saying it’s okay if you’re gay.
Not everyone is accepting this as a defence of Omooba, and they say that she knew what she was doing. The reason I don’t follow suit is the same outlook I have for any cult: by default, I see the members as victims and the ringleaders as perpetrators. And sorry, but Christian Concern is a cult; I’ve witness evangelical Christianity in action enough to brand them are just as cultish as Scientology. They try to control who their members associate with, direct them to give them money and recruit more members, target the emotionally vulnerable, redefine morality as agreeing with everything they say, brand everyone who disagrees as evil, gaslight their followers to block any thoughts of doubt, and blame everything bad that happens on their members and/or outsiders and never themselves. However, without direct access to the thoughts in her head, we don’t know if she’s a wholehearted collaborator or just a disposable asset; we might have a better in a few years’ time depending on whether she becomes one of Christian Concern’s own ringleaders or becomes destitute.
But either outcome is bad. If she did know exactly what she was doing, she has a career made for life as a professional martyr. She can, if she wishes, peddle whatever bile she likes, all under the pretext that she’s standing up from the rights of persecuted Christians against a world that won’t let them say what they think. And that pretext can earn plenty of money from suckers who think she’s fighting for their freedom. On the other hands, if her use to Christian Concern is spent and she is discarded and lives the rest of her life in poverty, Christian Concern will make her a poster victim and their role in her hardship will be glossed over. And that pretext can earn plenty of money from suckers who think Christian Concern is fighting for their freedom. Again. It’s not clear what Omooba’s end-game is (if she has one at all), but it’s a win-win situation for her backers.
And make no mistake, they are going to be pushing the victim narrative hard. You only have to look at their own page (archive) to see how they’re spinning it. You remember my brief mention at the beginning how this might have been legal fight over cancel culture but wasn’t? Read that and you’d think it still was, those horrid secularists destroying innocent woman’s life over a harmless post she made on Facebook four years ago. (The anti-gay sentiments and her refusal to do the job she was hired for, of course, don’t get a mention.) And the more people gleefully celebrate her downfall and brand her the devil incarnate, the more Christian Concern get to spin it as them being the victims. Don’t give them any more excuses than they have already.
I’m not asking you to rehabilitate Seyi Omooba back into the arts. If she is brainwashed, she’s a lost cause, beyond the help of me or anyone else – and besides, with the acting profession in crisis, I can think of a lot of people whose careers I’d rather save. But please to not make this important victory personal in the courts personal. No gloating. Even if you think she deserves it. Seyi Omooba is a spent force and is no further threat to anybody in the arts. But Christian Concern is not a spent force and they are at the forefront of the fight to re-brand prejudice as faith. That is a threat to all sorts of people inside and outside the arts.
One of the primary reasons the arts rallied around Leicester curve was to preserve the safety of LGBT people there. In that case, don’t make the mistake of stopping now. Forget Omooba, go after her backers. Call Christian Concern out for their bullshit. Make it clear they’re not about rights for Christians, only taking rights away from everyone else. Make the point that everything bad that’s happened to her is on them. Make the point that Christian Concern is no friend of anyone who cares about freedoms, religious or otherwise. Today the arts won a battle; please don’t let this lead to the bigots winning the war.
Postscript: Not that relevant to the discussion at hand, but one interesting factoid from Mark Shenton’s coverage: Alice Walker doesn’t look like the most savoury character either. As pointed out by David Baddiel via Nick Cohen via Shenton (and this seems unrelated to the Omooba v Curve tribunal), the writer of the goddam play has some “interesting” views on Jews. We have rock-bottom expectations of Omooba, but at least she didn’t write this:
Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
(There’s always the possibility this has been taken out of context, but so far, Alice Walker has not commented. She also appears to be pally with notorious anti-Semitic nutjob David Icke, which I don’t believe is a coincidence And apparently she won’t allow The Colour Purple to be published in Hebrew.)
That doesn’t mean we should cancel The Colour Purple. I am a great believer in separating the art from the artists, and I see no reason why endorsement of a story written in 1982 must mean endorsement views expressed by the author 30 years later, however repugnant. But having fought a two-year battle to preserve the integrity of a tale praised for its message of tolerance, it’s a little dispiriting to discover the author is just as much of an intolerant arsewipe as the person who sparked off this current controversy.
Not sure what the moral of that is, except that the people you admire the most always turn out to be crushing disappointments and massive hypocrites and utter bigots. And on that cheery note, good night.