COMMENT: The Rare Earth Mettle debacle exposed that the Royal Court did not take complaints of anti-Semitism seriously – but there’s little reason to believe any other theatre would have behaved any better.
A common mistake made by theatres in the regions is to obsess over the latest drama hitting a London Theatre. Nine times out of ten, it’s a local issue of little consequence elsewhere in the country – or at least not as bad as more serious issues on your doorstep your local theatres are ignoring *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough*. If this uproar over the naming of a character at the Royal Court was only a London issue, I would quite happily have left it to Londoners to argue over. However, this one I believe goes deeper than a local row. I am in agreement with the majority of people that the Royal Court has screwed up big-time, but I’m not convinced it’s wise to single out one theatre here. I fear this is a symptom of an endemic nationwide problem.
So, for those who need to catch up, this is all about a play at the Royal Court satirising billionaire, master bullshitter and possible Bond villain-in-waiting Elon Musk. Now, I could put a lot of energy into why Hyperloop and all his other miracle transport solutions are bollocks, but that’s a different story completely and not for a theatre blog. Everyone was fine with this play until the name of character based on Musk was announced: Hershel Fink. Cue outrage from all Jews in London (pretty much) for stoking stereotypes. The Royal Court apologised and agreed to rename the character to Henry Finn, which might have settled things down had they not attempted to blame their mistake on “unconscious bias”. Then a Sunday Times article (£) came out that suggested this concern had previously been raised and ignored, prompting a second statement promising to reflect further. It could have been worse, but boy, what a fiasco.
[Footnote: There is also a side argument going on over the involvement of Sour Lemons, who are supposed to be in a two-year anti-racism partnership. They say that name was nothing to do with them and have published a response here. I could talk about this in more detail, but that’s too much of a distraction. Bottom line is that the Royal Court remains responsible for what happened on its watch.]
I usually start controversy articles with “What we know”, but that’s about all there is to it. Let’s go straight into the obvious analysis of what’s wrong with this, before going into the less clear subject of who’s to blame (spoiler: everybody is).
What the Royal Court got wrong
To understand what went wrong and how to put it right, it is important to understand the oft-misunderstood concept of institutional racism. A common misunderstanding is that this means that the managers are racist, or a majority of staff are racist, or racist instructions are given down the management chain. It does not have to be any of these things. All you need for institutional racism to exist is a minority of people committing racial discrimination – and the rest of the organisation to allow it to continue unchecked. There are very good reasons to do it this way. Proving racial discrimination happened at a company’s behest is difficult, but it’s much harder to get away with it if the company is obliged to take complaints seriously.
I should say at this point that this is not the first anti-Semitism incident to engulf the Royal Court, but the most controversial incidents go back years or decades, beyond the time of the current leadership. I will return to the Royal Court’s past another time. (In the meantime, for a less generous assessment, look here.) For the time being, I am concentrating on Hershel Fink and nothing else. It’s not that Rare Earth Mettle is a smoking gun that exposes the whole theatre as institutionally racist, but it is a black mark this raises serious questions about their internal culture.
First of all, the question I always ask: what harm has this done? I’ve long maintained that offence alone is never a valid reason for censorship, but this goes way beyond offence. In case you haven’t been paying attention, insinuations that Jews run the world and are secretly responsible for all the all the evil in the world have been rife lately – and if you really haven’t been paying attention, that led to quite a lot of harm being done 80 years ago. Intention doesn’t matter here – stuff like this entrenches and legitimises these prejudices no matter what. Now, I have heard complaints that a name change isn’t good enough and there’s more anti-Semitic references within the play. However, Elon Musk’s notoriety as a power-hungry megalomaniac long predates this play, and without reading the script myself, it’s impossible to tell whether this is simply anti-Musk commentary coming across as anti-Jewish because of the original name, or something more.
However, whilst lack of racist intent doesn’t stop a racist message, it’s still a defence for the people involved. I’ll be completely honest here and say that I wouldn’t have realised this was a problem had I not been told the origin of the name. I am well aware of the problems of insinuating Jews secretly run the world, but, hey, not everyone’s clued up over that. Without direct access to the minds of Al Smith, Hamish Prie, Arthur Davrill or Vicky Featherstone, it’s impossible to tell whether this was driven by an unlucky coincidence, ignorance, or a deliberate dog-whistle. On an individual level, it’s innocent until proven guilty.
But there are serious failings at a collective level. If it was a small fringe theatre groups who did this, I would urge people to let it go – people make mistakes, they’ve apologised and put it right, move on. But we are talking about a major producing theatre. The first obvious question is how on earth an organisation the size of the Royal Court could have failed to notice something this basic. One would have thought that if a Muslim-sounding name or Chinese-sounding name or anything-sounding name was chosen, somebody would notice and question what message it gives – so why can’t the same courtesy be offered to Jewish-sounding names? The second question is more serious: a concern was raised, so why was it not properly acted upon? And why was this failing glossed over when the issue first went public?
The “unconscious bias” comment was probably only an ill-advised off-the-cuff remark, but it certainly didn’t help things. For a start, I’m afraid to say there’s a possibility that the bias was very much conscious. Or it might not, but to put it down to “unconscious bias” without investigation is at best naive, at worst arrogant. More generally, I have is my distrust of these broad-brush phrases. One problem with phrases such as these that is an accusation you can bandy about to anyone that’s impossible to disprove. The other problem is that I suspect this is used as a get-out clause by the real offenders. Just as the vague term “misogynistic society” is frequently used by men outed as sex pests to tell themselves that all men are like this, the term “unconscious bias” is to me an excuse for the actual racists to say “It’s not my fault, it’s the fault of white people in general”. Sorry, Royal Court, if we find out that anyone in your payroll knowingly waved this piece of casual racism through and you thought it wasn’t a problem, I will have no intention of letting you get off that lightly.
There is one thing I will say to the Royal Court’s credit – they did at least listen to public complaints and act on it. I say it begrudgingly, because that is the absolute bare minimum standard of behaviour. The only reason I am giving credit is that a lot of people don’t even live up to that pitifully low expectation. Again, in case you haven’t been paying attention, a lot of people think it is acceptable to dismiss complaints out of hand and accuse (almost always with no evidence) the complainants of bad faith. In fact, it has been astonishingly commonplace to literally claim the complaints are part of a Jewish conspiracy – the irony is not lost on me. So, yes, the Royal Court’s response could have been worse, but only because some people sink far far lower that you can imagine.
But is it entirely the Royal Court’s fault? Are they really a single bad apple in a sea of otherwise proudly anti-racist theatres? I’m sorry, but I don’t believe other theatres would have behaved any better. Here’s why.
What theatre is collectively getting wrong
Now, I could be a lot more confrontational about this issue if I wanted to. A lot of people seem to revel in coming to the worst possible conclusion about somebody’s action/inaction. But I’ve always believed that it normally is better to nudge people in the right direction. The best thing an organisation can do is admit its shortcomings, apologise, and put things right. Failing that, the next best thing they can do is pretend they have no shortcomings to apologise for but quietly put things right anyway. Public vilification should be reserved for hardcore racists beyond redemption. However, I’ve been dropping hints for years now, and subtle hints, strong hints and obvious hints are all not working, so it’s time to say this straight: out of all the mainstream theatres I know, I don’t trust any of them to take anti-Semitism seriously.
It’s important to handle this fairly. I don’t subscribe to the theory that organisations are duty-bound to campaign on certain issues, or that failure to condemn X means you’re okay with it. And in the case of sexism, racism, homophobia or loads of other things, you don’t need to say they’re bad every five minutes – that goes without saying. Theatres are performing arts organisations and not campaigning organisations. If they wish to do that as well, that’s fine, but that’s their choice and sticking to theatre does not make you a bad person. The only obligation theatres have, like every organisation, is to take responsibility for what happens within their organisations on their watch.
The problem is, most theatres have rejected this viewpoint. Ever since the murder of George Floyd, they have stood shoulder-to-shoulder saying that it is not good enough to not be racist, everybody has a duty to be anti-racist. And many of them followed it up with material heavily concentrating on anti-black racism. Fair enough, this was in the aftermath of a notorious act of anti-black racism. And you can’t expect theatres to react on that scale every time an act of racism appear on the news, otherwise they’d never get any work done. But, in case you haven’t been paying attention (again), Jews had just been the focus of the worst, most blatant, and most widespread scandal of institutional racism since the Metropolitan Police in the 1990s. (I make no apologies for that comparison – the lengths the people in charge went to protect their own, along with the lengths people went to intimidate people speaking out, makes it too close for comfort.) And the reason I am calling bullshit on all these statements denouncing “racism in all its forms” is that not one theatre I know who put up this statement uttered a peep of disapproval over this form of racism.
Now, I do not throw accusations of racism around when there is a another less serious explanation. It could be there’s a blind spot to anti-Semitism because it’s Jews, but it’s more likely there’s a blind spot because it’s easy. There’s absolutely zero risk or effort required laying into racist cops in Minneapolis. Likewise for Trump, the UK Government, and most figures in authority, all of which are guaranteed a warm reception from your peers in the arts. Standing up anti-Semitism, or more specifically left-wing anti-Semitism, is a lot more likely to involve standing up to people your friends like, or even your own friends. On there rare occasions a theatre says something about the issue, it’s almost always keeping it general, or going after a safe target such as a far-right party. But who shies away from blaming Trump for racism in America? There’s no escaping the double standard.
There is a less charitable explanation. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years if that there are a lot of people around who are not sexist, or racist, don’t bully or harass people, and don’t behave like sex pests – but they are 100% loyal to people who are any or all of these things. They will do anything to protect their idols from accountability, insist things didn’t happen when they obviously did (whilst obviously being fine with the thing that obviously happened), and even co-opt their idols’ bigotry as their own to provide validation. In case you haven’t noticed (and apologies for saying this a fourth time but it seems there’s a hell of a lot of people who haven’t noticed any of this), there were a hell of a lot of Corbyn supporters guilty of this. Not all Corbyn supporters by any means, but those who weren’t didn’t stand up to those who were. Neither, it seems, did most people working in the arts.
For this reason, I don’t think this suddenly display of solidarity over Rare Earth Mettle is enough. It’s a welcome improvement on what there was before, but the fact remains the Royal Court was an easy and safe target. There are people in the arts who have spouted absolutely vile bigotry, but they get a free pass. Some people might stay silent out of loyalty; more, I suspect, stay silent because they don’t want to pick a fight, with many of the worst offenders having strong partisan followings. Indeed, I’ve been warned off by well-meaning friends for speaking out this way because of the abuse I may receive. I’m okay: fuck it, I don’t care any more what people say – but other people are vulnerable to reprisals, maybe having future bookings refused or future castings denied. There’s all sorts of mitigating reasons why individuals cannot or will not speak out, but none of those reasons excuse the collective inaction of the theatre industry.
The other big error I believe theatre is making is forgetting how the Equality Act works. It’s quite simple: the first thing you do when a complaint is made is you listen. Assume good faith, don’t talk over them, don’t try to fit this into your worldview, and if they do or don’t find something offensive, you have no business correcting them. If, after you’ve heard them out and done the necessary investigation, there isn’t enough evidence to verify the complaint, that’s fine. If there is, you act on it. It doesn’t matter whether the complainant is a straight white frat boy or a black lesbian refugee – you have no way of knowing the validity of a complaint until you’ve heard what it is. (Same goes for the subject of the complaint.) In this case, there is evidence that some people consider complaints made by Jews to be of less importance because Jews are rich and powerful and privileged. If you cannot see the obvious flaw in that argument from the history books, you are a lost cause. That is one of many good reasons why the Equality Act says discrimination is wrong no matter who it’s against – there is no place for those sort of excuses.
The root problem, however, has to be the a culture of “not my problem”. As we saw with sexual harassment, north-east cultural institutional were up in arms when the new of Harvey Weinstein broke – but when news of institutionalised sexual harassment on their own doorstep broke: crickets. Similarly, standing up to racist cops is easy, but in five years when they could have stood up to their political allies: tumbleweed. If anything, their selective commitment to anti-racism is making things worse, because one of the favourite excuses of hardcore anti-Semites is that they’re “anti-racist”, as if standing up to some forms of racial prejudice makes it okay to engage in other. I have no doubt theatre could have curbed this behaviour if they made an effort. Instead, they’ve accidentally provided validation for certain types of racism.
If an organisation consists of 1% racists and another 99% who allow those racists to operate unchecked, you have an organisation that is 100% institutionally racist. Similarly, if a whole industry consists of 1% racists and another 99% who allow those racists to operate unchecked, you have an whole industry that is 100% systemically racist. We are not yet at this point where we can prove this is the case, but all major theatres have a case to answer. The Royal Court did not fail the Jews because they have an anti-Semitic code of conduct – they failed the Jews because they their first reaction to complaints was that it wasn’t important. So far, I have no reason to believe the rest of the theatre world is any better. I hope they can change my mind, but they have a lot of explaining to do.
Note: I’ve kept comments open for this but I will be rigorously enforcing moderation. One such rule is that racist comments are not allowed, and for the avoidance of doubt this includes claims that anti-Semitism is a plot to discredit your favourite racist, or anything that consist of “but Israel”. My blog, my rules, and if you’d like to claim this makes me a paid shill of Tel Aviv, there’s plenty of message boards that will welcome you with open arms. Like Stormfront.