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Monday, July 26, 2010

Laramie and Tectonic's Codes and Power

So, as a Christian who studies medieval literature, it's no surprise that I just love the writings of CS Lewis.    Sure, he was a bit of a stodge and didn't "get" how women worked until he was in his late fifties-- but for a conservative, stuffy old Oxford dean, he doesn't get enough credit for taking on and dismantling the linguistic codes of oppression of his own day.

For instance, in the sci-fi book Out of the Silent Planet, he basically takes on the entire linguistic power structure of white imperialism and rips it to shreds.  In the book, an interplanetary explorer named Weston tries to justify his attempted takeover of the planet Mars (which is a silly, pathetic attempt) in the name of white human imperialism.  This is how Weston justifies his murder of a sentient being (called a hnau in Martian) to the ruler of Mars:
Your tribal life with its stone age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science, medicine and law, our armies…  Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. (85)
Weston's adversary Ransom has to translate all this colonial-ese into Martian so that everybody can understand.  Here's how he does it: 
He says that, among you, all the hnau of one kind live together and the hrossa have spears like those we used a long time ago and your huts are small and round and your boats small and light and you only have one ruler. He says it is different with us. He says we know much. There is a thing happens in our world when the body of a living creature feels pains and becomes weak, and he says we sometimes know how to stop it. He says we have very many bent people and we kill them and shut them in huts. He says that we have many ways for the hnau of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it… Because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people. (135-6).
 Oppression sounds completely different when you strip it of all the linguistic codes and speak it plainly, doesn't it?  The little linguistic codes of Weston's set about survival of the fittest and right to supersede (and elsewhere, the white man's burden) really are just a power play.  They separate the 'us' (that is, the elites) from the 'them' and make that outsider vulnerable to violence.  And Lewis' alter-ego Ransom, from his position of the Martian convert, cannot translate their nonsense into sense.  As the person with a foot in both societies, all he can do is expose Weston's brutality for what it really is. 

I hope you can see why this interests me.  Sometimes the little cliques and social boundaries we set up (which Lewis called "Inner Rings") only exist to render others powerless.  Others have are much more well-intentioned but eventually lead to the same thing, and language is nearly always one of the principal tools people use to do it. 

So, do Laramie residents have language codes to build barriers between themselves and who they have deemed outsiders?  Of course they do.  Everybody does to some extent.   But so does Tectonic Theater, as it turns out, and that's what I'd like to look at today-- how such languages of belonging and exclusion can be exposed for what they are, and who gets the benefit and who suffers the consequences.  

Okay, so I've looked at the phrase "live and let live" (our formulation for the idea of tolerance) in some other posts before.  But the one thing I've actually noticed as I read The Laramie Project for the umpteenth time to prep for teaching is how often it pops up in direct relationship to violence:
MARGE MURRAY:  ...And that's the attitude of most of the Laramie population.  They might poke one, if they were in a bar situation, you know, they had been drinking, they might actually smack one in the mouth, but then they'd just walk away.  Most of 'em, they would just say, "I don't swing that way," and whistle on about their business.  Laramie is live and let live.   (17)
SEARGEANT HING:  How could this happen?  I-- I think  lot of people just don't understand, and even I don't really understand, how someone can do something like that.  We have one of the most vocal populations of gay people in the state...  And it's pretty much: Live and let live.  (45)
JONAS SLONAKER:  And it's even in some of the western literature, you know, live and let live.  That is such crap...  I mean, basically what it boils down to: If I don't tell you I'm a fag, you won't beat the crap out of me.  I mean, what's so great about that?  That's a great philosophy?  
So, Marge acknowledges the fact of violence in her community right before invoking the justification-- that we're "live and let live."  As one of my students recently put it, "it's sort of a double standard, isn't it?  They say they're all tolerant, but when the violence does occur they can blame the victim."  That's the problem with "live and let live": the moment it's invoked, that phrase is already not true.  Instead, it's the phrase that justifies both the violence and the segregation of those who don't fit the mainstream into isolated pockets.  That's the problem with "don't ask, don't tell," too: if there's violence or injustice, the very presence of the phrase indicts the marginalized community for not being invisible enough.

Which brings me to a couple of other phrases:  "flaunting," "pushing," "flaming," and the like.  These are phrases invoked to put the responsibility for violence on the victim as well in a "don't ask, don't tell" society.  You know, like these:
MURDOCK COOPER:  ... Some people are saying he made a pass at them. You don't pick up regular people.  I'm not excusing their actions, but it made me feel better because it was partially Matthew Shepard's fault and partially the guys who did it...  you know, maybe it's fifty-fifty. (58)
SHERRY JOHNSON:  ...He was just a barfly you know.  And I think he pushed himself around.  I think he flaunted it.  (64)
MATT GALLOWAY:  ...They say he's gay, he was a flaming gay, he's gonna come o to people like that.  Bullshit.  He never came on to me. (31)
ROB DEBREE:  What's he look like?
AARON MCKINNEY:  Mmm, like a queer.  Such a queer dude.  (89-90)
 Even the distinction we see in these quotes between a "gay" or "homosexual" (those less feminine-acting, it seems, or at worst calculation, those totally in the closet) and those who are "queer" or "flaming" is designed to make a distinction between those who don't upset the current social hierarchy and those who do.  Just look at the adjectives used to describe Shepard's sexuality between those groups who disapprove of him and those who don't.  A "gay" person isn't necessarily a threat, it seems, but a "queer" or "flaming" guy is.  That's McKinney's justification: those behaviors violate "live and let live."    Galloway can reject the notion that Shepard came on to his killer, but at this point in the narrative he doesn't ask whether or not the argument itself is absurd.  (I get the impression that Galloway would ask that question by the end of the play.)

So, if you think of all these phrases as terms for exclusion and marginalization from the power center rather than just statements of fact, how much difference is there really between this statement...
That's about as clear as you can state it.  There's no sexual deviation in the Mormon Church.  No-- no leniency.  We just think it's out-of-bounds (25). 
...and this one?
It doesn’t bother anybody because most of ‘em that are gay know damn well who to talk to. If you step out of line you’re asking for it (58).
Both are orchestrated to place gays and lesbians at a distinct disadvantage within the larger community and police their behavior.  Both place limitations on their acceptance in the community; the only difference is that Murdock Cooper's delineation comes with the veiled threat of violence.

*          *           *

Okay, so that's how the mainstream justifies their marginalization of others linguistically-- with labels like "queer" or "flaming" or by invoking the "live and let live" ideal to cover over acts of violence that clearly violate that same code.  But what about Tectonic Theater?

Well... yes.  There is something that has been bugging me for a while now. 

There are a lot of places in The Laramie Project where the members of the theater company reveal themselves as being at a linguistic disadvantage to the rest of the community-- like when Moises Kaufman has trouble getting the concept of chicken-fried steak, or Marge and Alison have to catch Greg Pierotti up on half their vocabulary.  "Boy, you are getting an education today," she quips, just before explaining Laramie's concept of "live and let live" to him.  But Tectonic isn't always on  the outside looking in-- they have places where they connect with others and form their own social community.  Their conversation with Stephen Mead Johnson reveals some close intimacy, as I've mentioned earlier.  So does their conversation with the academic establishment. 

In 10 Years Later: An Epilogue, the members of Tectonic Theater are shocked and frustrated at the prevalence of the robbery motive in Laramie, and the stern denial of many people that Matt was murdered because of his sexuality.  And in response, they interview several people about this, but most notably, a folklorist on campus who clinically diagnoses the symptoms of this denial from an academic perspective.  And in the reading I watched, the actor who reads the folklorist's lines does so with just a bit of condescension, maybe because I think he was just as uncomfortable with it as I was.  (I really need to ask him about that.) 

[Yes, I have a leftover reading script, but no, I'm not going to cite from it.   It's still unpublished material.]

From his position of enlightened outsider, the folklorist can look at the robbery motive and diagnose its origin and its symptoms.  He's clearly taking a superior position: he's the expert who can look beyond  these rumors and understand how things really are.  Those with less enlightenment are trapped in the lie; he looks down upon it, free from its entanglements.  To be honest, this is one place where I'm ambivalent about Tectonic's treatment of the larger community: there's no attempt to explain why so many people believe the robbery motive outside that it's the one that they as the enlightened ones have decided is wrong.  Sure, part of it has to do with the community's denial, but like I said before, I really do wonder how much of it comes from  the tension which arose when a day laborer murdered a college student in a town that was already divided over class antagonism.  And that's an antagonism that the folklorist plays right into when he swoops down from on high and proclaims what's "wrong" with the rest of the community concerning their beliefs, using his professional vocabulary to put his own grand narrative of events and his "realm of rumor" above theirs.  This moment shows Tectonic Theater building a code wall of their own against the larger Laramie community, and the power relationships involved in that decision bother me a lot. 

So, when Tectonic needs to "kill" a bad narrative about Matt's murder, they know that language is power.  And the language of the university is the most powerful weapon they have to kill it.  And I have to wonder how much that linguistic power play might be counter-productive to the good they're actually trying to accomplish.  Trading a gay-straight social divide at the expense of a class conflict, to me at least, isn't the best way to handle these tensions.

So, does Laramie have codes for power?  Absolutely.  But so does Tectonic.  I guess, in short, I think that one of the brilliant things about The Laramie Project is the way that they expose this linguistic power structure for what it is-- a way to marginalize those who don't fit in.  Knowing the oppression and occasional violence that system justifies, I have to applaud them for doing it.  The only problem is that Tectonic might be falling into that same trap themselves as they tackle a narrative that threatens to undo the productive national dialogue on sexuality on which their play has been based.

PHOTO CREDIT: picture of the most recent edition of "Out of the Silent Planet," which is owned under copyright by Scribner and is used here for illustrative purposes only.  No infringement intended!

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