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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Airing of Grievances, Charge 2

Being the First Part, 
Regarding the Straw and the Plank

A couple of years ago, my Ph. D program requirements led me to take a class on composition and ethnography with our program director.  Part of the requirements of the class was to do a short qualitative analysis on some kind of literacy topic, and if there's one thing I've figured out from going through the rigmarole of IRB supervision and preparing for a qualitative study, it's that you should always distrust the self.

 That may sound paranoid, but it makes a lot of sense for a discipline that requires the researcher to observe and interact with people or cultures.  If you are an outsider, you might have different values or ways of understanding that hamper your ability to understand what's valuable or important in the culture you study.  You might not know what to look for beneath the surface.  If you grew up with the people or cultures you're studying, however, sometimes that can give you blind spots or make you reluctant to draw negative conclusions.  Both of these possibilities require the researcher to stop, look at their own motives and cultural values, and understand that those worldviews or personal experiences will color their observations. 

Hell, let's be honest-- the first nine months of this blog were basically just a really, really long bracketing interview to hash out my motives for studying this play.   The last thing I can do is just assume that I've got it all figured out and that I'm completely on the clear because I never am.   I always have motives.   I always have to accept that objectivity is impossible for me due to my personal connection to the play and events, and the best I can do is to mistrust my own conclusions and force myself to look at all the angles.  And I will still screw up.  
And so, how does this apply to Tectonic Theater?  Some of them (like Stephen Belber) show themselves to be pretty ambivalent and angsty about this process, and boy, do I appreciate that; it means they're concerned about their relationship to their interviewees.  Nevertheless, I think that, as a company, sometimes they believe in their mission so much that they just know what they're doing is the right thing.  That's where maybe they slipped up a little when it came to giving a full, well-rounded portrayal of Laramie: they immediately saw the right answer and ran with it. 

And so, I would like to proceed to the second charge in the Airing of Grievances, which is related to the first:

2.  Failure to Maintain Self-Loathing

Okay, so that's a little harsh, but "Failure to Maintain Self-Referentiality" or "Failure to Bracket" just sounded too academic.  Basically, I'm just saying that maybe they believed in their mission a little too much or didn't stay suspicious enough of their own motives to question if they were getting too focused on the wrong thing.  So, here we go, and let's see what we find-- just remember, ladies and gents, to keep a healthy self-doubt about your view of western culture and Tectonic's motives, too! 

*          *            *
If there's one thing you learn quickly when reading about Tectonic Theater, it's that Moisés Kaufman really believes in the kind of theater his company produces.  Kaufman's interview, "Moises Kaufman: The Copulation of Form and Content," for instance, gives a fascinating look into the broad structural scheme of his theatrical work, and it's neat.  It's also fascinating to see the passion he has for his work and how much thought he puts into his critical and performance theory; that theoretical grounding has a direct effect, I think, on how this kind of social theater can can turn the voices of those in crisis into a call for social change and promote dialogue. 

For instance, Kaufman says in his prologue to the first Laramie Project: 
At these junctures the event becomes a lightning rod of sorts, attracting and distilling the essence of these philosophies and convictions.  By paying careful attention in moments like this to people's words, one is able to hear the way these prevailing ideas affect not only individual lives but also the culture at large.  (v)

The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard was another event of this kind.  In its immediate aftermath, the nation launched into a dialogue that brought to the surface how we think and talk about homosexuality, sexual politics, education, class violence, privileges and rights, and the difference between tolerance and acceptance.  (vi)
So, as we zero in on the flash point of Matt Shepard's murder to see how this little society (and the nation) dialogue about homosexuality, the townspeople reveal a lot of cultural attitudes. We learn about a society where people who don't fit the cultural mores are vulnerable. We learn about attitudes about class, where those who step out of the normal modes of the traditional marriage aren't embraced, and where religion is an important moral compass. And yet, the most important one to the resolution of the play is religion, and we don't get much of a sense of how so many of these other factors really play in.

This isn't really my idea-- it's Stephen Wangh's, an original dramaturge for the first play:
In the end, it was this last influence [religion] that became a central character in our story, because Laramie, like many places in the United States, is a God-fearing town, a town in which the voices of Christianity speak with great authority.  Later in the play we learn that Russell Henderson had been a Mormon, and that after his conviction he was excommunicated by the Mormon church. Then we hear the Baptist minister tell us that Aaron McKinney had attended his congregation.  (Wangh 2005, p. 12)
Wangh then goes on to ponder,
In retrospect, perhaps we playwrights of The Laramie Project should have asked ourselves if we were avoiding something uncomfortable by not pursuing further the religious stories in Laramie. Did we avoid those stories because we were not ready to confront our own prejudices against this society’s holy protagonists? (Wangh 2005, p. 12).  
Okay, for full disclosure, I did attend (and was also baptized and married in) the Baptist Minister's old congregation, although he had long since moved to Texas when I was there.  I'm hardly an impartial witness here, so please take all this with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I really think that Tectonic Theater focuses on these religious factors of homophobic violence over every other factor.  Sure, religion is an important factor for how our western culture has treated gays and lesbians, and it's good to bring that up.

But there are a ton of others, all of which were put under the microscope after Matt died-- and with the exception of a nod to the class issue, there's no real exploration of the others.  They don't talk about the homestead mentality, or the way masculinity is defined or enforced, or the way that community's conservative sexual ideals makes the LGBT community vulnerable.  They don't talk about the way that class and sexual preference are often linked, and how the community pushes its gay members to either side of the class spectrum to be judged. 

Is this actually a problem, I should ask?  I really do think so, because this approach is flattening out the narrative of social turmoil that contributes to violence.  Kaufman is so damn sure that religious intolerance is the focal point of gay-targeted violence that he's simply not interested in exploring the other influences.  This leads him to minimize other factors that have just as much, if not more, to do with Matt's murder than religious intolerance and Laramie's resistance to the gay-bashing narrative. 

For instance, in one conversation with Kaufman, Stephen Wangh says he pressed Kaufman about flattening out Aaron's motives for his actions-- specifically about the "gay panic" defense and the story of Aaron's childhood:  
“The play that we wrote,” [Kaufman] replied, “is not the Aaron McKinney play. This play is about the life of the town of Laramie. So the decisions were made in the intersection of McKinney and that town.”
“But,” I persisted, “don’t you believe that Aaron’s childhood history has something to do with his murder of Matthew Shepard?” He responded,
The fact that his mother was murdered at a hospital because some idiot doctor malpracticed has something to do with it. The fact that his father was a truck driver who came in on the weekends has something to do with it. The fact that he was attacked by a bully has something to do with it. What else has something to do with it? The fact that he was poor, the fact that he went to a horrendous school system,* the fact that he lived in a society in which the kind of thinking that inspired this murder is accepted and encouraged, [and the fact] of the church he went to saying that homosexuality is a sin.  (Wangh 2005, p. 11)
Okay, so Kaufman accepts that there are many, many factors that led to what Aaron chose to do, which is great because that's what his methodology requires.  Nevertheless, he chooses to focus on religion, and this leads to some sloppy shorthand that, frankly, I think distorts both Aaron and the community at large.  For one, I'm not sure we can actually claim that The Baptist Minister or his church had a lot of influence in Aaron's life.  In an evangelical worldview, and by TBM's judgment, Aaron was "unsaved."  He was  an outsider of that community, he wasn't a member, and he might have gone just because his girlfriend did.  There is only one religious figure we know that McKinney speaks fondly of, and it's Father Roger in the second play.  Kaufman just making an automatic leap from McKinney to TBM that might not be reasonable (as is my impulse to separate them, honestly).  None of these assertions are supportable, so I'm not sure that focusing on this particular "intersection of McKinney and that town" represents Aaron's personal demons very well.  And I'm not sure it represents Laramie's, either.

I suppose that there are a lot of reasons they might have chosen that focus.  If you follow a "keep it simple" approach, I suppose picking one strand of social turmoil makes sense.  Or, since many of the antagonists in this story are religious, it makes this the obvious thread to focus on. 

Or, maybe Kaufman and others in Tectonic know the brutal, chilling force of religious intolerance so well or so personally that, when they bumped into the Baptist Minister and then saw Fred Phelps setting a new bar for scumbaggery at Matt's funeral, the religious current resonated with them so much that it kind of took over their writing process.   As a result, perhaps they made two bad assumptions about what they witnessed here: first, that our society is deeply religious, and secondly, that the Baptists/evangelicals represent the most common kind of Christianity out here.  And while that conclusion might resonate with Kaufman and other Tectonic members based on their own experiences, and while it might highlight what they feel is the strongest threat to LGBT acceptance, it's distorting the larger picture of the community as it grapples with this act of hate.

For one, I don't think that we're a religiously entrenched society in the traditional sense.  Westerners do tend to be socially conservative, and often their values are the same as (or are based on) religious values.  In general, though, we're independent enough that church might not be a central community focus, and matters of faith are often deeply personal rather than a social concern.  (The LDS church is the obvious exception to this because of the huge social ties between the family and the ward, and on that note, Kaufman probably is right.)

For another, what kind of religious heritage is it that we have out here? According to Stephen Mead Johnson, the Mormons and Baptists are "like jam on toast down here" (21).  He's only half right, however.  Putting the LDS church aside for the moment, which admittedly has a powerful presence in Wyoming (47k adherents and representing 97 out of every 1000 residents), my experience suggests that Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and, yes, Catholic are much more common religious traditions in Wyoming than Baptists.  According to the ARDA, Baptists only make a tiny, tiny percentage of the total population in Wyoming.  And from 1990-2000, the decade of the Shepard murder, many Baptist denominations were shrinking.     

In Albany County specifically,** the numbers recorded for the year 2000  are pretty interesting.  Out of every 1,000 residents of the county, 125.8 are Catholic.  65.8 are LDS.  21.3 are Evangelical Lutherans, and only 7.5 are Southern Baptist.  And what about all evangelical Baptists together?  It's about 13.4 per 1,000.   The Baptist Ministers of Laramie therefore find their adherents outnumbered by the Father Rogers' a little more than nine to one.  And if you add up all the religious Christians with the a-religious, I'd be willing to bet that the numbers are still only fifty-fifty at best.  

I see that pattern a lot out West: a sense of morality and social order originally from a religious tradition, but now more entrenched in a  secular understanding of community and family.  Sure, we argue a lot about what's moral.  But we also spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what's "natural," what's "masculine" vs. "effeminate," "offensive," or "appropriate."  We also tend to speculate about a person's "family," "class," or "work ethic" at the same time we talk about their indiscretions (like Shannon and Jen do about Matt).  If we're interested in the story of Laramie rather than just the story of Russell and Aaron, why aren't we exploring the turmoil in these non-evangelical voices-- or non-religious values-- more than we are? 

Picking "The Baptist Minister" as a villain in our intellectual struggle in Laramie might make therefore sense ideologically for TLP, but I'd argue that he's not the most representative sample of western homophobia.   What the ranchers in TLP have to say about "nature" and "flaunting" and "what animals do" is indicative of a kind of homophobia that  now seems to be more a matter of community values, the intersection of sexual conservatism with gender roles, or family ideology.  Those other issues besides religion, the ones that Kaufman mentions in the prologue to TLP or in that conversation with Wangh, really matter.  We need to see how these beliefs have a cause and effect in Laramie just like Tectonic did with the religious narrative, but those narratives get choked out by the religious narrative by Act 3.  

This point is important only because it means that Kaufman and perhaps the other actors (Belber gets a pass from me) may have not remained conscious of their own motives enough to question whether their explanation for homophobia reflected Wyoming's reality completely, or perhaps their personal views on the origins of homophobia distorted the full picture.

If you study enthnographic inquiry, you'll find that self-evaluation and questioning of the researcher's motives is a critical issue right now because qualitative researchers are realizing how much their own prejudices can distort their observations.  How much meta-narrative is good for ethnographic study?  They ask.  What happens when a researcher doesn't question her motives?  Can making the research process too self-referential also invalidate your reading of the people you study because you end up studying yourself?  (That's a fair question, Jackrabbit...)  How involved can/should you get with your population? Where's the balance?  These are important questions, doubts, and second-guesses surrounding the kind of work that Tectonic Theater is doing here. 

Now, I totally respect Kaufman's decision to limit Tectonic members' presence within the play, and their reasons for doing so are quite valid.  Nevertheless, I have to wonder if their decision to focus the narrative a little less on themselves and their own doubts about their own motives so they can focus on Laramie more clearly might have obscured their ethical place in Laramie's universe.   Maybe they did all these things I'm griping about and just left it out of the text.  Maybe, then, they just needed to explore their own motives more in the text so they could bracket them as they listened to Laramie's story. And maybe I'm being completely unreasonable. 

And, honestly, the main reason I'm worried about this is because I have to worry about it with myself.  Think about my position here: I started out as one of the many agnostics in my western society.  I had a religious conversion in college and immersed myself in The Baptist Church.  I have a personal love and respect for Father Roger.  My own views on same-sex desire have gone through the wringer as I've tried to balance my religious sensibilities with my previously secular worldview.  I've also had a gay Christian friend commit suicide and am now an active ally in the LGBT community at my college.

Can I be trusted to make any objective observations about Wyoming's religious traditions, or The Baptist Church, or any of this?  Whom do I want to absolve?   In what ways could I be trying to absolve myself?  Why did I pick up on the religious narrative in TLP and focus on it, just like Kaufman and company did when they wrote it, and what does it mean about my own blind spots?  Honestly, I can't properly see the stalk in Tectonic's eye because I know there's a plank in my own-- and I can't pick it out. I'm not sure I can bracket it out, either. 

I find it impossible to write about any of this without a healthy amount of self-loathing.  In some ways, I feel that's important to knowing one's own motives and how they distort your perception.  But maybe, just maybe, I just want to spread around the angst like holiday cheer.  After all, solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris-- misery loves company...

Related Posts:

Faith As Landscape in Laramie, WY
The Religious Codes of Tectonic Theater: Using Your "Inside" Voice
Scatter Plots: Of Angst and Ethnography
Tectonic in a Mirror
Revenge and Forgiveness in Laramie, Wyoming

*A NOTE:  Okay, so I'd like to stick up for my Plainsmen alumni friends and point out that Kaufman's making that "horrendous school system" comment off the cuff, and I personally think he's wrong.  Education can be surprisingly egalitarian in Wyoming out of necessity.  The vast, vast majority of high school students go to LHS.  If Aaron is a victim of that "horrendous school system," so is Zubaida.  So is Jed.  And so are the kids of a lot of professors and UW staff who might be wont to gripe about the school district to some like-minded friends...   Just take it with a grain of salt is all I ask. 

** ANOTHER NOTE:  If you really want to get a sense of where things were headed leading up to the Shepard murder, the ARDA can show you the amount of change in the county and the state from 1980-2000.  It tells an interesting tale: guess who was closing churches and shrinking in that ten or twenty year period? You can actually see all the church splits... 


The Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA.)  Dept. of Sociology, the Pennsylvania State University.  Web.  20 Dec 2010.  

 Kaufman, Moisés, et al.  "Introduction."  The Laramie Project.  New York: Vintage, 2000. 

 Wangh, Stephen.  "Revenge and Forgiveness in Laramie, Wyoming." Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15.1 (2005): 1-16.


An old church in Wyoming, from antirobot's Flickr photostream.  Available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
I have no idea where this church pic is from.  It sort of looks like Rock River to me, but that's because Rock River looks like everywhere else on the plains...


  1. JR-what a remarkable post. Great reading. Your self-questioning is admirable as well as your analysis of all the various factors involved in this particular endeavor to arrive at the truth behind this disturbing event. My own view is that one can never get at the whole truth about anything, just little fragments here and there. And even those fragments have to be constantly re-inspected and re-assessed for evidence of misinformation or personal bias.

  2. Hmmm... It's a little like "these fragments I have shored against my ruins," isn't it? At least, that's what it feels like right now. I keep seeing some interesting fragments, but I'm not totally sure what to do with them, myself.

    You're quite right, however-- trying to find truth on your own is very much an attempt too see through a glass, darkly. It's just so hard to for a person to see through the narrow lens of their own perception, and many of us know that. But we don't always think about what filters we put over our narrow, little lenses in the first place. How is that lens being colored before we ever start to analyze our observations?

    I guess that's why I think any human search for truth, if you want it to be significant, has to be a community effort...