Ninety-five years ago, Walter Lippmann, one of the most influential journalists of the twentieth century, published Public Opinion, a book that quickly became a seminal text. His argument was that in a world where facts are often difficult — distant and elusive symbols and fictions are important parts of human communication. Our social beliefs are a response to personalised pictures inside our heads. He coined a new term for these: “stereotypes”.
For Lippmann, analysis of public opinion begins by recognising the triangular relationship between facts, the human pictures of facts, and the human response to those pictures. In other words, it must account for the stereotypes that form the basis of our thinking. Language too is a limiting factor, as different words can have different meanings for different people. Time constraints, distractions and antipathy also impede access to, or obscure the importance of facts. These limitations “combine with the obscurity and complexity of the facts themselves to thwart clearness and justice of perception, to substitute misleading fictions for workable ideas”.
Are we responding to facts or fictions? Are we making judgments based on knowledge? Can we tell the difference between thinking we know the details of a case and actually knowing them?
Public Opinion was written in 1922, a time when a level of ignorance about what was happening in the world was still possible. Enter social media and the internet, font of all knowledge. In the past, we weren’t subject to a continual barrage of information we had to have opinions about. Today, not only are we constantly updated, but the personal nature of Facebook and Twitter means we feel compelled to engage and our emotional responses are on steroids.
But are we responding to facts or fictions? Are we making judgments based on knowledge? Can we tell the difference between thinking we know the details of a case and actually knowing them?
In a recent experiment involving over 1,000 people, Yale University put that issue to the test. Participants were divided into two. One group was asked to use the internet to look up questions like “how does a zip work?” The other had to rely on their prior knowledge. Those in the first group not only rated themselves superior in their ability to answer the control questions but also questions unrelated to their original task. What the experiment showed is that having access to the internet fools our brain into believing it is cleverer than it is, regardless of whether searching it produces relevant answers, or indeed any answers at all. We believe we know, just by pulling up a search engine.
This illusion of knowledge combined with Lippmann’s stereotypical thinking has resulted in a very dangerous mix. By mistaking availability of information for actual understanding, we have created an environment where the favoured tool of public opinion is the hammer, and every issue a nail we collectively beat the crap out of. Considered judgement just takes too much time. It gets in the way of thinking we know stuff.
An example of indiscriminate hasty judgement is the media fracas around the actor Geoffrey Rush, part of the fall-out of what some are calling “The Weinstein Effect”. In the Western world, gender relations have been a simmering issue for years. Rightly so. But neither Donald Trump’s misogyny nor Tony Abbott’s endorsement of the “Ditch the Witch” campaign were enough to affect change. On the contrary, both men were elected to high office. Then came sordid tales of predatory assaults on actors in Hollywood and London, and out came the media hammers. In a world that values sound-bites over substance, Lippmann’s picture-makers went looking for a nail to hit.
The theatre is a place of profound vulnerability, a place where overstepping the lines of normal behaviour is unavoidable, and sometimes encouraged.
What began as an isolated example of tabloid mud spraying soon snowballed as respected media organisations jumped on board. First was The Sydney Morning Herald. Then Daily Review followed suit. Even the ABC got in on the act, as seasoned journalist Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast repeated what turned out to be a misleading allegation.
So what did happen at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2015, and how/why did we get it so wrong?
All we know in fact is that during the course of a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, a member of the company went to the STC’s management to make a complaint of inappropriate conduct. We don’t know precisely what the complaint referred to, simply that it was inappropriate. We don’t know exactly when: some time after the start of rehearsals but before the close of the run. The company member could be one of the cast, or one of the many behind-the-scenes staff who support a professional theatre show.
Staging a theatre production is a fragile and hazardous business, where actors draw on their own experiences and emotional resources to give depth and meaning to a fictional world. In the process, a creative vortex opens up between reality and the emotional life of the play. The better the acting, the bigger the vortex. Because of this, the theatre is a place of profound vulnerability, a place where overstepping the lines of normal behaviour is unavoidable, and sometimes encouraged.
That is not to say that actors are exceptional people entitled to special consideration under the law. But it should be recognised that acting is a job that comes with a very particular set of difficulties and risks. It may not suit the hammer-and-nail times in which we live to say it, but there is a grey area, and it is sometimes unclear what is appropriate behaviour and what is unwelcome, unwise or going too far.
For some people, this is already unacceptable. Querying even an accusation of inappropriate conduct is a defence of sexism, no matter that the nature of the conduct has not been stated, the complainant has not been identified, and the events lie two years in the past. For others, it is vivid illustration of how stereotypical thinking links up with internet-fueled media saturation to produce a result both unreasonable and unfair. It does not address the complaint, nor assist the complainant and Rush to reach a resolution.
While the media must take some of the blame for roping-in the Rush complaint to a cluster of other, serious, clearly criminal ones, it is the responsibility of the STC to manage the complaint process in a way that its outcome reflects the truth of the matter.
The disparities of power and influence between artists who are senior or well-known and successful, and those who are just starting out, can be extreme.
Management of a theatre company, like theatre making, is a specialist skill set. It is one that relies less on formal qualifications than understanding a workplace that needs careful stewardship to foster the benefits of live performance, while guarding against the inherent dangers it presents. There are a range of instruments companies can use to address unwanted behaviour: codes of conduct; union regulations; the explicit hierarchy of production, where lines of responsibility between actors, directors and support staff are firmly delineated.
And these instruments are needed, not only because creativity is an unstable force, but because the disparities of power and influence between artists who are senior or well-known and successful, and those who are just starting out, can be extreme. It is an art form where stories of selfish, erratic and destructive actions are common and persistent. To be absolutely clear: these are not to be tolerated but eradicated. But there is a difference between managing difficult behaviour and condoning it and it is precisely because theatre companies should take the issue of artists’ behaviour seriously, that they mustn’t go off half-cocked.
That under pressure from a tabloid media outlet the STC would abruptly offer up Rush’s name without providing details of what he was alleged to have done, or giving him a chance to respond, is profoundly disturbing. It has fed Rush into a process of stereotypical thinking that is quick to pass judgement and slow to realise where it is ignorant of the factual means to do so. It has almost guaranteed him a “trial by association”.
When we ourselves are in the rehearsal room, as actor and director, working hard under enormous pressure, we sometimes urge our colleagues not to withhold judgement, but to not judge just yet; to give time for Lippmann’s “clearness and justice of perception” to arise. Whatever happened at the STC in 2015, the handling of the Rush complaint deserves that time and justice. Thus far, it has not been given it.