Can we talk about this?

On Saturday, I went to the National Theatre to see what The Telegraph had termed the riskiest piece of theatre of the year, DV8’s Can We Talk About This? The performance occupies an unusual genre, halfway between theatre and dance (what is normally termed physical theatre), but also taps into the recent trend towards verbatim performances (such as London Road and The Colour of Justice), which have on interviews or transcripts of public hearings. In this case, this approach is used to dramatise an historical narrative going back to 1985. The various examples offered construct a polemic - seemingly - arguing that liberalism (or perhaps more accurately, liberals) has failed to respond effectively to the challenge posed by radical Islam. Instead, in the UK, state-multiculturalism has led only to hand wringing and an inability to respond directly to a challenge posed to fundamental rights, notably freedom of speech.

The play has generally got quite good reviews.[1] I can certainly understand the critics' admiration of the performers' skills - there is something truly remarkable about watching some of the movement that they undertake, while retaining the modulation and tone of an interview with, for example, Ann Cryer MP. The embedded videos give am indication as to the kind of feats the actors achieve.

But the good reviews are not just about the artistic merits of the piece. A number of reviewers have suggested that the piece is politically hugely important. When the piece opened in Sydney, for example, the city's edition of Time Out branded it "[O]ne of the most important works of our age".[2] Certainly, Lloyd Newson, the Artistic Director of DV8 sees the play's purpose as political, judging by interviews he has given on the subject.

Here though, I think I would have to contest the position of many of the reviewers, and offer the counter opinion that Can We Talk About?, struck me as being - at best - deeply politically deeply flawed, and - at worst - dangerous to the very liberalism it claims to espouse.

There are a few problems. First, the central conceit of the play - that it is saying the unsayable - seems overstated and not really related to reality. In fact, the arguments in the play actually feel a bit dated. Journalists such as Nick Cohen and the late Christopher Hitchens adopted similar positions a number of years ago.[3] So it is certainly not a radically new position intellectually. More importantly, state multiculturalism has now been attacked by David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel.[4] It is rather harder to claim to be radical and liberal when your position is also backed up by the three most powerful leaders in Europe, who also happen to be the three most powerful conservative politicians in the world. Certainly, it should come as no surprise that the biggest cheer leaders for Can We Talk About This? in the British press were the Telegraph and the Mail.[5. Indeed, the arguments made by the play have some far more extreme fellow travellers, as the liberal values vs. Islam clash is now a staple element of rhetoric for Europe's far right, including the BNP in the UK, Le Front National in France and the various far-right Dutch factions that have been electorally successful since 2000. The lack of sophistication and nuance in the way the play handles its topic can only provide succour to such groups, and seems perhaps the most irresponsible thing about the whole enterprise.]

All that said, there are still important questions to be asked about the future of liberalism, and there certainly is space for thoughtful consideration of these issues. Sadly, we do not get that from this play. The narrative structure that is offered draws together distinct events, creating a false synchronicity between them. This is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the play. Can we really link a debate about education in 1985, abandoned plans to show Geert Wilder's far right short film Fitna at the House of Lords, the Pakistani government's stance at the UN, and forced marriage in contemporary Britain? All are distinct issues, yet are shown with a moral equivalence (expressed symbolically through writing words and phrases on a wall at the back of the stage), placed into a broader thesis about the failure of British policy to cope with radical Islam. What is perhaps most disturbing about this is that it binds the various actors - Muslim parents in Bradford, Muslim members of the House of Lords, the Pakistan government etc - together, casting Islam as a conspiratorial ideology, an enemy within. There is little or no acknowledgement of nuance or complexity, and certainly no reference to the Arab Spring, which may yet lead to the most significant challenge to radical politicised Islam. As such, the Islam portrayed in Can We Talk About This? is monolithic and only contested internally in a limited (and brutally repressed) fashion. As such, Safraz Manzoor is right to note that it becomes a bit like an all-dance version of Melanie Phillip's Londonistan, all paranoia and generalisation.[5]

These content issues are deeply troubling, placing the play closer to the forces of reaction than of liberalism. But suppose we take Newson at is word when he claims he is seeking to defend liberalism? Measured in those terms, is the play likely to be successful? Not really, I would contest, because it fails to systematically address the complexities of liberalism, either historically or theoretically. Historically, the liberal bargain has always been a balancing act, integrating seemingly mutually exclusive groups and beliefs. As such, liberalism is always work in progress, being redefined to meet the needs of each age.[6] But one would not get this sense from DV8's work. Instead, liberalism would seem as monolithic and fixed as Islam. This historical misrepresentation heightens the idea embedded in the narrative that Islam is somehow alien or incompatible with innate western values, making this a Huntingtonesque piece of work.[7]

Even theoretically, I am not sure if the model of liberalism Can We Talk About This? inevitably leads one to is very attractive. It bares a close resemblance to what scholar Christian Joppk  has termed "repressive liberalism".[8] This model of liberalism, now an important element of western debate, is more muscular and combative.

Crucially, repressive liberalism sees no contradiction in using illiberal laws to defend liberalism. The classic example of such a measure is the French government's ban on burqas and niqabs. This measure was defended on the grounds that dress of this kind was used to repress women. Liberal philosopher Will Kymlica has pointed out the flaw in this argument, however: such laws are inherently illiberal, as they remove the right of a woman to choose to wear particular forms of Islamic dress in public. Essentially, one illiberal arrangement (familial power forcing women to wear certain clothes) is replaced with another (the state using the full force of its legal authority to prevent people wearing certain clothes). Neither arrangement is liberal. Instead, the challenge for a liberal society is to ensure that everyone has the autonomous freedom to choose what to wear. The whole Clash of Civilisations narrative promulgated in Can We Talk About This? moves debate away from that outcome, not towards it.

[1] See The Telegraph, The Evening Standard, The Mail, 13/03/2012
[2] Time Out, 25/08/2011
[3] See Hitchens, C. 2001. Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism, The Nation, 09/01; Cohen, N. 2007. What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. Fourth Estate: London
[4] David Cameron's speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2011 is probably the most powerful example of the three]
[5] Phillips, M. 2006. Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within. Gibson Square Books Ltd: London
[6] For some of my earlier thoughts on this issue, see this blog entry on secularism
[7] Huntington, S.P. 1997. The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon Schuster: New York.
[8] Joppke, C. 2007. “Beyond national models: civic integration policies for immigrants in Western Europe”, West European Politics 30(1), 1-22.
[9] For a succinct overview of Kymlica's thoughts in this area, see this 2008 article.