What journalists can learn from theatre

White journalists should shut up about cultural appropriation, and listen. And here’s another suggestion for how they might fill their time.

Last week, former Rogers Communications executive Ken Whyte, also former publisher and editor of Maclean’s and former editor-in chief of The National Post, created a shitstorm with a series of asinine tweets that proved once again how much pain and anger can be generated in just 140 characters.

As perhaps you’ve heard, the precipitating incident for Whyte’s evening tweetfest was an article in the house organ of the Writers’ Union of Canada, Write, in which editor Hal Niedzviecki somehow thought it appropriate to cap an issue featuring Indigenous writers with a supposedly satirical article beginning “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation.” He went on, ho-ho, to propose the establishment of “the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

The backlash was swift, Niedzviecki apologized and resigned as editor, but Whyte took to Twitter to offer $500 to actually establish the award, and spent the next half hour cajoling colleagues into contributing. A number of high-profile journalists quickly bought in.

I have nothing to add to the recrimination that followed. That’s because, as far as I’m concerned, my job as a white writer is to shut the fuck up and listen to what Indigenous people and people of colour have to say about the matter, and about cultural appropriation in general.

I wish, however, that I could drag those journalists into an acting class. Yes, an acting class — not so that they could learn to better perform contrition, but so they might learn some basic lessons about listening, and accepting what others have to offer.

I have worked in journalism and theatre almost equally for all my adult years. I used to work with and for Whyte; I was one of his editors decades ago at Alberta Report, he was my boss for two brief stints at a now-dead magazine called Saturday Night, and I freelanced for The National Post when he was its editor-in-chief. But that was all a very long time ago now.

Meantime I have continued to work in theatre, too. And it is there, mostly, that I have learned the art of listening, and of opening your heart to others. The callousness of Whyte’s tweets has something to do with Twitter, of course, and its tendency to reduce us to our least, worst selves. But it also has to do, I expect, with the world he has spent going-on four decades in. Journalism is a world of debate, and wise-assery, and, especially these days, instant, reactive opinions. It is a world in which the newsroom cossets you, and encourages the dangerous notion that you know what you are talking about. It is, needless to say, a whole lot of fun.

Until, that is, it brings grief and pain to people.

If I could drag those journalists into, say, an improv class, they would learn first to listen before speaking. In improv, if you’re not listening, you’re showboating, and showboats aren’t funny. And then they would learn improv’s primary rule — say Yes. If another actor says “Look, at that flying pig up there,” you don’t reply, “Don’t be silly — pigs can’t fly.” You say, “Yes, and who’s that riding on it?” and then you both squint up into the air, etc., etc. (If you’re a good improv actor, you probably come up with a better reply than that; I’m not claiming to be a good improv actor.)

And if they came into a more traditional acting class, they would learn what the word they have been tossing about blithely for the last few days — “empathy” — means in action. It would take a long time, but they would first learn how to escape the carapace of themselves. And then they would learn to let another person, a character, inhabit them. To understand that person, and their emotions, from the inside out. If that person is experiencing joy or pain or grief, they will experience it too. Not as a concept, not as something they are reaching towards. The real thing. That’s the ultimate in empathy, and they would learn that it takes a lot of work to get there.

I am not suggesting this because I think it will allow them all to become empathetic imagineers. I am suggesting it because it might make them more open to the lives of their critics, and more able to hear what they are saying.

If those journalists would begin to listen rather than reflexively opine, and actually accept what Indigenous artists and people of colour are telling us, and hold it to themselves and turn it over in their hands and really think about it and shut the fuck up while they do, they might earn the right to ask some questions. Not to debate — to ask. As white writers, we will never inhabit the experience of an Indigenous person, but if we really believe that empathy is an important part of what we do, then it’s our task to seek understanding (not theirs to deliver it).

And while personally I don’t think I’ve even reached that point of asking yet, what I have learned over the past few days is that, when others do, there are perfectly good answers to be had. “So, white writers can never write Indigenous characters, is that it?” ask some. To which Anishinaabe writer Ryan McMahon had a very clear answer on CBC Radio’s The Current on Monday. You’ll find it here.

Meantime, Ken Whyte recently resigned from Rogers Communications, and is apparently without an employer for the first time in a long time. Jonathan Kay, one of his eggers-on, stepped down as editor of The Walrus on Saturday, although he claims it’s not really because of the cultural appropriation controversy.

Perhaps with some additional time on their hands, both will have more time to be more reflective, to back away from the computer before they tweet, to better learn to accept what others have to say and offer. To say Yes more often.

If so, I can recommend some good acting classes in Toronto.