Performance Problem

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,”

Society writ large has had to learn and unlearn many things in recent months. The outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd spurred many to take to the streets, dig into their pocket book, and, perhaps above all, take to social media. In the melee of activity that ensued. We had to develop a discerning eye for “performative allyship”. This concept applies when a non-Black person expresses support more broadly for the moral impetus of the Black Lives Matter movement, but does not take steps beyond merely voicing support. A common critique of the Black Square many, yours truly included, posted on Tuesday June 2nd in support of “Blackout Tuesday” was that the post merely served to present oneself as in line with a just cause, but didn’t require any active activism on the part of a participant. An individual engaging in “performative allyship” is seeking the benefits of reputational rectitude without performing “the work”. As the saying goes, “It’s all show, no go.” 

“At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” 

At this point, the cultural zeitgeist has taught us to be aware of corporate and celebrity performative allyship. Non-Black people have had to learn to question their own displays of righteousness, again yours truly included, into whether or not we are engaging superficial displays of support. Are we truly committed to actual change? What actual effort have we contributed? How do we go from silence, to voicing support, to actual contribution?

It is worth pointing out that social movements of the digital age will continue to be confronted with this problem. As more social movements are initiated on social media, the tendency will be to skew towards theatrical and dramatic displays. Why? Because social media is only a device of communication. It has proven to be a powerful tool of motivation and mobilization, but the disparate voices of the many social media activists can only communicate ideas and messages through the medium. The tool itself only allows for displays; it is not action in itself. 

“Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth.”

Further confounding the issue is the current iteration of the movement has been largely focused on symbolic displays of change, rather than addressing the systemic issues at root. Protests themselves, the large gathering of people in support of a cause running counter to the status quo, are performative; they are a dramatic depiction of mass support for a cause. A protest again motivates, activates, and mobilizes, but by and large they do not focus on concrete changes to systems. There is no bill passed, no redistribution of wealth that results. A protest makes a voice heard. 

What is more, the pulling down of confederate statues, deposing controversial business leaders, or even arresting the killers of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Briana Taylor will only bring about episodic or momentary instances of victory. They are good symbols of change, but symbols nonetheless. They will all make for good videos on instagram or headlines to tweet. Defund the police and take down all the confederate statues, but fall short on addressing the true issues of economic inequality and the movement is high on dramatic appeal, but low on systemic change. Decreasing the rate of Black families in poverty from 20% to the same rate as White families of 9% may not have the same ring as “Arrest Breonna Taylor’s killers”, but it will go far beyond a presentational performance. (Sidenote: 9% poverty seems like an odd goal for the wealthiest country)

“And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part.”   

“Performance” is first defined by Mariam-Webster as:

1a: the execution of an action

b: something accomplished : DEED, FEAT

2: the fulfillment of a claim, promise, or request : IMPLEMENTATION

This is the notion that many of us are likely familiar with when we head into our “performance review” at work. Most likely we meet with our bosses to have a discussion about our broad set of behaviors as it relates to our responsibilities. We have our performances assessed based on our achievements large and small over a given year. 

Really, it is this sense in which allyship or adherence to the desired goals of a social movement should be assessed. Performance over time in many instances. What problems have you addressed? What action have you executed? What has been accomplished? What promise has been kept?

Tellingly, the theatrical definition of “performance” is given as the third entry for Mariam-Webster: 

3a: the action of representing a character in a play

b: a public presentation or exhibition

a benefit performance

Allyship should be performative indeed, but performed on an everyday level. Displaying your support, or not, on a device of communication (social media) can only be theatrical or dramatic. It cannot be the type of performance we need.

“The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound.”

Unfortunately, the performance that is required for real social change is long and boring. The work will be tiresome and tedious. Advocacy at your state and local legislatures will likely not bring with it a social media following. Lobbying for bills to get out of committees on economic development and education will not be a bomb of a tweet. You’ll get more of a response posting the video of a police officer beating a protester than you will of posting a screenshot of the agenda for your state senate’s personnel and administrations’ committee, but you should take note of what indicates a worthwhile performance.

“Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene, VII “All the World’s a Stage” spoken by Jacques

An Ongoing Conversation

In light of recent and ongoing events, I invited back previous guests Steph Hunt and Tom Ward to the show for a conversation. Steph is the director of the African American and Latino Scholars program at Brookline High School; Tom is a Deputy Superintendent with the Brookline Police. I originally had each of them on the show because they are two individuals trying to make the world a better place in their own way. That remains to be the case today. This is not a debate, but a conversation between two good people. Available on iTunes, Stitcher, and link below.