Monday, 28 November 2016


Conflict Is Not Abuse is the simple, eloquent title of a fascinating and controversial new book by Sarah Schulman. Schulman’s thesis is that conflict and abuse are very different things. However, in contemporary culture they are taken to be synonyms. Though Schulman is an American, she recently spent some time in Canada, and her observations are particularly relevant to Canadian culture.
Schulman is very careful to explain that she certainly understands people are abused, and that abuse is a significant, often tragic issue.  But she dares to challenge what I would call modern ‘victim culture’. Schulman uses case studies referencing social work, Israeli/Palestinian relations— as well as HIV criminalization — to make her points. 
Schulman’s argument concerning HIV criminalization is especially relevant to Canada, where an inordinately large percentage of black heterosexual men (along with some white men and women, both straight and gay) have been charged with assault and/or murder for not disclosing to their sexual partners their HIV status. Emotionally volatile reactions to this sexually transmitted disease cloud the issue. However Schulman asserts that those who charge their sexual partners with assault or murder for not disclosing their HIV status should instead themselves be responsible for protecting their own health. These so-called ‘victims’ should demand their partners use condoms. And now of course — in addition to condoms — we have access (for those who can afford it!) to the enormously effective HIV preventative drug PREP. Schulman reminds us that HIV education traditionally recommends  that everyone take responsibility for their own health. This philosophy has done much to prevent the spread of HIV. Why should we abandon it now? The non-disclosure issue is conflict — says Schulman — not criminal abuse.
But, possibly because Canadian culture is essentially kinder and gentler than American culture, we are particularly prone to confusing the two notions. This is particularly true where it comes to hate speech. I have always opposed this legal concept — not because I don’t think that some speech is regrettable and hateful — but because as a writer I would not wish to see language criminalized. My most recent novel is Sad Old Faggot. This title might seem offensive or even abusive to some. I think it should be my right to use these words.
Schulman’s thesis sheds light on two recent contemporary Canadian issues. First there is the case of Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has refused to call his transgender students by their preferred pronouns. This is conflict, not abuse. It should not come under the criminal or human rights code. However Peterson’s actions are beyond insensitive and the university should discipline him for not treating his students with respect, as this is a primary responsibility for any teacher.
Similarly, there is much discussed Steven Galloway case. It’s important to remember that Steven Galloway, formerly a professor at UBC, was (rightly or wrongly) accused of abuse. Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is not an abuser and should not be accused of it when she defends him. It is deplorable that the defense letter which she signed felt it necessary to shed skepticism on the claims of the victims in the Steven Galloway case. But this is conflict, not abuse.

It’s about time that we begin to ponder the difference.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Brent Hawkes’ Trailer Party

Brent Hawkes —Toronto’s beloved gay pastor — is on trial for molesting a 16 year old boy in Nova Scotia. I must say, this animates my animus towards him. For years, I have hated Brent Hawkes. There, I said it.
If you are part of the Brent Hawkes fan club, perhaps you should not read on.
I will disclose. I’ve been watching Brent Hawkes from the time that Buddies in Bad Times Theatre was having trouble with the City of Toronto (and Rob Ford — at that time a rookie on city council). We were in trouble because we wanted to take over the 12 Alexander Street building (which Buddies presently calls home). We had a lot of opposition from Christian Right homophobes (and the Toronto Sun) who were trying to block our bid for the building.
At that time we were looking for support from well respected members of the gay community — in fact we needed that support to survive. And we couldn’t get Brent Hawkes to make a statement in support of us. We didn’t know why. Finally I enlisted a spy — a young man who was going door to door to raise money for the Buddies’ cause. He went to Brent Hawkes door to ask Brent for a donation,  and this very attractive young person was somehow able to pry loose Brent Hawkes tongue — for Hawkes confessed to him that he would never publicly support Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
I will never forgive Brent Hawkes for that betrayal. 
This incident is at the heart of my anger at Brent Hawkes; but I also feel it’s relevant to the present trial.
I believe the Reverend Hawkes was unwilling to get behind Buddies in Bad Times Theatre so many years ago because Buddies philosophy has always been pro-sex. This means we always thought that sex is fine, in fact joyful — even when it is not part of marriage or a loving relationship. I personally believe that any consensual act of sex is, in fact, love — and that people who are promiscuous are not bad or sick — just joyful — and they should not be judged but prized. To quote Hannah Jelkes in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana: “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it's unkind, violent.” 
Apparently this philosophy was a bit foo dangerous for Brent Hawkes to be associated with.
Now I am not going to suggest that Brent Hawkes is guilty of molestation. I really don’t know.
But I will make one small — but I think important observation — that comes from all this. 
Unfortunately Christianity has become a very good place for molesters to hide.
Consider Donald Trump who, as we all know, likes to grab women in the ‘you-know-what’ — without consent. And yet, the Christian Right in American is supporting him, many whole heartedly. Then there are the molestation scandals that were carefully hidden by the Catholic church for so many years. 
If you ally yourself with Christianity, some will think you are respectable. But nowadays being Christian is no guarantee of respectability. Christianity has become a religion that -- though it may boast some kind, caring, understanding believers -- also welcomes a significant constituency who have lost their heart, their love, and their tolerance, and replaced those (once considered Christian) virtues with ‘unkindness and violence.’
Welcome to ‘Brent Hawkes Trailer Party!’

For me, this invitation is a symbol of the lies, hate, and molestation that have infected Christianity, and now, with the election of Donald Trump, threaten to infect us all.

Friday, 11 November 2016

No Intermission

I’ve been complaining about this for a long time, but what is actually going on here?
Try and find me a play with an intermission; they no longer exist. 
Last night I went to see Breathing Corpses at Coal Mine Theatre. They lady at the door said the play would last one hour and and half.
I timed it; Breathing Corpses clocked in at a cool one hour and forty five minutes. 
Nothing against Coalmine, it’s happening all over; and this was the latest hit from The Royal Court Theatre. Well obviously they will have no truck with intermissions in London, England, either. 
Dare I ask; what does ‘intermission’ mean
You might say; well people just had shorter attention spans back in the day.
Is that really true?
We know that years and years ago (like in the late 19th century) plays had three acts, and each act was a half hour long, and there were two fifteen minute intermissions between each.
Sure — you might say — time to have tea, have a drink, socialize.
I think it’s something more.
It all has to do with our relationship to reality.
Nowadays you can you can’t see a movie without these words popping up before the title:
“Based on a true story.”
Yes, from Ravi Jain chatting up his Mum to a couple of guys trying to figure out whether they are winners or losers, we live in the era of reality theatre, reality TV, reality everything. Hey, we’re not interested in anything that’s fiction, anything that’s made up.
The ‘no intermission’ thing started way back with Strindberg (incidentally, the founder of naturalism). You see, intermissions are too ‘metatheatrical’ too ‘suspension of disbelief’ — for those obsessed with truth. After all, what do you do at intermission? You turn to your friend or lover, and say “Here we are at the play, and you ask them ‘What is the theme of the play?" And they ask you — who is the best actor in the play, that is, who is the most convincing at pretending to be someone else?
But nowadays we don’t want to be reminded that we are watching a play. We do not wish to remember that what we are seeing is fiction.
After all, the new theatre buzzword is ‘immersive.’
But along with our insatiable hunger for reality, we may have forgotten something…….
theatre is not real; it’s unabashedly, perversely and deliciously, fake.
And though we like too imagine that some of us are more truthful than others, that some of us speak the truth and value the truth, more than others — could it be that we are all quite happy to live in our own separate fictions?
I dare you.
Come out into the lobby. 
We can share a cigarette and a drink, and gossip a little bit about who this actor is sleeping with or this actress is flirting with, about what’s going on behind the scenes.
Because after all it’s just a play.
Remember what it was like — long ago and far away?

When there was ‘make believe’?