Of Theatre and Reason

by Paul Buller

I love action movies. Give me some good stunts, big guns and some fiery explosions and I’m in my element. I soak it up, enjoy a small boost of testosterone and feel like I’m just about ready to charge out of the theatre and take on the bad guys myself.

But, when I walk out of the theatre I don’t actually take on the bad guys. I don’t buy a small cache of guns and grenades and embark on some vigilante mission to save the world. I understand that drama may inspire some kind of emotional response within me, but practical considerations sometimes keeps me from acting on that response. Sometimes it is the other way around; practical considerations may inspire some action I don’t particularly feel like doing (hitting the gym instead of the couch). But what if some people had a tougher time making that distinction? Or, a more frightening prospect; what if some people were so good at theatre that they could conjure up a strong emotional response and inspire their audience to forego ever questioning their emotional response? What if you are their audience?

Recently a video by Phil Snider on homosexuality has gone viral. In it he compares the gay rights movement to the anti-segregationist movement in the 50′s and 60′s. He was using drama (fairly obviously; he pretends to have brought the wrong notes, etc) in order to make his point. But, as others have observed, what exactly was his point? This article at First Things that describes his speech as “brilliant theatre in service of a distortion” raises some very valid questions.

I do not mean to take anything away from his dramatic effectiveness, but there’s something in the technique he employed that so takes the breath away, and so impresses the audience, that it becomes difficult to distinguish the performance from the argument.

And what was that argument?

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A valid question. The author speculates on precisely what the argument was and offers his rebuttal of it (all valid discussion) but I want to look at this whole thing from a different perspective.

Phil Snider made a highly dramatic point, but a point in which the argument was largely unclear. In other words, he presented his case with a high degree of emotional impact and dramatic flare but at the end of the theatrics one is left wondering, “what, precisely, was his case?” The conclusion of his argument is perfectly clear; support gay rights. The effect he wished to produce in his audience – and it is an effect which he quite likely did produce with a lot of people – was to accept his conclusion without questioning his argument. The effect was rooted squarely in drama, not in reason. His drama was intended to make people feel that who oppose gay marriage are analogous to the people who opposed racial equality. He wants us to feel that it is the same category of moral mistake simply being expressed in two very different flavours. One centered on race the other on sexual orientation. If opposing the one was evil then opposing the other is evil…


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