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Combating Tribalism

Stages of Resistance

Sam Oppenheim leans forward, resting his folded hands on a chain link fence.
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." 
The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!

Our current world is entrenched to the point where we are arguably unable to listen to other perspectives. To the point there is no room for one party to acknowledge the other. People feel they have to go 100% to defend their side and protect themselves. A primary driver in our despair is this fear of giving ammunition to the other side. Tribalism is overt, and any sort of compromise or concession would mean you are selling out. But we cannot live in an echo chamber.

This semester I presented a series of staged readings through Emory University’s Theater Studies Department. Actors read Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children and Deborah Margolin’s Seven Palestinian Children, two ten-minute plays that address the Arab-Israeli conflict from different perspectives. While these accounts may not give a holistic picture of the issue, they are raw, honest, and accomplish so much in only ten minutes. They successfully explore the multiplicity of the human spirit.

My goal was not to endorse one piece over another. Rather, I was trying to encourage people to give these plays a listen, look at the bigger picture, and ultimately acknowledge “the other.” Playwright Deb Margolin said it best when she described it as neither a Jewish nor Palestinian, but rather a human problem. I was eager to explore the series of traumas that can deter us from realizing the humanity of this other. I wanted to use theater as a vehicle to restore the compassion that has evidently been lost.

I thought Emory’s diverse, liberal campus would welcome these stimulating works, and foster this dialogue. But the road was sadly not as smooth as anticipated. I understand the conversation I was attempting to encourage was far from simple. Each audience member inevitably has an immediate, visceral response. We do not have to agree, but we do have to engage, to look and see if they could identify with those they are not familiar with. I challenged the audience to listen to that other side.

One intellectual on campus invalidated the works as a whole, given they were not written by victims on the inside. I was discouraged to learn art can lose credibility and worth in the eyes of some when plots are constructed. In response, I argue political art cannot be viewed exclusively from an academic perspective. Audiences must recognize that such works include a degree of artistry, and cannot be internalized the same way words are read from the page of a textbook, especially in the instance of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is just as much an emotional issue as a historical one.

Another individual felt these works sought moral equivalency between the two sides, which in his mind was undoubtedly wrong. While the two works explore multiple perspectives, they are not to be juxtaposed and weighed one against the other. Rather, the audience needs to sit and listen to the narrative of the other. Theater was my vehicle in holding the attention of my viewers captive.

And as with any piece of theater, the actors left their hard work on the stage, and life continued on. I continue to question in this world of zealousness and hate whether we can truly hear the other side. If we are to transcend, we are to first acknowledge. And that cannot happen unless we get a whole lot less frightened of the conversation.