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Stages of Resistance

Octavio Solis Headshot
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 ways in which progressive, 
wholistic cultural change may be instigated through art. Stay tuned for more!

Back in 1949, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determined that people weren’t being readily exposed to the great variety of viewpoints in the United States. So, they introduced this thing called the Fairness Doctrine, a policy to enable radio stations across the country to tackle controversial issues of public importance by presenting both sides of the issues. It was an effort to try to be “fair and balanced” before it became a slogan. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to present a discussion of tough subjects, and to air contrasting views on these subjects. These views weren’t necessarily given equal time, but they were required to be presented. How they were presented often left a little more to be desired, but in essence, people were able to hear the other side. Through this method, Americans were duly exposed to each others’ voices, feelings, and opinions on matters that gravely affected their daily lives. 

One thing, though. The Fairness Doctrine was only a policy, not a law. The FCC had a right to apply the policy in areas where there was a dearth of broadcast access, but they were not obliged to follow it. So, the courts gradually chipped away at its potency, and with pressure from the Reagan Administration, the Fairness Doctrine was revoked, since some determined it hurt the public interest and violated the free speech amendment. With the advent of cable televisions, the proliferation of talk radio and the explosion of the Internet, it seemed apparent that just about anyone who wanted to express their opinion could find access and airwaves more readily than before. By August 2011, the Fairness Doctrine language was repealed and removed from the FCC rulebook.

The problem is that now everyone can locate their own express platform without ever coming in contact with anyone else’s. There are hardly any places where the multiplicity of viewpoints can be heard, where the grey matter surrounding the most controversial subjects of our day won't be immediately rendered in black and white. You either watch MSNBC or you watch Fox News. You either listen to Rush Limbaugh or you listen to The Young Turks. You either read the New York Times or you read The Washington Times. Consequently, we are all shouting into our respective echo chambers and drowning out the voices of others.

I have my own beliefs and I can trumpet them whenever I can, but among my peers I don’t have to; we already believe more or less the same thing. (Lately, it’s commiseration we share, anyway, and that gets tedious after a while.) It’s in the public forum with those who disagree with me that my opinions matter most.  Exchange of information, experience, and belief is crucial to our understanding of our common humanity. But without the Fairness Doctrine, my voice is land-locked, hemmed in along with the shared views of my friends and colleagues. I am not the sum total of my stand on the issues, but in this highly-politicized environment, I feel reduced to that.

I think this FCC policy the media outlets have been divested of can and should be taken up by the Theater. I believe the Theater can be a place not just for expressing the artist’s own views and beliefs, but those of the opposing side. It’s scary and perhaps self-defeating to grant some precious stage time to present those who think differently and stand for different things than I do, but how are we to know who we are, how are we to communicate with each other if we don’t include those other voices? How are we to realize the complexity of our situation and the various effects of our choices on others? The Theater is a master class in conflict and lately it has enrolled the issues of our deeply divided country in some of its more recent offerings. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat addresses without resorting to polemic the hard, almost insoluble, problems our working class is coping with, in a world where villains and heroes are irrelevant. Lisa Loomer’s Roe confronts the situation of Norma Leah McCorvey Nelson, the immensely-conflicted woman who became the lightning rod for both the Right to Choose and Right to Life campaigns, and she does it with compassion and understanding for the people on both sides of the equation. It takes tremendous grace on the part of these playwrights to trust that the viewer will know they stand not on this side or that side, but inside the human being caught in the vise of history.

Playwrights, plays, artists, the Theater: none of us really need the Fairness Doctrine. But right now the nation does. If only for this time. So that we may grasp in some small measure how the other side’s struggle is really our own.