Monday, December 9, 2013

The Want vs. Need Discussion / Thoughts on Effective Altruism and Censorship

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................."

An interesting discussion going on in the arts blogosphere over perceiving what the audience / public want v. what they need -  first broached by Nina Simon, with follow ups from Diane Ragsdale, Doug Borwick, and entries with related topics by Ian David Moss, Howard Sherman and Clay Lord.

There really isn't much to add to Nina's, Diane's and Doug's thinking, plus the comments of a score of people on the topic on their blogs.  And I agree with most of which each of them offers.  I personally feel even stronger that when we talk about what the audience or our public "needs" (talking to them as opposed to amongst ourselves) we are on shaky ground; that it is seen as presumptive, arrogant and patronizing.  Moreover, selling what we offer as satisfying what we in our infinite wisdom conclude people need is a failed strategy if, for no other reason, it is so easy to equate what we think they need, with what we want.    If we want to argue that society "needs" the arts, then I agree wholeheartedly and think we can make a convincing case for that proposition.  But when we make a value judgement as to what individuals in our siloed spheres need, we assume perhaps too much and risk alienating those people if we direct our conclusions towards them.  And, of course, we might very well just get it wrong.

I think Artists clearly have the absolute right to create as they see fit, based on whatever assumptions they may wish to make.  If they create in response to what they identify as a need, or a want or anything else - then that is their right; they may choose to make those assumptions based on what motivations work for them.  And artists who wish to create with no consideration whatsoever as to need, or want - also have the unbridled right to do so.

Arts organizations that wish to identify what they think is a need and respond to it also have the right to do so.  But it seems to me anyway very shaky ground, fraught with risk.  Organizations that try to identify 'wants' --  whether to appeal to a broader base or for whatever other reason, have a right to do so too, though it seems they must be willing to brave the criticisms and attacks that to do so panders to their constituents and somehow compromises their artistic integrity, if not their core missions.  One camp in our field urges organizations to address the concerns, needs and wants of their communities; another decries that approach as basically "selling out".   I leave it for others to sort it out.

What people "need" is highly subjective, while what they "want" may arguably be more possible to determine.  The problem is hardly mitigated by substituting "value" for "need", for again, it is difficult to ascertain what people value as distinguished from what they want - and why.

Ian's piece on Createquity is tangentially related to this discussion.  He talks about the growing idea of "effective altruism" - a concept purporting to embed ethical and moral overtones in its quest to make philanthropic giving pass the bar of someone's definition of being effective:
"It means taking the time to analyze how to do the most amount of good possible with the resources available" 
EA argues that:
"Those causes that can save or improve the most lives must take first priority."
Is philanthropy then just a numbers game?  That approach, despite the argument that arriving at how to best accomplish the objective of the most good for the most people may be factually discernible, is really but another way of saying "we" (in this case the Effective Altruists) can and do know best what the (greatest) need is.   Presumptive, arrogant and patronizing - at least as their conclusions ought to dictate what everyone thinks.

And if this is all reduced to some formula, would it be reliable?  If the only criteria is to save or improve the greatest number of lives, how do you know that arts in the schools might not yield us one student whose life was so changed by that intersection that he/she would grow up to be the artist / scientist that cured cancer.  A short term numbers game seems myopic at best.

I was in the Southeast Asian Tsunami of the last decade.  250,000 people died in that natural disaster, in part because very few understood what to do in the case of a Tsunami, and there was no effective warning system in place.  Arguably, addressing that need would save more lives than some other EA priority focus. Is it relevant to factor in the odds of something happening or not happening?   Or if you want to drill deeper, the unavoidable fact is that all the good you do to save or improve some lives (eradicating disease, providing safe drinking water) pales when faced with the inalterable fact that if you don't do something to stem the tide of overpopulation, than for every one you save, a hundred are born to take their place.  Overpopulation trumps every effort to get any kind of handle on the problems facing those most in dire straits.  So there is arguably no other cause that matters.  Or one might argue that to really change and improve the most lives, you have to change the political situations around the globe that disenfranchise people and allow corruption to keep the many from the benefits their governments ought to provide.  Then the only "acceptable" place to put your money would be in ways to change those political situations.  The point is that despite the claims of the EAs, determining where the biggest need is, isn't necessarily so easy.

And though EA's don't deny there is a self-benefit to doing good work (as they define it), to suggest that is not one of their primary motivating factors is disingenuous.  That they feel they are on the "right" path to doing good  (and presumptively the rest of us are not), is sanctimonious and self-serving.  It is precisely their feeling of implied superiority to those who give to causes that might not necessarily yield the most good for the most people that EAs embrace, that is offensive.  Who died and left you guys the Kings to tell the rest of us that the good we seek to do isn't enough?; that doing good is only a numbers game - an ultimately unprovable one at that.

You can't tell people that doing good only matters if it fits someone else's self defined notion of what people "need". And that is exactly what the EAs seem to me to be doing.   If you want moral certitude, any number of orthodox religions will gladly give you guidance.  There is simply no real way to determine what, in the long run, will actually change and benefit the most people.  Of course, if the EAs reject the long run in favor of the moment, then I'm afraid their whole posture is just silly. That said, I think the E/A concept might (emphasizing 'might') be productive (as a concept) within any discussion of how we might allocate our scarce resources in the arts.  Productive, not dispositive.

Finally, Howard Sherman wrote a compelling blog about a high school principal that cancelled a production of the play Rent by his students in what (from the tone of articles and comments about the incident) appeared to be a pandering to those (not in the student body apparently, but in the community) who might find the subject matter troubling or offensive or inappropriate.  On its face, the principal likely had the "right" to his decision, and his posture seemed rational and even reasonable.  Yet his action was unquestionably, despite denials, censorship.  In a letter purporting to explain his rationale, he cited the need for a "safe" environment for his students, though it would seem that perhaps his "need" for a safe environment was more political.  Nowhere did he mention creating a "safe academic" environment - you know, where the free flow of ideas, even those that might be troubling, are the goal of education and academia.  It seems he had little confidence in those seniors principally involved (though the play was not exclusively a senior production) in the production to handle the challenge of dealing - without supervision and prolonged preparation - a play that dealt with real world issues.   And that strikes me as odd given that in just a few months time those seniors will be enrolled in colleges, able to vote, fight in our military and assume the mantle of young adulthood.  One wonders just what kind of magic morphing the students do in those few months to be able to handle the provocative issues - issues which I would bet they are already very familiar with anyway.

But the issue here is, once again, someone determining what need exists - in this case the need for the students and the community to be shielded and protected from possibly controversial subject matter.  That the principal may have had the right in this case (we tend to ratify decisions theoretically made to protect the innocence of youth) to his decision, doesn't change the notion that when making the subjective decision about who needs what and why - there is an element of presumption that carries with it the risk of backlash (in this case a student body, parental bloc and community that is appalled by the decision.) Moreover, one group's needs may run counter to the needs of another group.  And, of course, that you may simply be wrong.

Finally, Clay Lord in his New Beans post on the high school Rent brouhaha, opines (in speaking about the Principal's decision to cancel the performance until (perhaps) "it can (be) produced later with a lot of context-making activities and conversations to help people understand why it’s being produced") :
"I don’t, for example, find it censorious – I find it, given the climate, rather liberal.  In a town like Trumbull, I’d imagine that a high school musical Rent without appropriate context would serve a much smaller and more incendiary purpose than it might if placed in a larger conversation, where more people could have more nuanced conversations about what it means, why it’s relevant, and where the artistic desire to push outside of comfort aligns with the community’s desire to adhere to certain values."
With all due respect to Clay, (and his piece above is an excellent consideration of the 'other side' of issues and should be read in its entirety), I completely disagree.  The principal's action was definitionally censorship:
"an examination in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable"
whether or not there may be an argument justifying the censorship.  Art is sometimes (often) considered objectionable by someone, somewhere.  While working more closely with, and within, our communities is both a laudable goal and a practical survival necessity for us, I also believe we must resist attempts to marginalize artists and their work by buying into the notion that someone else's perceived need with respect to a work of art, or its presentation, especially because of an objection, is something that governs, if not trumps, the art itself and the artist's need to have the freedom to create (and yes, even offend).  It isn't our job to necessarily provide even "nuanced conversations about what something means or why it's relevant."  We can do that, and sometimes we should do that, but it can be a dangerous precedent and we ought to be championing the right of the artist and the art in the balance.

According to the articles on this matter, the principal denied knowing Rent would be the production, but there is ample evidence that there were numerous casting calls from the beginning of the term and that production has proceeded to auditions.  If he didn't know, he ought to have known.  Though I may be wrong, it seems likely his reservations were occasioned by someone or some small group who found it objectionable.  I certainly agree that preparation with everyone before the mounting of the play would have been helpful (and the articles make it clear that this was a Student version of the play and that there was a wealth of materials to help with the presentation of a Student version), but I think it dangerous that we adopt the position that if anyone objects to a work of art, we are always obligated to bend to their will and explain it all to them so they will be ok with it - especially as in this instance, where there was substantial opposition to the kind of knee jerk reaction that this principal seems to have engaged in.  Needs based on the tyranny of the minority.

I am assuming attendance at the presentation of Rent in the high school situation was not mandatory, and anyone who thought they might be offended or find it objectionable could have simply chosen not to attend.  That is always the choice with art.  You don't have to engage with it.  This play's cancellation was due to someone identifying and satisfying their own need rather than whatever the need was of the group they purported to 'need' protection.  And very likely not at all what the students nor the community really wanted - but rather playing to the needs and wants of a much smaller niche.

In the end there are lots of "needs" out there.  And it is virtually always a subjective exercise to identify them.  We ought to try to understand what those needs may be.  Some may be arguably more pressing than others, but who gets to decide?  Who speaks for whom, and when?

And, of course, there is a vast range of wants out there too - even if, as Steve Jobs said, sometimes people just don't know what they want.

As Diane suggested, what WE need to do is to figure out why we are not connecting with greater numbers of people.  We all want to do that.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit