Integrating the Unthinkable: How to Respond to Election 2016
Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.
“No one should forget the bigotry and racism of his campaign, the naked appeals to white grievance, the stigmatizing of Mexicans and Muslims. No one should forget the jaw-dropping ignorance he showed about government policy both foreign and domestic. No one should forget the vile misogyny. No one should forget the mendacity, the vulgarity, the ugliness, the insanity. None of this should ever be normalized in our politics.”
-Eugene Robinson, Washington Post
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
I’m making the assumption that most readers of PerformInk did not support nor vote for our president-elect. If your candidate won this election – congratulations. This article is not for you.
As the shock of this year’s election results begins to subside, artists of all kinds are trying to figure out how best to respond. Many of my clients, colleagues and friends have been shaken to the core by the flood of emotions evoked by the events of November 8th. I’m guessing that you, your families and your friends are experiencing similar feelings of disorientation, disbelief, anger and despondency.
We’re all wondering: how could this have happened? How, in 2016, could this country elect an individual who shamelessly employed such openly divisive, violent language vilifying already marginalized and oppressed communities of Americans? However we might feel about his positions on public policy, it’s a demonstrable fact that this man has legitimized (through his words and deeds) hate speech, and made it acceptable to attack, harass and badmouth people who are not white, straight, American-born and Christian. How did we let this person become our nation’s leader?
As we try to process these strong feelings, more questions arise: Now what? How are we, as citizens and artists, going to respond to this shattering turn of events? What is ours to do?
Leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are urging Americans to protest and to engage in various forms of resistance. The ACLU, Black Lives Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups are organizing lobbying campaigns, street actions, and a march on Washington, D.C. in January. Social media is rife with memes and videos calling for a national vote recount, the repeal of the Electoral College and many other potential remedies for this disastrous election.
Coming together with like-minded people for these kinds of actions is a great way to counteract the sense of loss and hopelessness that many of us have felt. If you feel called to hit the streets, write letters to your representatives in Congress or donate your time and treasure to ‘the cause’, do it! But, as a performing artist, you also have the opportunity to put your talents and skills to good use, if you want to do so.
In general, artists tend to be more sensitive to external events, more expressive, and more socially conscious than average. A high percentage of performing artists are under 40, and folks with non-majority genders and sexualities are overly represented among us. We’re not there yet, but the arts community seems to be ahead of the curve with regard to racial, ethnic and religious diversity. These characteristics and demographics may account for the outsized impact the election results are having among our collaborators and colleagues. Not only are many of us potential targets of verbal and physical abuse, we may also be more likely to feel overwhelmed by the complex whorl of resulting emotions.
The upside of sensitivity and expressiveness is that, as artists, we have the ability to use our strong emotional reactions in creative ways. We know how to take our sadness, pain and anger and use it to fuel our work. Our passions motivate us – to write, to sing, to dance, to act.
Whether or not your work is overtly political is immaterial. Some may want to follow in the footsteps of artists like Bertolt Brecht, Tony Kushner, Lorraine Hansberry, Martha Graham or William Forsythe. There’s plenty of contemporary drama, dance and music that directly addresses racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry. Perhaps you’re not drawn to this kind of theater or dance. But whatever work you choose do, know that you can use your powerful responses to this tragic election to energize your creativity. It’s one of the best ways to begin the healing process.