Executive Director's Note: Wedge Issue
Monday, November 24, 2014
By Brad Erickson
Politicians know that certain hot-button issues can both divide an electorate and elicit passionate responses on either side. Both parties try to exploit this phenomenon to their advantage, "firing up the base" and drawing a clear line of demarcation between one side and the other. Wedge issues erase the middle ground and banish compromise. One is either for "marriage equality" or against it. One either supports "a woman's right to choose" or you oppose it. You are either for the rights of "undocumented immigrants" or you oppose "illegal aliens."
Photo: "The Split" by Ian Sane on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.
In each of these examples language is crucial. Berkeley linguist George Lakoff explains how issues are "framed" by the language used to describe them. The words used to name an issue point to a frame with hidden connotations that tilt the argument one way or another. "Tax relief" immediately implies an existing state that is painful or burdensome. Likewise the subtext beneath "tax reform" says something is morally amiss and needs correcting. As "global warming" started to acquire negative political implications, the term was swapped for "climate change" and progressives began to gain traction.
As part of Theatre Bay Area's strategic planning process, we embarked on a four-city listening tour. Some of the issues raised were familiar; others were more surprising. Perhaps the most unexpected finding was the deep divide around one of our draft outcomes (or goals) and its correlating strategy. As we laid out the draft of our strategic plan, we found that almost exactly half of the participants were stridently in support of this particular component, while the other half was just as strongly opposed. No other points in the emerging plan drew such a heated response.
The outcome that aroused such passionate reactions posits a not-too-far-off future where "excellence is recognized for Bay Area theatre companies, individual theatre makers and the Bay Area theatre community as a whole." To achieve that goal, we proposed a strategy of "furthering theatre-making excellence." So what sparked the controversy? The word "excellence."
Those of us working on our new plan have spent the last month mulling over the cause of the rift, and with the inaugural celebration of the TBA Awards just weeks away, the idea of recognizing "excellence" has become a workday reality, not just some abstract goal. Why do the supporters of "excellence" insist so passionately that this is exactly what our region's theatre community needs—that artistic excellence should be recognized and rewarded? And what makes others recoil so viscerally from the term?
I wondered if a little etymology might help. What does "excellence" actually mean, anyway? "Excellence" in various dictionaries is defined with concepts like "preeminence, distinction, having merit, or virtue." Seems harmless enough. Or, from Wikipedia, "a talent or quality which is unusually good..." Right, fine. "And so surpasses ordinary standards." Hold on. There, I suspect, we have it. The word "standards." Whose standards? Those who opposed the use of "excellence" seemed to fear that the work, their work, might be judged by some outside and ill-fitting criteria to which these theatre-makers do not ascribe. "My work is funky!" asserted one detractor. "Yes, and funky can be excellent!" rebutted a proponent.
Was it just the word or the concept itself that was the sticking point? We asked the participants to offer other words that could be substituted for "excellence." Several people suggested "achievement." Those who argued for "excellence" would not be placated. Achievement was a good thing, they said, but not the same as excellence. What about "rigor" or "critical discourse"? Nope. We had a seemingly unbridgeable divide, a wedge issue.
We'll need to wrestle with this a good while longer. I suspect no one argues for making theatre that is mediocre or slipshod. Artists make many kinds of theatre for varying reasons. An after-school drama program for at-risk teenagers has one set of goals, a gorgeously designed Restoration comedy another, an experimental, site-specific devised performance a third. Cannot each of these projects be excellent in their own way, on their own terms? By clearly defining our goal—our intended impact—can we not articulate an appropriate standard by which to assess the success of our work?
The writers of Wikipedia expound that "excellence is a continuously moving target that can be pursued through actions of integrity...meeting all obligations and continuously learning and improving in all spheres to pursue the moving target." Here is a vision of a perpetually advancing goal that can pursued for a lifetime—with rigor and the counsel of critical discourse—and, if never quite achieved, then at times tantalizingly approached. And that accomplishment, that proximity to the excellence we ourselves imagine, deserves to be recognized—and celebrated.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.