The Objectifying of the Other and Striving to See Subjects Rather Than Objects
Last month I had the privilege of hearing Mosaic Theater Company Artistic Director Ari Roth speak at my parents’ synagogue in Potomac, Maryland, as part of a brown-bag speaker series organized by my father.
Roth had recently founded Mosaic Theater Company, and my dad wanted to bring Roth to the synagogue to speak about the theater’s upcoming season.
My parents also expected perhaps a bit of controversy. The forecast was warm and partly cloudy, with a 50 percent chance of heckling.
Last year, despite 18 years of service, Roth was fired* from Theater J, a Jewish theater run by the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center.
His crime? Having the audacity, the temerity to attempt to make Theater J an inclusive stage that actually includes non-Jewish points of view.
Specifically, Roth was dismissed following a firestorm over his decision to stage The Admission, a play by Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner about a purported massacre of Palestinian villagers in 1948 by Israeli soldiers. This clearly was a bridge too far for the intolerant, Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd that sadly dominates American discourse.
It should be noted that Roth has staged controversial plays in Israel that did not result in the same degree of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending. In Israel, Roth does not run the same risk of being denounced as a propagandist.
Much to my parents’ relief, there was not a torch-and-pitchfork-wielding crowd. Most of the attendees were supportive and genuinely interested in Roth’s plans for Mosaic and the continuation of his vision of multi-cultural inclusiveness.
However, there was one rather distinguished-looking man who seemed interested in baiting Roth. He called him a leftist and linked him with Noam Chomsky. Roth embraced the former and rejected the latter. In fact, Roth specifically identified himself as a liberal Zionist, which flies in the face of how many Jews perceive him.
The man also asked Roth what he was doing for the “God of Israel.”
Roth’s reply was priceless:
“I didn’t know there were other gods for other people.”
I am not a practicing Jew, but I do identify as Jewish—on my Facebook page, I describe myself as a Jewish atheist with pagan leanings.
This is just the sort of thing that pisses me off about my fellow Jews. I applaud Roth for his artful response. If he was as pissed off as I was, it did not show. I doubt I could have been as diplomatic. Or witty.
But herein lies the problem. If you believe your god is the one and true god, and if you believe that this god belongs exclusively to you and your people, then most likely your perception of other peoples will reflect this belief.
These other people become the Other, something to fear and loathe, something to view as an object of scorn.
In the car, on the way to the synagogue, my girlfriend talked about how her father would state that non-Catholics were doomed to burn in hell. My parents told a story about a couple they were friends with, one Catholic, one Protestant. The children were raised Catholic. One child came home from Sunday school crying because she had been told one of her parents would be going to hell.
Not us. Not like us. The Other.
Recently, I attended WisCon, a large feminist and multi-cultural science fiction convention here in Madison, Wisconsin. One panel I went to dealt with harmful tropes, specifically, the Magical Negro and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It was a real eye-opener and forced me to ask myself some very straightforward questions. I am not sure if I liked my answers.
Not to rehash the entire discussion, but the bottom line is that these harmful tropes are created when writers fail to portray fully developed, three-dimensional characters. Instead, they fall back on stereotypes. This does not necessarily mean the writer is racist, sexist or any kind of -ist, but they really should have cared enough to do the work necessary to not fall into this trap. The writer should have worked harder and should have been willing to the do some thorough self-examination.
Sad to say, the writer who creates tropes instead of fully drawn characters is creating an atmosphere of objectification, where some characters are merely objects. And in so doing, they foster a sense of the Other.
And this relates to how we all see the world.
When we create our personal narratives, how do we draw the characters that inhabit the stage inside our heads?
Do we create fully drawn, three-dimensional characters? Or do we objectify those who are not like us?
Is our stage an inclusive community? Or is our stage a place of Us and Them?
When we view one as an object, we take away their humanity. We take away their sense of belonging. We feel no empathy for the object, so when something bad happens to it, we don’t care.
It is imperative that we see other people and other peoples as subjects, not objects. For his part, I applaud Ari Roth. I hope to see one his plays sometime in the future. He deserves our support. I am also very proud of my parents for supporting Roth. I doubt they share all his beliefs, but they care and respect him enough to fight for his freedom of expression, even braving potential torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mobs.
We all can’t be Ari Roth. But what we can do is act on the personal level. And that starts with perception.
That starts by making the stage inside our head a more welcoming, inclusive place.