This week, we read “Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening” by Wallace Shawn. I read up a little about the context of this essay — it was in response to the way people reacted to Shawn’s play, Aunt Dan and Lemon, about a young, sick girl, influenced by a charismatic family friend to support Nazism. The New York Times reviewer from that time writes, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a play make an audience so uncomfortable, and I mean that as high praise.”
The essay discusses how we enjoy watching film and other media about historical figures we know to be evil, like slave-holders or Hitler, because we enjoy a sense of superiority in knowing that we would never have supported them if we lived in that time period. Shawn challenges this idea, saying that the clarity of time-passed gives us “over-confidence” that we are somehow morally better and smarter than the people who lived back then. There were lots of things that were convincing and refreshing about Hitler, and of course those people who supported him at the time could not see into the future at the atrocities he would commit.
Reading this, the parallels to our current election are pretty obvious, as a lot of people have been comparing Trump to Hitler for the same reasons. If the worst case scenario happens, will our great-grandchildren (assuming they exist after the climate apocalypse) look back at us with the same feeling people currently have for those that stood by and let Hitler win?
The piece is a good reminder that we’re naturally easily influenced by the narratives created by people close to us, or by the media we consume. “Intellectual clarity seems to be a very important weapon in the fight against evil, although ‘clarity’ is of course a very difficult concept to define,” Shawn writes. “I think staying awake rather than falling asleep when people are talking to you is an important component of the definition of clarity.” This line reminds me of the thing people say these days: “Stay woke.”