Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: Stirring Up Shit, Stirring Up Anxieties

Marissa Skudlarek, stirring shit up in her own particular way.

You’ve thrown down a gauntlet, Mr. Bousel, with your “In Defense of Stirring Shit Up” column — and since that piece of writing is so clearly begging for a response, yet has gone unanswered, I feel like it’s my duty to engage with it.

I consider myself an artist, an advocate for intellectual freedom, someone who desires a more honest and engaged and thoughtful society. Yet parts of your essay frighten me, as I think of taking your conclusions to their logical extremes. Of course I want to live in a world where people aren’t afraid to tell the truth and lively-but-serious intellectual debates crop up with regularity. But I already feel overwhelmed by the amount of opinioneering, posturing, and conflict that exists in our community. More people sharing their ideas will not necessarily lead to deeper, more meaningful conversations; I fear that it will lead to a shallow, shouty world where everyone yells to be heard, but nobody listens.

You write, “The constant possibility of reactions beyond your control are just the nature of a life where you have elected to live big and loud over quietly tending your own garden and being satisfied with that.” Fair enough, and I agree. Yet you go on to argue that “living big and loud” is not just one possible option, but is, in fact, the only option if you do not wish to become “a drone.” If you don’t speak up and air your opinion, it’s because you’re a wishy-washy idiot who just goes along with the crowd, or because you’re a coward. In either case, you are actively impeding the moral and intellectual progress of our art form and our society.

I’ve written before, as you know, about how the “you’re doing it wrong” ethos of so many Internet articles makes me feel stressed and anxious. It sounds like you feel that way too, Stuart — you write “[there isn’t much] telling us to say what we really think and feel, even though there seems to be an awful lot out there telling us what we’re doing wrong and basically trying to scare us into saying nothing.”

The trouble is, though, that the sensitive, self-doubting elements of our population (and I count myself part of that crowd) interpret nearly everything as a “you’re doing it wrong” statement, even if the author did not intend it that way. You say you did not mean to shame or insult anyone with your snarky rebuke to our collective mania for the McKellan-Stewart No Man’s Land production, yet people interpreted it that way. They thought that you were saying “There are right reasons and wrong reasons to get excited about plays, and celebrity worship is always the wrong reason. Theatergoing: You’re doing it wrong.”

And then, with your “In Defense of Stirring Shit Up” post — you say you wrote it to encourage people to fight the good fight, becoming foot soldiers in the battle against “apathy, conformity, cowardice, intellectual laziness and intellectual tyranny.” Yet, when I got to the part of your post where you wrote “The point of art and the reason why artists are necessary is to challenge the world,” my reaction was not “YEAH! I’m an artist, and I rock!” Instead, I had a spate of doubts: “Oh dear, if the point of art is to challenge the world, maybe I’m not cut out to be an artist. I’m kind of bourgeois. I’m a feminist, but so is every female playwright — and my feminism isn’t of the especially provocative or radical kind. I genuinely believe in all of those old-fashioned, discredited ideals like Goodness and Truth and Beauty and Prudence. I am more apathetic than I should be, more conformist, more cowardly, more intellectually lazy than I should be. I read every stupid Buzzfeed link my friends post on Facebook, but I’ve never read The Iliad. I just know I’m part of the problem that Stuart is talking about, rather than part of the solution.”

Being an Artist: You’re Doing It Wrong.

Maybe my biggest issue with your piece, Stuart, is how you frame your role in the community as “stirring shit up.” To use an analogy I think you’ll appreciate, the goddess of stirring shit up is Eris, yet her actions lead to violence and discord, rather than growth or progress. She tosses the golden apple into the crowd, and then runs away from the mess she’s made. She stirs up shit, with a shit-eating grin on her face, and she doesn’t accept any blame or responsibility.

I guess I just don’t trust people who think they can be provocative, or contrarian, or a shit-stirrer, all of the time. (Besides, spend too much time touching shit, and you’ll get hepatitis.) Sometimes the truth isn’t sexy, or piquantly contrarian, or able to be expressed as a Facebook witticism. Sometimes the truth is boring or cliched, and often it rests in between two extremes. But when everyone works overtime to shout their provocative, click-baity opinions, it’s often the well-intentioned, moderate voices that get drowned out first.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.