Productive Discourse Requires Compassion

Three weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be a part of Bottom Line Theatre’s (BLT) adaptation of The Laramie Project, a documentary theater play about the 1998 murder of an openly gay university student named Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. The hate crime drew national attention and, in the words of the play’s lead author, launched “a dialogue that brought to the surface how we think and talk about homosexuality, sexual politics, education, class, violence, privileges and rights, and the difference between tolerance and acceptance.” Composed of real interviews with Laramie residents and others affected by Matthew’s death, the play depicts—with immense compassion—its more than 80 characters in all their honesty, their prejudices and their hopes.

This compassion is crucial. The Laramie Project is impactful on a number of levels, one of them being that it requires from its cast the same amount of compassion that went into its development. For example, several of the characters in the show, while not overtly bigoted, are prejudiced or apathetic toward “the gay issue,” and it was difficult for us, the members of the cast, to portray these people without diminishing their humanity in all its complexity. If you do—if you allow your characters to be static and one-dimensional—you risk missing one of the show’s main themes: Sources of hate are deep-rooted and often complex, and that’s partly why it’s so hard to eradicate. This same compassion is also required of the audience, who must open themselves to the characters if they are to be impacted by the performance.

The topic of this opinions page is not violent hate crime; it is discourse and political correctness. But the role of compassion is the same: We must listen to those who see things differently than we do. We must seek to understand.

Let me be clear: I am not implying that uninformed, politically incorrect comments that marginalize some groups or individuals should be tolerated and accepted simply as “teachable moments.” Nor am I suggesting that any remotely uncouth comment should be censored at the expense of meaningful discourse on controversial issues. But I believe the best path lies somewhere in between.

Be humble. Consider other opinions. Recognize your limited perspective. It’s true that some groups, as a result of their privilege, may have more of an obligation to do this than others. But nobody’s perfect. And productive discourse can only take place under that assumption.

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