Giving offense can get you knocked down. So can bad timing. So can not having enough friends. So can costing your friends money. There are lots of ways to find yourself on your ass in the middle of the street. My friend Colin Mitchell is out of a job because he said the wrong thing. That’s how it goes when your job is to sell people what you think. Sometimes they don’t buy it.
I come to bury Colin, not to praise him.
For years Colin Mitchell made a policy of pissing people off with this website. He hired me to help him do it, with no mandate but to say what I believed true. Colin Mitchell never did any editorial policing of my voice, nor any policing of his own. He reported news, well and badly; he called out evil where he saw it and defended what he thought good, in order to influence policy in an arena with which he was familiar. His masthead mission was to bring Los Angeles theater together whether it liked it or not. He succeeded a few times, usually by outraging it against him.
Last week Colin Mitchell voiced an unpopular opinion in exactly the language people didn’t want to hear right then. Wittingly or not, some say in a bid for fame, some say from the depths of a rotten soul, he aligned himself in people’s minds with evil. Disapproval cost him his forum and livelihood as of this weekend.
Colin Mitchell has made responsibility a lifelong tenet of his personal ethos, and whether he has embodied this standard better than the worst among us is a good question. The irony of his downfall has not been lost on the dullest minds. This time, Colin Mitchell hurt the feelings of some people who didn’t need or particularly deserve it. That he did so in an attempt to prevent more victims from being created by an inequitable system is an argument widely judged either false or immaterial. His rudeness in blaming those who have, accidentally and in good faith, at least infinitesimally contributed to their own suffering – his insensitivity to the complexities of a horrific circumstance – insulted those already traumatized. Nobody says that’s illegal, and few go so far as to say it should be, but in the most influential mind, that of the mob, the fact of his insult is more material than the philosophy that prompted it.
In reaction to his unkindness, his brutality, his attack on a prevalent orthodoxy that one must never blame a victim, Colin Mitchell’s ideas were called dangerous. His ideas were said to have no place in a fair society, and fair or no, a society has cast him out. Whether his ideas can have any weight in his culture’s move forward is a debate that cannot be held now, in a month that has seen a massive, likely temporary upsurge in social outrage. I hope the trend defies historical tendency; I hope it isn’t temporary. I hope that next year, that tomorrow, today, a woman doesn’t have to be traumatized again just to submit a rape or harassment report. I pray that her predator never will be punished before a jury trial, but I demand that punishment be commensurate with his crime. All this, though, is not to the point.
Overwhelmed by a world of violent hate it is powerless to stop, a mob has seized not on deed but gesture as the easiest thing to punish. Colin Mitchell hurt people’s feelings in just the right way. That’s what the minority report does. It tells you what you don’t want to hear just when you don’t want to hear it, because it doesn’t view things as you do and it thinks, crazily, that you should weigh its opinion. Maybe it is mad, that voice of dissent, that shout that everybody’s wrong; definitively insane: not normal. Scary. At a sensitive moment during a national dialogue on a topic of incendiary emotional resonance, Colin Mitchell thought an element was missing from the conversation and he jabbed the needle in, that monster.
Colin Mitchell can’t be said to have done good work with this article. He bungled the research, then the language. He didn’t see coming what came. Then he mishandled the voices against him by going silent. When they demanded an apology for hurting people’s feelings by voicing his opinion, he did not apologize. By not apologizing, which is what a politician would have done, he played into the hands of people who saw him as a rival and a threat. He was not slick. He was not careful. That fool!
He became so unpopular so quickly that people in business with him saw their finances threatened. No philosophy but capitalism brought Colin Mitchell down, in the end – the logic brought to bear against his folly did not do it, and the intemperate fury did not do it. They merely highlighted his status as a liability. His partners asked him to deny his opinion. His opinion had not changed, and he refused. His partners proclaimed that they would not stand with the evil of his dissent. Their interests, or their feelings, or their highest aspirations for human potential, were more important than his right to say what his conscience demanded. Out of step with the common trend, safely condemnable, for refusing the traditional program of public humiliation and reeducation and rehabilitation Colin Mitchell was fired. That loser.
Remember this. This day remember, when you who are capable of forming an unpopular idea find yourselves in its possession. Remember that in order to honor what it finds of momentary value in its fickle rage, a society will silence the odd voice in summary judgment.
Remember that a zero-tolerance policy for dissent was enforced by Americans: by American artists. Remember especially that these were artists, these who voted with outraged curses to shout down the minority report. The tyranny of no institution but the mob did this. Intolerance remember, when you who should – who by your calling’s covenant with society are obligated – would speak against the common thread of thought. Hide your dissent or divest yourself of it, but do not expose it to your closest allies.
Today, Colin Mitchell is no longer a threat to the common mind. And I, his apologist? What for me? I have defended him and his idea, if not his tone.
Tone! Tone, some artists say, was Colin Mitchell’s crime: that he offended with brash and ugly words. His unapologetic tone, some insist, got him fired and quite rightly – not his ideas but his choice of how to express them. Artists, they call themselves, they who say this. Some have said that I am a better writer, more nuanced, less offensive, and so my not being fired, though I share some of Colin Mitchell’s thoughts, is evidence that his sin was not coating the pill with sugar. Their position states unequivocally that the moral wrong of his style justifies the moral wrong of his being fired for using it.
They are Americans who say this. American artists say today that some ideas are too dangerous to be heard. In a nation whose Civil Liberties Union defends gratis the legal right of the worst to have their say alongside the most righteous, artists have said no. They say that if it is Colin Mitchell’s prerogative to speak his mind, it is their prerogative to pressure business interests to fire him for it. Surely this is so.
So is it censorship, or commerce, or the common good that is responsible for Colin Mitchell’s exit from the discourse? Some say the premise of his ouster is immaterial. Perhaps so. The actions taken in the past week definitively presume that a voice perceived as harmful must be silenced.
But I ask you, what for his more careful, better-spoken, therefore more insidious defender? For now, I am not fired from my unpaid position as contributor at a salon of opinion. And for now, I still journal on art for other outlets than this one. What does this say about the institutional justice of the mob? The institution has spoken, and so: Should not every citizen do her utmost to get me barred from every place of employment, once she knows I have entertained and spread ideas she finds hurtful? If after silencing Colin Mitchell you’re not trying to silence me, have you no decency?
Are you not all honorable men?
Some are. Some voices do call today for my silence, for my public shame. American artists, with the benefit of American history, call by name for a blacklist, against Colin Mitchell and against me. So they should, if so they believe. And so a nation with a constitutional authority to uphold the minority opinion should reverse itself, strike that right, negate the outrageous liberal gesture of its own creation in the crucible of Enlightenment, and go toward a future in the dark, if its citizens believe their eyes are of no use.