Last year, a student, Edward Menefee sent out an email pretending to be Interim President Joanne Creighton and announcing changes to the financial aid policy regarding undocumented students. A few weeks ago, Honor Council released an abstract of the trial where he was confronted by the Administration and brought toHonor Council. Menefee justified his email as a theatrical performance, referring to his actions as the “Theater of the Oppressed.” Well, I was curious, so I looked it up, read about it, asked some knowledgeable folks and found one big issue. Not only did his actions have nothing to do with Theater of the Oppressed (TO) but they failed to embody what is actually an effective protest method thatcan do a lot more good than a fake email.
The first giveaway is that it wasn’t a performance in a theatric context; it was an email, and our Haverford email accounts can hardly be seen as tickets to a show. Menefee claims that the email was a performance because it was obviously a fake and contained a link to a Youtube video that was also “theatre.” But these don’t add up to a functioning definition of a theatric performance, they just construct a misreprentation of what theatre is.
When I contacted her for comment, Dr. Mariana Ferreira, a professor of Anthropology at San Francisco State University whose work has made important contributions to developing the practice of TO, said Menefee’s email should not be considered a Theater of the Oppressed performance.
To Ferreira, the email violated a central quality of TO by jeopardizing the well-being of the Haverford community through a breach of trust. She cites Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire’s line that “the oppressor also needs liberation.” In the Haverford context, this means not deceiving anybody, administration and faculty included. TO performances have specific ethical guidelines which call for facilitating progress through performance. If Menefee’s email was at first compelling, once you wade through the nonsense what you end up with is just a bunch of lies and no theatre. Real TO is an active engaging performance, not just a fabricated email.
The email also missed a core element of TO: dialogue. The main TO site, which many people use to learn and enact TO performances describes TO as “a Game of Dialogue: we play and learn together” which is meant to be taken literally. People are often encircling the performers, participating in the play and watching it unfold in front of them, affecting it. A declarative email from a fake account that we read from our desk chair, isolated from the author is not a good medium for dialogue and collaboration. The only dialogue that really seems to have happened was a trial, which the protestor himself dismissed as a staged, scripted event. This would ironically lead some to conclude that the only TO performance that occurred was the trial, which could have been articulated as a satire of the honor code’s handling of important social justice issues.
By its very name, “Theater of the Oppressed” is meant to be conducted by members of the oppressed group in question. A concerned observer is not a direct victim. The argument that we are all oppressed if oppression exists anywhere is valid, but linguistically for TO to be identified as TO, there must be an oppressed and an oppressor, meaning not everybody can be oppressed. The site again confirms with this clincher: “Above all, we believe that the Theatre of the Oppressed is of, about, by and for the Oppressed, as it is clear in our Declaration of Principles.”
The bastardization of TO has real consequences. The easiest consequence is that now most people who have never before heard of TO have the wrong idea of what it is. If you want to stage a protest, you should know the correct form of protest you’re doing. More importantly, to conflate forms of protest and generally muddy up the specific tactics used to subvert power is a tragic disservice to those both those who developed such tactics and legitimately practice them. The reverence the protestor holds for protesting tactics should extend to actually knowing how to protest in the way they desire, rather than just do something controversial. Menefee may have stirred up some conversation, but it has mostly been about how absurd his actions were. He didn’t do anything to influence the policy debate, which at its heart is purely a financial issue; pretending to be the President doesn’t help the administration crunch the numbers in a productive way.
Menefee’s email is a good example of how not to protest. Impersonating people of power has the potential to create positive change; just check out the Yes Men and their accomplishments. It seems the email did more harm than good by detracting from the conversation and fragmenting it into a bunch of disjointed elements: the email itself, the honor council trial, Menefee’s actions during the trial, the financial aid policy, Menefee as an individual, and the community’s reaction overall.
All these pieces make a pretty poor case for change, since most of the focus isn’t on the actual policy, but on petty quibbles and scrutiny about the email itself. That’s a losing formula in any attempt for change. Protesting correctly is a lot more subtle of an art than what is currently thought. Change doesn’t spring from irritating everybody and then calling that something it isn’t, and doing that, as we just painfully learned, can actually hurt the cause more than help it.