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The DWord; changing the way we discuss diversity?

By Anon, Jun 9 2015 01:28PM

DWord was billed as 'new possibilities for cultural diversity'. Not totally sure what it meant, but I was hooked.

As for the day itself, I was impressed by the planning, seamless, well organised delivery of this event. This was a charming get together of nice, smart arts folk, people with a genuine desire to see a more equitable arts sector. Plus lunch was provided by LEON, purveyors of trendy ‘naturally fast food’ and throughout the day there were copious amount of green tea, chocolate biscuits and cakes. What was not to like?

TED style format (15 minutes per speaker) and speaker-led discussion groups were a welcome alternative to the hackneyed and uninspiring diversity themed events of what seems like the past 100 years. The combined experience and backgrounds of the guest speakers were an excellent means to ensure that my dreaded but customary afternoon desire to fall asleep at events like these was nowhere in sight.

'Honesty' (e.g. speaking frankly) was highlighted as an important theme of the day. And true to this sentiment an early speaker revealed a fundamental dislike of the ‘D’ (i.e. diversity word). In doing so the speaker cited many dreadful and depressing consequences caused by this ubiquitous word, followed by a heartfelt desire to have it removed from the lexicon of arts speak.

So I reminded myself not everybody thought the D word was a heinous construct

Roger Wilkins, American Civil Rights Leader and Professor of History believes ‘

‘We have no hope of solving our problems without harnessing the diversity, the energy, and creativity of all our people’

Desmond Tutu is of the view that

‘We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity’.

Maya Angelou instructed

‘It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength’.

Further in the spirit of honesty, regret was expressed at the fact that a number of senior professionals from the arts sector who it was hoped would attend had not. These non-attenders were described as 'gate-keepers' and 'good people'. Apparently when these good gate keeping people were asked why they would not attend responses suggested they feared being harangued for their record on diversity, and therefore would not take the risk of attending. We were not told who the ‘good people’ were so I cannot comment on their record on diversity. Nevertheless, I am not as disappointed in their failure to attend or sympathetic to their stance. Diversity and discussions this subject prompts will always involve a degree of challenging, possibly some uncomfortableness and usually disagreement. Those are the rules. However, it's not like these people are being asked to discuss diversity every day of their working lives. Therefore, to be asked to take part in day covering a subject of fairness, equality and inclusivity at such a well organised day with such lovely, smart people would hardly have been such a terrible thing. Furthermore, should one feel disappointed if these people do not want to come? If they do not want to engage openly in the conversation it will continue without them. I cannot think of one person whose presence is essential to bring about the changes being universal sought through diversity. These issues are important and relevant whether good gatekeeping people are in the room or not.

I was left thinking about the comment made by American business leader Max De Pree that comes to me when I convince myself something is not worth my efforts. He writes,

“Sometimes we think we're a little too gifted to show up, you know. But none of us truly is...By avoiding risk we really risk what's most important in life---reaching toward growth, our potential, and a true contribution to a common good.”

Earlier in the day I was mildly perplexed as a speaker referred to her enjoyment of the controversial piece Exhibit B when staged in Edinburgh and her subsequent disappointment it was withdrawn after its aborted opening night at the Barbican, London. Shortly after that view was expressed a member of the audience when asked why she had attended the DWord said she had done so after her invitation to speak at this event was withdrawn. She went on to say that she would welcome an opportunity to discover why. At that stage I had absolutely no idea these two matters were in any way linked. Yet they were.

During the very final session of the day two of the organisers revealed the trauma's they experienced and lingering anguish caused by public outcry and opposition to the Barbican’s decision to stage Exhibit B. It was clear the emotional scars that resulted from their experience with Exhibit B had not yet healed. Comments they made hinted at a degree of anger and a rejection of the validity of elements of the campaign against Exhibit B. The tactics adopted by some of those who opposed Exhibit B were also called into question. The impression was given that the Barbican were forced through fear and intimidation to withdraw Exhibit B and this was neither right nor good for the issue of race or freedom of expression. It is not my intention to examine the merits or otherwise of Exhibit B or enter into debate on any aspect of the decision to withdraw it; that is for another time. However, unbeknown to me was my ‘No-Go policy’ on the subject of Exhibit B also appeared to be an explicit stipulation for the DWord event.

Just before the closing comments were made the esteemed MC, acknowledging he was ‘acting against protocol’ invited one member of the audience to ‘say a few words’. What followed was an eloquent and courageous statement by a well-known and highly respected artist. Her three minute statement in my view exposed a worrying undercurrent to this event.

She revealed that the young woman who earlier said her invitation to speak had been withdrawn had intended to raise issues prompted by Exhibit B. This impassioned speaker went on to highlight that only one side (i.e. the Barbican’s) of the complexities involved in Exhibit B was being aired. She made it known that opposition to Exhibit B was undertaken by people with a valid, coherent and considered argument and not as insinuated solely driven by an aggressive, angry mob. Finally she concluded that the purpose of her intervention was to ask for the opening up of a dialogue between the Barbican and Exhibit B detractors to discuss the views and issues of all involved in that bruising saga. In fact it seemed this was not the first time an appeal for a meeting between the composite sides involved in Exhibit B had been requested. Unfortunately as before this impassioned plea fell on a cold and stony ground. A ‘no comment’ type response was all that was given. Thereafter the event drew to a close.

The DWord event was without doubt well-organised, absorbing, convivial and not without relevancy. However, the cynic in me is left wondering if it was camouflage for something else. Was that something a means to exorcise the fallout from Exhibit B?

Thus, I departed the DWord ill at ease and with more questions I could comfortably hold in my head. Am I right to be worried that the subject of diversity is becoming predicated on fear and through a narrative of fear? Is diversity now so toxic we dear not speak its name? Instead refer to it like we would the F-word or the N-word.

If it was not fear that caused the organisers to stifle and ban debate and discussion on one of the most controversial issues involving racial portrayal and representation in the UK in recent times what was it? And what is the basis of the fear that apparently prevented so-called ‘good people’ from attending this event when they have a valuable contribution to make?

Are we overlooking the relationship between ‘fear’ and ‘risk’ in the arts? Incidentally the question of artistic quality was also mentioned by one of the early speakers in the context of work from Diverse artists. The old chestnut that much work from diverse artists is not of sufficient quality etc. managed to raise its over-conflated head. Apparently venues/ programmers cannot risk booking diverse arts in their spaces because of the so-called poor quality of the work.

Deborah Lupton in her 1999 book ‘Risk’, states ‘risk has come to stand as one of the focal points of feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty’…Though sometimes used as a synonym for risk, fear is treated as an afterthought in today’s risk literature; the focus tends to remain on risk theory rather than on an interrogation of fear itself.

Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger as well as a protector from legitimate threats. But we can be fearful for no valid or good reason. When this occurs the only danger we face is that we fail to do what we know we should. When that happens something, somewhere is lost.

More than one D word seemed unwelcome at this event; debate, discourse and dissent appear to have been denied inclusion. I am hoping that their exclusion is not the new possibilities for cultural diversity being referred to.

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The views, opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various authors of the news and comments section do not reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Anonymous Arts Management. Any resemblance to people real or fictitious is just a bit funny