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“An Enemy of the People” and “Smart People”: Free Speech Gone Awry

Watching Writers Theatre’s Smart People and the Goodman’s An Enemy of the People back to back this weekend, I was struck by how much these dissimilar plays have in common. Written over 130 years apart and dealing with very different topics (Lydia Diamond’s Smart People focuses on race and Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy is about the environment and government corruption), there is still a strong thematic connection at work between these plays. In both of them, a scientific study is presented that is at odds with the opinions of the Powers That Be; in both cases it is squelched; in both cases there is a strong “kill the messenger” vibe to what is going on. Freedom of Speech and devotion to Truth are at stake in both productions, and they come out the losers.

Put aside the obvious differences between the plays. Put aside the fact that in neither case is the science corroborated by anyone other than the person who did the initial study (and in fact Diamond’s script calls into question some of the scientific practices). Concentrate instead on the situations, and here is what you’ll find: two very similar problems. In Smart People, a Harvard University neuroscientist tries to present a study purporting to prove that, due to cultural issues, white people are actually programmed to be racist and have no choice in the matter as their racism is embedded in their brains. The university, which had always supported him fully and lauded his controversial statements, disowns the study and makes him into a pariah. In Enemy, a doctor tries to present a study that proves that the local baths are contaminated by factory runoff. At first the townspeople are happy with him for saving health and possibly lives, but the corrupt town government convinces them that it will cost too much to fix the problem and they all turn against him, declaring him too a pariah, the “enemy of the people.”

The Goodman show, adapted by director Robert Falls from Ibsen’s work, is full of references to “fake news” and other modern denunciations, but both shows clearly present the very modern notion that truth is malleable and at the whim of those in power. When Brian White in Smart People presents his study (in a public forum), he has every reason to believe that it will be admired and extolled by Harvard’s administration, which has encouraged him in the past. He is completely bewildered by the fact that they choose to go against him as well as the fact that those in attendance at his speech are aghast at the suggestion that they, too, are racists. Dr. Thomas Stockmann faces something stunningly similar: presenting his case in a public forum, he is shouted down by his “friends” and denounced by the town’s leaders, who have looked favorably upon him in the past.

There are issues in both plays of anti-science bias if it is inconvenient to the listeners. People are perfectly happy to hear and deal with scientific discoveries if they don’t interfere with their lives, but when they do—if Galileo or Darwin says something that seems to challenge religious beliefs, if Al Gore presents information that asserts that our environment is in serious danger because of our actions—people react in predictable negative ways. This proclivity to blame the messenger and ignore the problem is there in everything from the Pentagon Papers to Hillary Clinton; the public is happy for progress if it means a new iPhone, but not very accepting when it impedes directly or indirectly on their lives.

Freedom of Speech is also at play here. In Enemy, Stockmann is very literally shut down from speaking by his townspeople. He is not afforded the opportunity even to present the study that is causing the trouble. In Smart People, while Brian White does get to present his findings, he may as well have been talking to air. Neither man is permitted to publish his study.

We have not yet reached that nadir in our culture: no one’s ability to speak out is being repressed by our government as it spreads its own version of the truth to those who wish to believe. It is easy, though, to imagine, and that is a shocking thought that few Americans would have had only a couple of years ago. After all, there are two ways to shoot the messenger: get rid of his voice or render it meaningless. In a country where the majority no longer trusts the news, where the President actively impugns voices of truth, the latter method is already taking place. It’s a short trip to the former.

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