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Jane Campion vs Sam Elliott: Revisiting the identity-inclusion trap



Identity-inclusion can be dangerous when it overwhelms (rather than informs) our ideas of ourselves and others.


Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021) TPOTD secured as many as 12 Oscar nominations and won her an Oscar for Best Director in 2022.


Not all of the media and public attention was around her film’s artistic or creative merit; much of it centered around her combative remarks about recognition and reward that, in turn, revolved around identity and inclusion.


With critics lamenting each year that the Oscars don't respect identity enough or aren't inclusive enough, Campion’s controversial remarks are a timely reminder that obsession with ‘identity-inclusion’ can cloud our judgment of ourselves and others, occasionally to the point of being ‘thoughtless’.


First, Campion felt provoked enough to snub actor Sam Elliott for his rant (aired on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast). Elliott had implied that TPOTD's subversive storytelling deliberately and derisively tries to emasculate The West. Implicitly, he’d challenged her New Zealander credentials as an outsider to do justice to The West onscreen, particularly since she’d filmed in New Zealand rather than more authentically in The West. 


Campion’s gloveless rebuttal implied that The West, as myth, allows for greater exploration of (and experimentation with) its motifs than Elliott does. She challenged his lack of experiential credentials to judge her movie, arguing that he’s an actor (not a cowboy).


Besides, iconic Westerns were often shot outside The West. Sergio Leone, for instance, shot his early Spaghetti Westerns in Spain. 



Second, while receiving her 2022 Critics Choice Award for Best Director, Campion - this time unprovoked - snubbed revered tennis stars (and sisters) Venus & Serena Williams, even as they were seated in the audience.


Campion’s brief but biting remarks implied that her victory had come against stiffer odds and at higher cost than theirs because she’d had to beat male rivals too, while they had the luxury of outgunning women alone. 


Tribalism


What happened next? Commentators hastily drew battlelines along on the most swiftly accessible metrics: sex, race, class.



Everyone backed the Williams sisters as black warriors battling white privilege; no one defended Campion, allegedly a symbol of that privilege.


Unsurprisingly, the politically correct mobs had their way because Elliott was the ‘wrong’ sex and Campion the ‘wrong’ color and race.



What was Campion doing?


She disowned one tribalism as soon as it was under attack, knowing that the mobs wouldn’t defend her.

She reinforced another tribalism, knowing that the mobs would not only defend her, they’d attack on her behalf.

The mobs, as it happened, did both.

In the Campion-Elliott tussle, the point isn’t about who is right. Broadly, both have (some) valid perspectives, except when they’re caught up in identity and when they include - and exclude or invalidate - based on identity


Elliott invalidates Campion’s perspective based on her cultural upbringing, her sex and, by implication, validates those of only native-Americans. 


Campion invalidates Elliott’s perspective based on his profession as an actor and, by implication, validates only those from cowboys, ranchers. 


In the Campion-Williams sisters case, Campion undermines their success as women achievers alongside her and, by implication, salutes the success only of women who have beaten male rivals. 



Sadly, one of the casualties of today’s diversity and identity-inclusion culture is that if we ‘friend’ based on identity alone, we will ‘unfriend’ based on identity alone. That’s a blindness to everything but ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’, and sabotages even otherwise well-meant equality or justice movements.


For instance, feminism is as sabotaged by an insistence on exclusively female platforms (women-only advocacy, research, think-tanks, magazines, blogs, podcasts, non-profits, publishing houses, literary agents), as, say, anti-racism is, by an insistence on exclusively black platforms. 


Of course, some discussions and days can start ‘exclusive’, to allow early-stage sharing that’s free and frank. No harm in feminist forums starting off “women-only” to crowdsource the most spontaneous, first-hand perspectives.


But if the entire metaphorical month begins and ends with exclusivity (they end up staying “women-only”), how can we find and build on common ground beyond our - necessarily narrow - circles of insight and influence? 


Echo chambers


Justice movements driven by identity-first, identity-only slogans, promote and preserve echo chambers, but not much justice. They insist on telling and re-telling only the comfortable, always the same, almost always the old. Instead of telling and re-telling also the bold, sometimes the different, often the new.

Echo chambers also quickly lose a sense of irony. 

Storytelling - the soul of cinema - is no different.


If Elliott is supposedly unfit to tell the story of The West because he’s an actor rather than a cowboy, isn’t Campion unfit too, being a director rather than a rancher?


In fact, both personalities already boast hard-won qualifications to interpret The West, even imperfectly. But they’re undermining those qualifications by wielding one identity to hammer the other. 


Experiential truth is not an absolute, but a complementary or relative truth.

If that were not so, why not bar celibate priests from advising on family life, married folk from commenting on priestly life, and anyone but policemen, lawyers or judges from speaking on crime and injustice?


Yes, our experience as ‘insiders’ gives us a unique moral, cultural, ethnic or professional lens. However, at times it is our experience as ‘outsiders’ that lends the missing and - occasionally - crucial element. 


If Campion relishes her success because she’s beaten sexism, aren’t the Williams sisters, having battled racism and sexism, equally worthy of relishing theirs? In reality, both have struggled, both deserve appreciation. But Campion weaponized her identity-experience as unique, to render her success somehow truer, worthier. 


The Danger of a Single Story


Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story once said, “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story.”


Adichie warned, “the single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. The consequence of the single story is this - it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” 



As much as this is a case for those from the fringe or outside The West to tell stories about The West (not just folk from The West), for women to tell their stories (not just men) and for blacks to tell theirs (not just whites), it must be a case to also resist the temptation of “exclusive” echo chambers.


A judicious eclecticism is wiser, more informed, than exclusivism. 


Why?


Echo chambers are inspired by inclusion in principle, but swiftly become breeding grounds for exclusion in practice. Especially ones that are adamant about first-hand experience as a precondition for an intelligent, considered, exchange of ideas, opinions, experiences.
For instance, insisting that only women write on women’s issues, only blacks make films on blacks and so on. 

But do writers need to be actors or directors to critique films? Do journalists need to be athletes to study sport? Do historians need to be kings, generals or soldiers to explain war?


Remember the film Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)? The boy, Lorenzo, suffering from otherwise debilitating and fatal adrenoleukodystrophy (ADL) goes on to live nearly 25 years longer than all the doctors said he would. Specialist doctors didn’t come up with a near-cure, his nonspecialist parents did. 


So much for first-hand, ‘experiential’ authority and knowledge.


Our race or skin-color or sex does not bestow on us exclusive rights to observe, reflect and express ourselves, on anything and anyone. Our humanity does that. It’s only when we’re consistently or ignorantly or cruelly inhumane that those rights can, justifiably, be challenged, if not stripped away.


So, it won’t hurt for the likes of Campion and Elliott to welcome the perspective of ‘the other’ instead of weaponizing identity in their favor and against someone else.


It won’t hurt to admit, for instance, that the most rousing film on Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian who led the struggle against the British Empire, was made not by an Indian, but by Richard Attenborough, an Englishman - in that instance, the quintessential ‘other’.


It won’t hurt to admit that some of the most moving films about blacks have come from white screenwriters.


Or to admit that some of the most striking portrayals of boys or men in film have come from women filmmakers. 


It’s all right to recognize difference, celebrate identity and reward it, particularly when there is a merit imperative. Or a moral one that demands a more level playing field or demands restoration of a lost order or requires ceding of ground once wrongfully seized. 


But diversity and identity-inclusion are means to an end. The end being the dignity of the human person and peace, prosperity, equality, justice that all humans are entitled to. Or the end being art or music or verse that serves goodness, beauty, truth. Or the end being freedom, founded firmly on responsibility. 


The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States solemnly reminds citizens that the work of nationhood lives and moves and has its being “in order to form a more perfect Union”. An endeavor of shared betterment, a shared work-in-progress, not a shared perfection! 


But if we’re toasting diversity for its own sake, if we’re memorializing inclusion as an end in itself, over and above finding and building on common ground, we’re missing something. We’re imagining perfect, god-like (not striving, incomplete) selves. We’re aiming for perfection, purely on the strength of diversity, rather than on shared values.


An insular, aloof self-image of perfection, that figures it can do without an other is destructive. It is also doomed.


Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on culture and society.



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