In early November, iconic Canadian playwright and LGBT activist Sky Gilbert posted a simple, humorous poem on his personal blog called “I’m Afraid of Woke People”. It’s a rather lightly toned rebuke of divisive identity politics. In it, he expresses that the current trend of berating and shaming people for not being woke enough is, well, problematic. In it, he writes, “You see I believe (gulp!) that we should try and love everyone.” I assume most people would agree with this sentiment. I think those of us who don’t spend the entirety of their days arguing on Twitter or Facebook do try to love (or at least accept) each other. Yet, it’s increasingly clear that identity politics and online activism has divided a lot of communities across North America. The practices of online shaming and mobbing have destroyed many careers, many families, and many lives. Gilbert’s poem was a simple missive that expressed this reality.It turns out Gilbert had very good reason to be afraid of woke people. His poem hurt woke people’s feelings. And so the woke people came for him. Twitter activists targeted the theatre Gilbert was working with and gently suggested that he should get a good talking to.
Let’s take a moment to process this: Sky Gilbert, a gender non-conforming drag queen, gay poet and playwright who, on paper, has more intersectional points than one thousand Bernie Sanders rallies, was cast out of his own community (a community he helped to establish) for the crime of having an unfashionable opinion. If this seems completely insane to you, that’s because it is. But then again, it’s 2018, and insanity is now par for the course.Gilbert let us in on how this all went down in a beautifully written piece for Quillette called “If That’s What It Means to Be a Writer, I Quit.” It’s a persuasive and stirring refusal of the empty, virtue-signalling, sex negative, activist puritanism that has seeped into and infected the arts. Gilbert writes, “Artists’ personal lives are now being used as an excuse to ban their work at a cultural moment when we risk slipping back into an earlier, puritanical era.” The only nitpick I have with Gilbert is that, to me, it seems clear that the puritanical era is already here.
This was my first encounter with the writing of Sky Gilbert, and it’s clear that he is an extremely gifted man. Indeed, it seems like social justice activists have some sort of implicit mandate to rid the world of talent. Progressives often make the claim, boldly and loudly, on their pixelated platforms that it is irresponsible to separate the art from the artist. To do so is to fail to practice empathy—as if placing one’s self in some other aggrieved person’s emotional position is an acceptable trade-off for the discernment and enjoyment of artistic achievement. This is a vacuous and unsophisticated argument at best, and it is an argument that is almost exclusively made by those who wish to deplatform their targets in order to replace them. This is why the argument always takes the form of tweets such as “Fuck Sky Gilbert” or “Burn it all down!” instead of coherent, fully-formed thoughts.In fact, the reason that culturally literate people insist on separating the art from the artist is because of empathy. Understanding and learning from great art, whether it was created by saints or scoundrels, is the best possible way to understand the feelings of others. Sky Gilbert knows this, so we should listen very closely to voices like his. We have to stop valuing the subjective and emotional reactions to art by select individuals over the enlightening and transformative power of art.But, believe it or not, there is good news in all of this. With the cancelling of Gilbert and many others, a new community is forming. As the public at large becomes increasingly fed up with identity politics, social justice, grievance studies, and other manifestations of wokeness, there is an ever-growing coalition of artists, writers, and thinkers on the other side of it who have the ability and desire to communicate freely with the public. There used to be a few, lonely exiles, but now there are many, and they are starting to find each other. Now, free from the fear of censure and excommunication, these talented people are more than ready, willing, and able to speak.