Thursday, June 23, 2022

Will there be a Price for Making the World Nice?

I've just finished reading a long piece by Jesse Green in the NY Times, which starts as a review of a new book about the tyrannical monsters who created modern American acting: Konstantin Stanislavski, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, etc. Their way of teaching acting involved savage abuse of their students, and their directorial methods involved just as much brutality, along with a lot of sex. They were empowered to bully and extract sexual favors by a system that gave huge power to insiders who were accountable only in terms of the final product they produced. 

These days we would cancel them. I hope, though it's really hard to tell, that this movement is making life better for people in theater and film. We discussed Joss Whedon here last year, after he got into some trouble over his bullying, which was small potatoes compared to what people like Kazan got away with for decades.

There is, of course, another way to think about the relationship between human decency and art. Consider this, about Jerome Robbins:

To improve the dancing of Mickey Calin, who played Riff in the original production of “West Side Story,” Robbins “pounded him into dust” before “molding him back into clay,” as Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab, told Amanda Vaill for her Robbins biography, Somewhere. Robbins got the performance he wanted, but did his methods have to be so cruel?

For him, apparently so. Robbins’s process, perhaps based on his emotionally violent family history, “was to make the cast seethe with hatred for one another — or for him,” Vaill writes. “It was almost as if he couldn’t create without confrontation and pain.” In the index, “Robbins, cruelty of” gets its own entry.

But here’s the bizarre thing, though we see it repeated everywhere in theater, now as then: Many of his dancers, most of his collaborators and nearly all of his audiences (who in those days knew little of the backstage truth) admired Robbins anyway. They were able to put his behavior to the side, even including his having named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950. . . .

Perhaps they believed, at least in this case, that greatness was inseparably joined to awfulness; you couldn’t have one without the other. Then too, the awfulness wasn’t doled out evenly. If Robbins’s tantrums suggested that he took too literally Stanislavski’s nickname — “the big infant” — his favorite dancers, like Chita Rivera, who thrillingly played Anita in the original production of “West Side Story,” nevertheless called him “Big Daddy.”

These days we all believe in encouragement, but that is not the only tradition of instruction. The monster who bullies his students into achieving beyond what they thought possible is at least as old: the football coach, the drill sergeant, the ballet director. Come to think of it, our oldest traditions of initiation involved such grueling tests for young people that they regularly died.

One thing I have noticed in stories about great director/teachers like Robbins and Balanchine is that while some of their performers felt abused, and some were driven into drug addiction or worse, others thrived. People like Chita Rivera came to appreciate the intense criticism because they felt it helped them become great. Several of Stanislavski's students later said that it was only his version of pounding them into dust that unlocked their talents. Green interviewed Rivera for this piece, and she was dismissive of sensitive young actors who feel insulted when the director so much as raises his voice. She called them "spoiled."

I don't really care that much about acting and film, and I would like to see them become nicer even if it did mean we would miss out on some great creations. But I wonder what effect this shift is having on our whole civilization. Jordan Peterson has gotten famous by focusing on one of our great social problems, the drifting young men who do nothing but watch porn and play video games. Might some of them benefit from a tougher approach? Is there a personality type that responds better to bullying and humiliation than it does to encouragement?

Do some of us simply lack the will to pursue our own dreams by our own efforts, and need some pressure from outside?

My academic friends all complain that students don't work as hard as they used to, or learn as much. Could that be at least partly because all their teachers have been nice to them, and they have no fear of authority?

I don't know. I just feel very strongly that our society does not have all the answers, so I sometimes react badly when people seem to assert that niceness is the only way, and if we have troubles the only solution is to be even nicer.


David said...

I think there's a difference between accepting toughness as an instrumentality that may be necessary for some particular, worthwhile end, and valuing toughness and cruelty as virtues in themselves. There's a not-small amount of the latter about.

I can hear the difference when I talk to fellow teachers who are tough on their students. Some of them are just doing what it seems to take to get their students to learn. Others clearly get off on their own toughness for what it says about them.

And toughness isn't always the only way. Some teachers etc. are so built that they can get a lot out of their students (or whatever, mutatis mutandis) by being ingratiating, funny, honest, purely brilliant or charismatic, or whatever. And some can use toughness, and it works, and loads of their students love them and are grateful. It's all a very individual thing.

The latter point leads me to wonder about those societies that have cruel initiation rituals. I wonder if they're not so much doing what is "necessary" in some Jungian-Petersonian deep-archetypes sense, as going too far off in one particular, even perverse direction (and fueling themselves in large part by the adults' desire for revenge for what they had to go through--that is, the system feeds on itself and exists only for itself).

David said...

On art in particular, I think there should be a way to acknowledge something as great art, while also admitting that in a very important way it is morally NOT GOOD. "Birth of a Nation" comes to mind. Likewise, I was among the many who very much enjoyed Kevin Spacey's performances in many movies--but it's also clear he was doing things that were and are NOT GOOD.

We need a way to have room for both art and a morality with elements of kindness and moderation.

David said...

Sorry to go on, but: one could say the same about people like Heidegger and Ezra Pound. There has to be a way to admit their achievements while also admitting that you'll never get rid of that shadow that will follow them around forever.

Perhaps all of us have a shadow. But some shadows are darker than others. I'm frightened of a world where we can no longer make that second point.

szopeno said...

I think different things will do for different people. I can't speak German - because my female teacher in middle school was terrifying. My grades from German were absolutely awful, I couldn't focus, I just felt blocked. However - it seems that she was able to force some slackers into learning, despite them not being particularly good learners from almost every other subject.

Another thing is toughness, sharp criticism, intolerance of weaknesses - and outright bullying and eliciting sexual favours. The former could be acceptable. The latter - never, no matter the results, at least not in any normal circumstances in modern world.

David said...


At the risk of being conflictual and nagging, it seems to me your last paragraph is a bit disingenuous. Is it really that you just feel very strongly that our society doesn't have all the answers? After all, there are many ways of being that that feeling doesn't seem to make you open to (say, hereditary monarchy, or, I bet, strict Shari'a law, or worshipping cuttlefish). I don't think our society has all the answers, either--what society could? But there are plenty of answers I'll admit I'm not open to. So I couldn't really claim that I was open to other answers *because* I think our society doesn't have all the answers. It's rather that I'm open to particular alternatives because I find them attractive. I dare say, you've got preferences as well, and they're not all about our society not having all the answers. (Hey, how about even more whining? Let's start training kids who skin their knees, not that it's OKAY to cry, but that they MUST cry.)

John said...


When I'm being elliptical it often has something to do with my children.

David said...



David said...

Well, if you're talking about how best to raise or train *actual* flesh-and-blood humans--like, real people--I haven't got a clue. All I know how to do is make argument product, and even there I've got a lot more to learn.

A friend of mine used to say that her philosophy of teaching students and raising children was, "whatever works."

G. Verloren said...


"Whatever works", in my experience, is the sort of thing someone says when they struggle to find ANY workable solution.

If you're at your wit's end, then yeah - you'll settle for anything that does the job, more or less. But that mindset leads to a form of complacency and cognitive bias where, because you are so desperate for ANY solution, once you find a working solution you fail to question its actual merit beyond the minimum threshold of functionality, and you neglect the possibility that there are other, better solutions remaining to be found.

But if humanity only ever settled for "whatever works", we'd all still be living in the stone age. Who needs farming? Hunting and gathering works well enough. Who needs medicine? You can propagate your tribe just by having more children, and expecting some to die. Who needs writing? We humans have remarkable abilities to remember things and pass them down orally. Etc.

Teaching via cruelty often works. But it's still cruel and unnecessary - and it also simply doesn't work in many cases, or it works somewhat but not fully, or with awful side effects.

Using a sledgehammer to force a round peg into a square hole "works" - but it's absolutely not the best answer to the problem. "Whatever works" frequently isn't good enough, for simple, practical reasons.

Beyond such reasons, though, there are also moral imperatives to consider. Eliminating obesity via forced starvation works. Combating jaywalking via capital punishment works. Uniting society via genociding minorities works. Lots of things work, yet should not be employed because they are monstrous and immoral acts.

Personally, I feel that the reason so many parents are willing to settle for "whatever works" when it comes to their children is that many people simply are not equipped to find the best solutions when it comes to caring for children - whether that be because of their own unresolved personal demons, trauma, and biases; or they simply a lack of resources, knowledge, or experience; or they're simply too tired, worn out, etc, from the demands of makiing a living and navigating our complex, painful world to then also be able to find the patience to help a child do the same.

Not everyone is cut out for the job of helping children grow up into healthy and successful human beings. That's just the reality we live in, and we really ought (as a species) to recognize that fact and change how we think to better accommodate it.