I see a lot of confusion from white people about why “white liberal” and “white feminism” are derogatory terms and then I see a truckload of white people calling the Muslim ban a “distraction.”
A. I’m not understanding why these writers don’t understand the belittling implications of the word “distraction,” as if they were just hatched and flash-trained last week and are still working the kinks out in language acquisition, and B through Z. Calling the Muslim ban a “distraction” is racist. The Muslim ban is the problem itself. Whatever else Trumplethinskin and Bannon Wormtongue did during the Muslim ban chaos (and they did plenty), it was to make it easier to do more horrific things like the Muslim ban.
Every action this administration or its leaders take cannot possibly be a “distraction” from every other action. It’s also nonsense to call any resistance action a “distraction” or, appallingly, “playing the shock event game”– as if fighting for Muslim lives is a “game” we’ve been baited into playing as a waste of time.
It’s ridiculous to label any resistance action as “playing into their hands,” and it’s even more ridiculous to state that a “shock event” like the Muslim ban was designed to “distract” us from the appointment of Steve Bannon to the NSC– an event that was on the front page of nearly every major English-language news outlet on the globe within seconds, an event that generated a trending hashtag on twitter, an event that launched thousands of thinkpieces. I googled “steve bannon nsc” to grab a link as an example, and I got 852,000 results.
It’s not escaping notice that massive protests to protect brown people were quickly characterized as a “distraction” that “plays into their hands” by white writers stating Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC is “far more consequential.” What is he doing on the NSC but furthering his very public anti-Islam agenda? How can anyone possibly conclude that a firm demonstration of our unwillingness to tolerate that agenda be a “distraction” from actions designed to implement that agenda?
You know what’s an actual “distraction”? Thinkpieces from white people that claim– without evidence– that resistance actions are useless and “playing into the hands of Trump and Bannon.” The resistance is having an enormous impact. Two GOP senators have now vowed to vote against Betsy DeVos due to public pressure from their constituents. Nordstrom announced it will stop carrying Ivanka Trump merchandise after they were targeted by a resistance boycott. The CEO of Uber resigned from Trump’s advisory committee after almost a quarter of a million people deleted the Uber app in protest of Uber’s actions during the JFK protest against the Muslim ban. Lyft has pulled advertising from the white nationalist site Breitbart, formerly headed by Steve Bannon, bringing the total number of companies to pull ads from the “alt right” sight due to public pressure up to 820. And that’s just in the past few days.
This administration is losing support, and quickly, from both the left and the right.
Do not let anyone make you believe your resistance is “wrong,” “a distraction,” or “playing into their hands.” YOUR RESISTANCE IS MAKING A DIFFERENCE. Your work is important. PERSIST. RESIST.
There is no more powerful tool for changing ideas, shifting cultural zeitgeist, and resisting authoritarianism than art. While theatre is not the biggest bat artists wield, our impact on the culture is not nil, especially if you include community theatre and school plays, and we must. Resistance to the Trump regime is the most crucial political battle of our lifetimes because this regime– and the zeitgesit behind it– stands to undo progress in every area of our society. Trump, Pence, McConnell, Ryan et al are actively seeking to impoverish you to enrich themselves, roll back every civil rights and workers’ rights gain of the past 100 years, eliminate every consumer protection, eliminate the social safety net, and pretend you begged them to do it. It’s telling that the very first appointee of the incoming administration was an amoral white nationalist, and the very first act of the new Congress was an attempt to eliminate their own ethical oversight.
One of the most dangerous aspects of this regime for us as artists is its leader’s relentless attacks on free speech. He has always attacked the freedom of expression to the fullest extent of his ability as a private citizen, and has publicly stated his desire to use the power of the office of POTUS to continue to do so.
Trump takes power in just a few days, and we must be ready. The theatre community must form a resistance to this regime and to the cultural zeitgeist that supports it. We have a very specific, very powerful tool, and we must use it effectively.
1. All artificial divisions between theatres need to be dropped. A commercial Broadway offering is no more important to this fight than a community theatre production. Every show, every company, every artist is important. Denigrating shows for being “commercial” or “community theatre” serves no one in the resistance. Brushing off a show because it’s a “college production” or a “kids’ show” demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about what we’re trying to do here. We’re prepping for a long game. This is not just a resistance to one regime; it’s a resistance to the ideas that put that regime in place. From now on, when we say “theatre,” we are consciously including everything from the smallest storefront indie show to Hamilton, from street theatre to Ashland, from the elementary school play to Roundabout. Everywhere our art is practiced is an opportunity for effective resistance.
2. Define for yourself what the goals of your resistance will be. You will not be able to resist everything all the time, and you will burn out quickly if you try. Define for yourself the specific resistance goals you wish to focus on, and understand that those goals can shift from show to show, decision to decision. Here’s a partial list: fighting racism and white nationalism, fighting sexism and misogyny, fighting bigotry against religious minorities (such as antisemitism and Islamophobia), fighting homophobia and transphobia, fighting ableism, protecting and expanding health care, protecting free speech and freedom of the press, protecting consumer protections, protecting public education, protecting workers’ rights, fighting against “post-truth” and misinformation, fighting for action to slow climate change, fighting for voters’ rights and election integrity. Are you a 501c3? You already exist to act in the public interest. Nothing about your mission needs to change in order to incorporate these goals, and “acting in the public interest” over the next four years can only mean doing whatever is in our power to resist this regime and its dangerous goals.
3. All theatre is political theatre and all art is activist art, whether you consciously know what message you’re sending or not. We must consciously consider what messages we’re sending with our art and make decisions that specifically work to further resistance goals. That doesn’t necessarily mean staging overtly political shows. It means you have a critical obligation to assess what you’re saying with the content of your work. It means, “Oh, it’s just a fun comedy” doesn’t cut it any longer, especially considering comedy is one of the most powerful tools any resistance ever has. Examine the content of the work you’re considering. What is it saying? Does it speak honestly to your audience (and to your staff) about our nation? Who we are, who we want to be, who we fear becoming? Does it work to further our goals in any way? Can it be staged to do so? Remember that some of the most effective art is subversive art. The resistance goals you’re meeting with your show need not be overtly political. Creating empathy for transgender people, immigrants, or Muslims in a small, personal show with no overtly political content would be powerful support for resistance goals, for example. You know best how to speak to your audience. Just be conscious of what you’re saying to them.
Artistic directors, the best tool at your disposal is your diverse staff. When they read the plays under consideration for your season, ask them to look at messaging and/or political and social content in addition to the usual things you ask them to look at. If you are white, believe people of color on your staff when they tell you a script is racially problematic. If you are male, believe the women on your staff when they tell you a script is misogynistic. If you are able-bodied, straight, or cis, believe the disabled, queer, or transgender people on your staff when they tell you a script is ableist, homophobic, or transphobic. Actively seek out the opinions of others and believe them. What’s at stake is too important to allow for fragile egos. When a script you love by a playwright you love is, for example, considered misogynistic by the women on your staff, set it aside. You can love the script at home. We have far more excellent scripts than we have slots within which to produce them. Believe your staff.
4. Ensure that your process supports resistance goals. This means hiring a diverse staff and treating them as well as you possibly can. We are long past the point when we can continue to discuss gender parity and diversity and still hire white men for each and every position of power. White men are 31% of the US population. Do they hold 31% of the leadership positions in your organization? They sure as hell make up more than 31% of the AD positions and director positions in the US. How many transgender or genderqueer people do you have on staff? How many disabled people? When you’re hiring, consider diversity a specific desirable characteristic. Living as, for example, a Black woman or a disabled transwoman in the US creates a certain skillset in a person that will enrich your organization in multiple ways, not the least of which is identifying and understanding politically and socially problematic content in plays you’re considering that you will otherwise miss if you do not have that same lived experience. Treat your people as well as you possibly can. I realize that your cash-strapped organization cannot always pay people what you would like to pay them. I realize funding is a massive, industry-wide problem. All I ask is that you ask yourself at every juncture, in every decision, if you are acting in accordance with your goals to the best of your ability.
5. We must set aside making compromises for financial gain. Yes, we must keep our doors open, but we do not need to pull back from our values to do that. More often than not, decisions that are presented as compromises for financial gain do not actually work to increase income; they’re decisions made out of fear of risk where no real risk exists. It’s not financially risky to do a play by a woman or cast people of color. We have a mountain of stats to prove this. There is always a way to act in accordance with your goals. Do not allow the fears of others to push you into poor decisions. Push back. We must prioritize resistance goals over financial ones, which leads me to:
6. We must re-evaluate our funding system top to bottom. Funders, you must work closer to the 501c3 ideal we all say we support. This means going back to the creation of the 501c3 as a way to fund theatres that releases them from needing to rely on ticket sales. The ultimate goal is radical hospitality– free tickets for all who need them– but of course implementing that industry-wide is a long way off. For now, we must step away from consolidating funding at the very top and work to distribute funds in a way that furthers resistance goals. We must keep our flagship theatres open, but we do not need to continue shutting out smaller theatres. Nowhere is this more vital than in initiatives to reach audiences of color. We fund large white theatres when they do an “ethnic” show to reach “under-served” audiences, while we routinely starve theatres– especially smaller theatres– run by people of color that have been serving those supposedly “under-served” communities for decades.
What does this mean in practice? It means living up to our liberal values and initiating a small redistribution of wealth by peeling a small amount of the funding currently going to the top 1% of theatres and using it to fund smaller companies who are able to reach audiences larger companies cannot. It won’t take much. A $20K grant is chump change to a $20 million dollar a year theatre, but it’s lifesaving to a small theatre. We must also re-evaluate the bizarre funding culture that funds projects instead of companies. When we do fund projects, we must look to fund more joint projects between smaller theatres and larger theatres. When you want to fund flagship theatres’ initiatives to do outreach to an “under-served” audience, make that a grant for joint projects between flagship theatres and smaller companies already reaching that target audience. Funders, you are the life-blood of our resistance. You must make your funding more effective for the health of the community as a whole. There are things smaller theatres can do that larger theatres cannot, and vice versa. Every tool at our disposal needs to be supported.
7. Think about what you can do in addition to– or in tandem with– the actual shows that furthers your resistance goals. We’re all strapped for time, money, and energy, but many of the things you can do are fairly low maintenance, and some of them you’re likely already doing. Can you hold a Q&A for audiences after the show that focuses on issues raised within the show? Can you host a panel discussion with local theatremakers about diversity in casting, about an issue discussed in your show, about gender representation? Can you allocate a certain number of tickets for radical hospitality– free tickets for teachers, for members of the local community, for students? Many companies are already doing free student matinees, a radical act that changes lives. Can you provide free workshops for actors, playwrights, designers, admins? Or, if you have a space, can you provide free space to a local theatremaker already giving workshops, enabling that workshop to offer a certain number of scholarship spaces? Can you create a staged reading series for local playwrights of color, LGBTQ playwrights, women playwrights, disabled playwrights, giving them opportunities to develop their voices? These are just a few ideas– there are limitless things you can do.
Remember, though, that self-care is crucial. Don’t take on more than you can handle. There’s no way you can do everything. Delegate– which also provides opportunities for others. We all must get our shows up, and the work we do is grueling. Do what additional things you can, and don’t waste time beating yourself up for not doing more. This is a long game. Protect yourself from burnout. Sometimes you won’t be able to do anything extra, and that’s fine– and that concept should be supported by funders as well. The work on our stages is paramount. We make theatre. That must come first. The art creates the empathy. The extras around the art are excellent and useful, but not critical. Do what you can, but prioritize the art.
8. A lot of these action items are directed at theatre companies, but individual theatremakers are just as important. Use whatever power you have, and never stop using it. When I cast, I call in a diverse group of actors for every role unless the role calls for an actor of a specific race or ethnicity. When I work with actors on audition monologues, I make sure the monologue choices I give them are by a diverse group of writers. When I teach, I make sure my reading lists are diverse. As theatre makers, we are one of the primary audiences for theatre. See shows that are working to further resistance goals. Donate to companies that are working to further resistance goals. Even signal boosting a show on social media is a concrete action you can take that genuinely helps– buzz sells more tickets than anything else. Actors, did your show just lose an actor? Suggest an actor who is a female, of color, transgender, genderqueer, disabled. Directors, are you giving acting workshops? Can you create one scholarship spot for an actor of color, disabled actor, transgender actor, or genderqueer actor? Playwrights, when you have readings, be sure to invite people whose lived experience and intersectional identities differ from yours. Ask for their perspective and listen to them. This is just a tiny taste of what’s possible. You know far better than I do how you can use your power.
9. Listen. Listen. Listen. The artistic director of Theater MadCap here in the Bay Area, Eric Reid, often uses this hashtag: #thelisteningmovement. He’s created a facebook group (linked above) that’s “a place to speak/share/post your personal truths.” He also uses #thelisteningmovement on articles he posts as well as statuses he writes or shares. It’s something that makes me pause every time I see it– I pause and pay closer attention. Partially because I know Eric and know him to be brilliant, so the things he posts are worth my attention, and partially because of the very power of the idea: The Listening Movement. We must commit to listening– truly listening– to each other.
One of the most crucial aspects of resistance for those of us with privilege– and we all have some aspects of privilege in our intersectional identities– is listening. Listening and believing. Listening without challenge, without defensiveness, without fear. Just listening, believing, and learning. It’s not easy to do, to be honest. It takes mindful effort. But it is crucial.
It’s easy to think you understand a situation because you thoroughly understand those aspects of it that you recognize. Privilege, however, blinds you to other experiences. Privilege often means that you aren’t even aware of how much you don’t know. The only cure for this is listening. Listen to your staff. Listen to your friends. Listen to people when they share their lived experience. Listen and believe.
Theatre creates empathy. We know this. Yet we still have trouble listening empathetically to others. This is hard. But it is worth doing. It’s what we ask our audiences to do every day.
10. Your resistance as an individual citizen is also important. This piece is specifically about how we can resist as a community, but your work as an individual is powerful as well.
Read Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. It’s free to read online.
Do what you can, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for your efforts. Foolish people will condemn social media posts as “meaningless,” but they are deeply incorrect. If a post on social media is meaningless, so is a news article, so is a blog post, so is any form of human communication. Just ensure that the articles you post are accurate to the best of your ability. The list of fake news sites compiled by Professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College remains the best resource available to check the accuracy of your source. Contact your Senators and Representative to encourage them to vote in favor of your goals, or to praise them for having done so. The phone numbers for their local offices are easily found online. Call the offices in your area– not the one in Washington DC– for maximum effectiveness. Save the numbers in your phone so you can call quickly and easily. (Find your Representative here. Find your Senators here.) Donate to theatres and to other causes that further resistance goals. After the election, my family looked for an LGBTQ center in a deeply red state and began donating to them in addition to the causes we have in our regular rotation. We don’t have much money, but we do what we can. Every little bit helps.
These ten points are just the beginning. You know your audience, you know your company, you know your heart. There are surely many things I have left out, and I encourage you to comment with your ideas.
The most important takeaway is that you are not powerless. On the contrary: as artists we have immense power. And with great power, comes great responsibility. (You knew a nerd like me would not be able to resist that one.)
We’re at the beginning of a long, difficult struggle, but, as artists, our voices are critical. Art shapes culture. Art creates empathy. Art has the power to create the kinds of massive cultural shifts that change societies. We can do this. All we need to do is approach our art consciously.
Welcome to the resistance.
I don’t understand “that’s just slacktivism,” “there are bigger issues to discuss” and “you shouldn’t be discussing issues on social media; you should be doing something.” So much to unpack about the level of pure nonsense involved in this line of thinking.
1. Discussion of ideas is incredibly important. There are few things more important in the world, especially in the world of activism, than discussing ideas, educating others, spreading the word, (aka “raising awareness” or “creating public value”), and, one hopes, creating the support that enables action. Discussion *is* activism. The free and open exchange of ideas is one of our most cherished values. People who denigrate this, or pretend that any venue for this exchange of ideas has the power to devalue the exchange, are full of nonsense. The most important aspect of this is that these people know they’re full of nonsense. They engage in the discussion of ideas, big and small, both in person and online, all the time.
2. People who say things like, “Get off the computer and have face-to-face discussions in the real world” are laughably blind to the reality most of us live. Most of us can’t just leave our responsibilities behind, jump in a car or on public transportation, and head down to The Coffeehouse of Ideas every single time we feel like discussing an issue. We have kids, jobs, and/or mobility disabilities. We have workplace environments wherein these types of discussions are unwelcome or even impossible.
Most importantly, no one actually believes that online discussions are worthless. Everyone has seen the power of social media for spreading ideas, for good and for ill. While it’s a valid argument that in-person conversations are more effective in some ways, it’s a wagonload of nonsense to say that online conversations are worthless. People who make accusations like “social media posts are just slactivism” and “talking about an issue does nothing” are well aware that what they’re saying is not true.
3. What’s genuinely amusing about the people who make comments on social media like “posting on social media is worthless” is that they’re complaining about the worthlessness of posting on social media by posting on social media. They’re choosing an issue they care about– the supposed worthlessness of social media commentary– and using social media commentary as their tool of choice to publicly discuss it. Slow clap, people.
4. Creating false dichotomies like “There are more important issues we should be discussing” serves no one. If we size queen every discussion we have, we’d never be able to discuss anything but the worst possible atrocities. “I got a parking ticket! I really can’t afford this ri–” “BUT WHAT ABOUT GENOCIDE?” I’ve seen people complaining about discussions of diversity in film by saying “We have a neo-Nazi about to become president! Why are we discussing movies?!” as if those two things are not related, as if we didn’t have a mountain of evidence showing that art creates empathy, as if we didn’t have a mountain of evidence demonstrating the importance of representation. Again, almost everyone who pulls this kind of nonsense knows what they’re saying isn’t strictly true. They understand the interconnectedness of issues, and they know that your single post about an issue doesn’t mean that that issue is the only thing you care about. Yet they still will say “Why are you discussing this when there are more important things to discuss; this is a distraction.”
5. “Why are you just discussing this? Why aren’t you TAKING ACTION?” I think we all know these people believe the world revolves around them, but evidently they also believe that we all go into cryostasis when they’re not directly observing us. Of course they know that discussing issues online does not preclude action about those issues or any other, and they also know that those who discuss issues are far more likely to also take action about them. They know all of this, but they will still tell you to stop discussing an issue.
And again, it’s genuinely amusing that people will engage in an online discussion to scold someone for engaging in an online discussion. If they’re so disdainful of people who discuss issues online, why are they discussing issues online? Again, they know what they’re saying is not valid. The validity of the argument is not the point.
The point they’re trying to make is that you should be silenced. They are trying to silence you. The issue you’re discussing makes them uncomfortable, hits too close to home, or frightens them in some way. They are trying to assert control over what is deemed “important,” taking that authority for themselves, centering their worldview, and squelching different viewpoints.
Do not let them silence you. Now more than ever, we need to be openly discussing what’s happening in our culture. We need to be discussing issues both large and small and connecting the dots between them. We all need to be paying attention, but none of us can pay attention to everything all the time. We will all focus on different areas and catch different things. Our job is to understand how all these issues interconnect, not create false competitions between issues, or set ourselves up as gatekeepers of “importance.”
Our activism, our resistance, has never been more important. Pay attention. Never trust anyone who tells you to look away from anything. Connect the dots. Refuse to be silenced.
. . . just not in the way Donald Trump thinks. Theatre needs to be safe from encroachment on our freedom of speech.
Vice President Elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton on Friday and was booed by the audience. At the end of the show, the actor playing Aaron Burr, Brandon Victor Dixon, gave a very polite speech from the stage urging the audience to stop booing and telling Pence that they were grateful for his presence and that the diverse cast and crew were understandably anxious about whether they would be protected under a Trump/Pence administration, urging Pence to support “all Americans.”
For being asked to support all Americans in accordance with the campaign’s own promises, Trump has referred to this exercise of free speech as “harassment” and demanded an apology from the cast in several of his trademark childishly-worded tweets, some of which have been deleted by the time of this writing. (Pence, on the other hand, responded yesterday with something that basically might have been, “Of course I wasn’t offended. I’m an adult. So I’m going to do the adult thing and lie. The concerns of the Hamilton cast were heard, and we in the Trump administration will protect all Americans, not just straight white men.”)
Anyone could have predicted what it would be like for Pence to show up at Hamilton, a show that openly celebrates diversity (and is sold out until the end of time, which also means Pence, who sits at the head of a dangerously bigoted administration, used his celebrity to score some rare VIP house seats to watch a show created by the very people he and his administration openly seek to harm).
Trump’s response is alarming because theatre should be a safe space– safe from Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and their administration’s potential assault on American free speech.
As the President-Elect, Trump should not be demanding apologies from Americans speaking to their incoming government about their concerns. It’s a terrifying act when taken as a whole with Trump’s other actions.
Trump has vowed to “open up” libel laws as president in order to make it easier for him to sue news organizations and journalists for criticizing him. The fact that he has no idea what he’s talking about and can’t act on this vow means nothing, because there are plenty of ways his administration can use its power to curtail free speech. Trump already routinely sues people who criticize him, to the degree that First Amendment expert Susan Seager, writing in the newsletter of the American Bar Association, labeled him a “libel bully,” a charge proven by the fact that the ABA initially balked at publishing it for fear that Trump would sue them while President-Elect.
When Trump was a private citizen, his propensity to sue over every little thing was silly and laughable, but as President of the United States, it becomes a danger to our democracy. It’s one thing to be sued for criticizing a reality TV buffoon; it’s entirely another to be sued for criticizing our President.
Trump routinely threatens anyone who criticizes him, and this is a remarkable, particular danger for cherished American freedoms.
Trump blamed terrorist bombings on “freedom of the press.”
He threatened to sue Ted Cruz for running negative ads against him during the primaries.
He threatened to sue The Daily Beast for reporting on Ivana Trump’s deposition in their divorce case.
He threatened to sue the National Hispanic Media Coalition for calling his statement that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” “racist.”
He personally phoned writer David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump, and told him he would sue if he didn’t “like” what Johnston wrote.
He threatened to sue the New York Times for reporting about his taxes.
He threatened to sue Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who wrote Trump’s 1987 memoir The Art of the Deal, for discussing his personal opinion of the candidate.
He threatened to sue the Washington Post for running a story detailing the failure and bankruptcy of his Atlantic City casino.
He threatened Amazon with antitrust and tax investigations over his coverage in the Washington Post because Jeff Bezos founded Amazon and now owns the Post. Amazon stock dropped 6% when Trump was elected, as investors wonder whether the President-Elect will sink a business over news stories he deems unflattering, in direct violation of our constitutional protections.
The above list is so short and incomplete it barely deserves to be called a “partial list.” Trump has repeatedly, relentlessly attacked “the media” in general and many journalists in particular for daring to write criticisms of him– even mild criticisms, even just, as was the case with Megyn Kelly, reading out his own words. His vicious attacks on journalists at his campaign rallies caused many of his supporters to menace, threaten, and verbally abuse journalists there to cover the event. It became so acute the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling Trump a “threat to press freedom.” MSNBC reporter Katy Tur, a favorite target for Trump, had to be given Secret Service protection at one of his rallies, as his vitriol from the stage against her personally for her journalism– he literally pointed at her from the stage, called her a “liar,” and demanded an apology– resulted in the crowd of thousands turning on her “like a large animal, angry and unchained.”
When Trump famously mocked a disabled reporter (Serge Kovaleski) from the stage, it was over his journalism— specifically, his factual statement that during his coverage of 9/11, he did not recall anything that supported Trump’s outrageously false claims that “thousands” of Muslims were “celebrating in the streets.” Trump supporters have deluged Jewish journalists with antisemitic death threats.
During the campaign, Trump denied access to media outlets he deemed “unfair” because they did not violate journalistic ethics to portray him solely in a favorable light, only lifting the ban two months before the election. He has already begun denying access during this transition period.
Trump’s multiple threats to both freedom of speech and freedom of the press are gravely concerning. This is a direct attack on American free speech when it comes from the incoming government. Squelching free speech is always the first step in establishing a dictatorship, and his lawsuit antics are already having a chilling effect on coverage.
Trump’s demand for an apology from the Hamilton cast is a small thing, but it’s just one tiny sliver of his ongoing attacks against our First Amendment protections.
What is “Peeple”?
Perhaps you’ve already heard about this proposed new app, “Peeple,” that’s designed to be a sort of Yelp for people. The premise is that anyone with your cell phone number can create your profile and post a review of you. Yes, you personally. You’re alerted via text message. If you do nothing, Peeple only posts “positive” reviews, meaning reviews of 3 – 5 stars, regardless of written content. If you claim your profile, you receive your negative reviews (2 stars or fewer) via your Peeple inbox. You have 48 hours to try to “work it out with the person” and convince them to “turn a negative to a positive.” If you can’t, the review goes live, and your only recourse is to defend yourself publicly. The founders of Peeple, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, have repeatedly said that there will be no opt-out feature, meaning anyone who has– or who can find– your cell phone number can create a permanent profile for you without your consent, inviting others to post reviews of you, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Cordray and McCullough have given vague assurances that they will have structures in place to minimize harassment and enable people to contest reviews with misleading or incorrect information. They claim they will personally review all negative reviews (again, not in content, just in star count), and that anyone violating the terms of service, which bans, according to their website, “profanity, bullying, health references, disability references, confidential information, mentioning other people in a rating that you are not currently writing a rating for, name calling, degrading comments, abuse, derogatory comments, sexual references, mention of confidential information, racism, legal references, hateful content, sexism, and other parameters in our terms and conditions” will be booted.
This Can’t Possibly Be Real, Can It?
Peeple is such a spectacularly bad idea that, in addition to the massive online outpouring of WTF, some people began looking a little closer at Cordray and McCullough (pictured above), among them Snopes, and started to float the idea that Peeple is likely “vaporware” (a nonexistent product announced but never produced), a hoax created to underpin a reality show Cordray and McCullough were creating about the development of an app. Peeple’s site features no less than ten “webisodes” entitled “Peeple Watching Documentary– 2 Best Friends Building an App in Silicon Valley in 90 Days.”
Another clue is the app’s website. As a writer who has done some professional copywriting for tech companies in the past, it’s immediately obvious to me that the copy in all sections has been written by an amateur. It’s rife with writing errors. Suspiciously so. Check out the first quote above– it mentions “confidential information” twice in the same list. The site also includes a note entitled “An Ode to Courage” that’s so self-serving and poorly written, it makes me wonder if the entire enterprise is a satire of app developers: “Innovators are often put down because people are scared and they don’t understand. We are bold innovators and sending big waves into motion and we will not apologize for that because we love you enough to give you this gift.”
While bad writing alone doesn’t point to a hoax, it certainly adds to the enormous lack of professionalism that is underpinning much of what’s creating suspicions.
Their failure to address basic, obvious concerns about privacy, consent, and intrusion demonstrates they have suspiciously low interest in probable legal complications.
They seem to have no understanding of social media harassment, which would be shocking for people creating a social media app. They appear (pretend?) to believe that possessing a cell phone number is proof of personal knowledge, when everyone online knows that to be laughably inaccurate. Their report and review policies are suspiciously weak, as if no one with expertise in the matter was consulted.
Finally, they have no legal right to the name “Peeple,” which belongs to a company that makes smart peepholes for your door (which actually look super-rad; you should check them out). Cordray and McCullough didn’t even bother to check the availability of the brand name before diving in. (Cordray appears to have belatedly– just last night, in fact– created a new twitter handle, @peeplereviewapp, and is offering $1000 for the “best new name.”)
If It’s Just a Hoax, What’s the Big Deal?
Whether the app is vaporware or not, Peeple is a Very Bad Thing.
Remember: Cordray and McCullough are clear that reviews with 3 – 5 stars will automatically post, regardless of content, and without your consent. Harassers and stalkers know precisely how to game systems, and it doesn’t take a genius to sort out that a damaging, harassing, or abusive review, carefully worded so it doesn’t violate the ToS, will automatically post if you attach a 5 star rating. There are millions of people out there who understand all too well the potential dangers that Cordray and McCullough have been callously brushing off.
Apart from the ongoing struggle with online harassment of women, there are specific vulnerable populations that are terrified of this app, and for good reason. There are places in this country where a person would be fired if their place of employment discovers they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. There are places in this country where transgender people have no legal protections. There are transgender people whose lives are at risk if their identities are discovered, particularly low-income people and people of color. Gay and transgender teenagers have astronomically high suicide rates as it is, exacerbated by bullying. Just asking people to click through a “yes, I am 21” screen does exactly nothing to protect a kid. How long will Peeple’s review process take? Two days? A week? While a profile outing or bullying a teenager remains up?
There are tens of thousands of people hiding from abusive exes or stalkers, and Peeple presents an enormous danger to them, even from well-meaning people. All it takes is a 5 star review from a customer or co-worker detailing the excellent service Name O’Person provides in Specific City, and boom. The damage has been done. Peeple won’t allow the profile to be taken down, and the review can’t be contested because it’s positive. Even if the profile could be taken down, there’s no way for it to be taken down quickly enough to protect people adequately. The internet is forever. There are people who barely escaped murder hiding in cities far from their abusive exes, keeping as low a profile as possible. Peeple has announced, essentially, that it plans to out them all, but LOL, “turn a negative into a positive!” Peeple is “a positivity app!”
People all across the country are terrified about what Peeple’s scorn for consent might mean for them and their families. Will I lose my job? Will I lose my children? Will I have to race into hiding, desperately seeking housing and a new job, because the man who swore to murder me will discover where I work? What if I can’t afford to move when I’m outed? Will my transgender college student, away from home for the first time, be bullied into suicide? Will my transgender daughter be killed on the street on her way to work? Will my stalker be able to trace where my children go to school if our location is posted?
And sure, there’s nothing stopping people from outing each other now– and they do– but Peeple is built specifically to aggregate and disclose information about individuals without their consent. Peeple’s sole function is to judge others without their consent, and deny them the right to opt out.
AND DENY THEM THE RIGHT TO OPT OUT.
Unlike other social media sites, Peeple enables others to create a profile for you without your consent, and denies you the right to delete comments on that profile, block harassers, or delete your profile entirely. Cordray and McCullough have decided that they, not you, are the appropriate judges of what constitutes your “confidential information,” as well as what constitutes “harassment.”
Peeple would be one-stop shopping for harassers and abusers, and that is terrifying millions of people while Cordray and McCullough brush off their concerns with casual cruelty.
If Peeple launches, there will be attendant invasion of privacy lawsuits launching, one hopes, in time to shut it down before it can get anyone killed. But the damage it’s doing right now– the terror it’s spreading among vulnerable populations, real people whose lives are on the line– is unconscionable.
I can almost understand wanting to launch a real app, and just lacking the expertise and intelligence to understand that your app is the worst idea ever, and why, and how to address those issues before you destroy your brand, someone else’s brand, several thousand lives, and your professional reputations.
But I CANNOT understand people who would persist in a hoax after being told, repeatedly, that they are scaring the living shit out of millions of people whose lives they would be putting at risk.
A Note To Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough
Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, if this is vaporware, a hoax, and/or a fake premise upon which to launch your web series, you are truly despicable. You have repeatedly demonstrated no concern whatsoever for the personal safety or emotional and psychological well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable people. You’re terrifying people because you desperately want to be rich and famous. Well, you got the famous part all right– I hope infamous is close enough. If your app is real, and if you have one decent cell in your body– either of you– you will make this app opt-in, or you will allow people to pre-emptively opt out and/or delete profiles created for them before they go live.
I think the best and/or most frustrating part about all of this is how upset Cordray’s been over the criticism, and how ludicrous she looks trying to silence it while denying that right to others. It’s been a banner couple of
years centuries for clueless, self-serving, arrogant, basic white girls, (here you go; with my compliments; help yourself; just one more; treat yourself), but this takes the cake.