Edinburgh in August becomes a swarm of performers and tourists and buskers, there are posters and flyers plastered onto every available fence or lamppost, and the pavements are littered with dropped handbills and ticket stubs. With hundreds upon hundreds of shows and concerts and talks and gigs on offer, it can be overwhelming. Choosing what to see becomes a gamble: it could be great, and well worth the money, or it could be a lemon. This year in the lucky dip I came up with real prizes: performance poet Luke Wright, in his acclaimed one-man show Frankie Vah, and journalist Laurie Penny, talking about her new book Bitch Doctrine at the Book Fest.
Both Wright and Penny advocate for the political left with spitfire gumption. They both wield words like eloquent weapons, aimed with clarity and precision, that cut open hesitancy or prevarication and rally the troops to the cause of social justice for all. (God knows the left needs to be rallied.) And both operate from the same base: a deep and abiding respect for words as voice, and voice as political agency. But what resonates most for me in their work is this: both understand that the most radical act anyone can take in life is to learn.
Frankie Vah tells the story of a boy growing up during the 1980s, setting himself against the conservative, religious dogma of his father (a vicar) by embracing anti-Thatcherism. We watch a tentative, yearning teenaged Simon evolve into a snarling, adamant Angry Young Man named Frankie Vah. Along the way Frankie becomes consumed with his own righteousness and self-creation, eventually insulting, betraying and alienating everyone close to him – until he breaks. The anger-fuelled facade falls away, leaving a raw and humbled human heart on full display.
Likewise, Laurie Penny offered a graciously open interview, the most notable point of which (for me) were her reflections on the responsibility we must each take to keep learning. ‘I don’t always get it right’ she admitted, ‘I make mistakes,’ and she acknowledged the privilege she holds as a white, middle-class, well-educated person who holds a very public platform in her writing. She described her personal commitment to listen and learn from others about what is needed to create a just society.
Both Wright and Penny draw on this fundamental truth: the personal is political. Every individual holds values and makes choices that contribute to the collective human experience. Every individual is responsible for their impact on others. And every individual makes mistakes along the way. But as Penny pointed out, we need to create safe spaces where people “can get things wrong.” Getting it wrong is the fuel of learning – but only when it is digested and transformed into a usable energy.
Anger at injustice can be a form of getting it wrong; it is a valuable resource from which we can create a useable contructive energy, so long as we don’t stop and linger with anger for its own sake. Frankie Vah learns that righteous anger hits a dead end if one doesn’t remain open and listening to the equally valid emotions and opinions of others.
It’s a balancing act, for sure. One audience member at the Laurie Penny talk was a German lady who referenced Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
Penny replied with Oscar Wilde: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
The discussion also touched upon the relationship between truth and reality, in this age of so-called post-truth. How can truth and reality either of them be anything but subjective, and aligned with an individual’s experience and perspective? Penny alludes to this when she writes about journalistic objectivity: “I have never held with the notion of objective journalism…. When I started out, my world was overfull of stern men imploring me to strive for objectivity – which meant, in practice, that I ought to tell the story as a rich older man might see it.”
In this way, objectivity becomes confused with telling one’s story from a worthy point of view. When we listen to individual perspective as indicative of a greater legitimacy, we grant it the power of voice.
Here is where Laurie Penny and Luke Wright veer off from one another: while they share a vast common ground of ideals and values, Luke Wright will only ever speak as a white man, and Laurie Penny as a white woman – and their experience of voice reflects this. Interestingly, Frankie Vah is a persona created by Simon, who is himself a character created by Wright. These layers of identity fall away like tshirts tugged off and flung to the far corners of a teenaged bedroom: Luke Wright as Frankie Vah paces and swaggers and sweats and vibrates with an indignation summoned from his own alive-and-beating heart. Luke Wright as Simon at the start of the show stands in awkward gawky adolescence, eyes gleaming with eagerness to connect and participate in life; he stands in lone, vulnerable hurt at the end, when Simon faces up to his life choices. Wright’s honesty and self-examination drive these characters. He channels himself into a story that leaves him poised at the edge of reason, and we love him for it.
Like Wright, Laurie Penny digs deep into the viscerally personal and channels her soulful passion into the stories she tells through journalism. But what happens when a woman voices righteous anger, and travels to that same edge of reason? Penny can tell you: she takes vicious and unrelenting flak for daring to hold an opinion, daring to express herself, daring to challenge the demand that she be quiet and submissive. Her voice becomes a dare, a transgression, for which she will be emphatically trolled, verbally abused, even threatened with physical violence. And most likely of all, she will be dismissed as irrelevent.
In Bitch Doctrine, Penny writes “When women write and speak the truth of their own lives, it is called ‘confessional’, with the implication of wrongdoing, of sharing secrets that ought not to be spoken aloud, at least by nice girls. When men do the same, it is called literature, and they win prizes.”
That particular observation resonates, because I’ve experienced the same. Too personal, I’ve been told about some of the things I’ve written publicly. Too raw. And yes, even “confessional” – that last by an otherwise open-minded, feminist, liberal friend who is also a man. It was a throwaway observation about my blog, probably forgotten as soon as he said it – but on my end, the word stung. There was a gentle reprimand in its tone, a suggestion that I was being incautious by baring myself so openly. It instilled a pinprick of shame, which I can still feel despite all efforts to rationalise and yes, excuse the friend who said it. He is a gentle soul, a considerate and loving and well-meaning person, very willing to reflect on and engage with feminism, to question the assumptions of masculinity, and to acknowledge the privilege he holds. Yet even he found it somehow unseemly that I would write candidly about my personal experiences and opinions, and felt entitled to chasten me.
It hardly seems worth dwelling on this, given the scale of crises which are engulfing our world in the 21st century. But no, on the contrary: I think it is well worth dwelling on even the most subtle of dilemmas, exploring any avenue which may lead us to learn from one another. Learning is at the core of our salvation, if there is to be any real healing of the wounds which fester so doggedly in the human psyche.
Organisational theorist Margaret Wheatley once observed that in natural systems, dysfunction is only resolved by introducing new information. Our human system is deeply dysfunctional, bloated with injustice, mired down by obsolete and discredited philosophies and customs. It is time to welcome the new information being voiced, to flood the system with fresh ideas and different perspectives. We can learn to do better; we must learn to do better. We can and must learn, individually and collectively. Our capacity to learn is the most powerful thing about us, and the most beautiful.