Should we ban speakers whose opinions we find intolerable, as university students in both America and Britain are currently trying to do? And what of that moment when a person came from nowhere to punch the alt-right Richard Spencer to the ground as he gave an interview in Washington last January? Are such attacks justified?
That’s the particular incident Rob Drummond mentions and there’s the most pertinent question he raises in his solo show, The Majority, at London’s National Theatre. Raises? No, the Scots actor and writer goes further.
He asks the audience crammed into the 389-seat, in-the-round Dorfman auditorium to vote on the proposition that violence is sometimes “the answer” – and last Monday night we did, pressing yes or no buttons on the keypads we had each been given and disagreeing with the statement by a mere 51.12 to 48.84 per cent.
Another audience might and probably will come up with a different result. Then Drummond – informal, affable and well able to keep the audience on its mental toes – will adapt his spiel to the voting results announced on the screens around him. But the evening’s spine will remain unchanged.
This consists of some 20 moral and political queries slotted into the story of Drummond’s encounter with a far-left eccentric and the wary friendship that led him to an anti-right protest in Aberdeen, Scotland, arrest for slugging an opponent, and a six-month suspended prison sentence.
The evening began with votes establishing our communal identity. Last Monday 47.76 per cent of us were male, 67.29 social media users, 79.43 believed we could “make a difference” and, in the first hint of serious divisions, 90.55 described ourselves as “liberal” while a full 48.10 said that voting should be “mandatory” and just 38.32 “believed in absolute freedom of speech.”
Then came the first mention of the interminable visits to the ballot box the British public has recently made: two General Elections, the referendum that will extract Britain from the European Union, and the referendum that won’t take Scotland out of the UK.
Well, Monday’s audience voted 91.87 per cent against Brexit, applauding itself for doing so, and 69.03 per cent against Scottish independence. Drummond shamefacedly abstained in that referendum but met a drunken, angry oddball and, fascinated, tracked him down to a poverty-stricken village in Scotland’s far north.
That oddball, Eric, was a beekeeper who had once tried and failed to persuade the police to give him cocaine, so he could train his insects to spot drug smugglers at airports.
But Eric was also a paranoid socialist who saw neo-Nazis everywhere, including his own community.
Somehow Eric inveigled Drummond into scrawling “Nazi scum” in the driveway of a local councillor’s house and then participating in the Aberdeen rally that saw him, fuelled “by rage and alcohol”, strike a man carrying a placard reading “no more immigration”.
It’s odd that Drummond didn’t hold a vote on immigration, since it’s as live an issue in Britain as in America, but then nor did he query us about Trump, though he did admit that his conservative mum told him she’d have voted for that “no-nonsense” personage.
Presumably the answers of a National Theater audience would have been all too predictable. However, Drummond does ask more general questions, several involving the runaway train bearing murderously down on five helpless workmen, which we have the power to divert onto a siding.
Would we press the lever if we killed just one man on that siding? Yes, 77 per cent would. If it was our child on that siding? No, 88 per cent wouldn’t.
If five non-violent neo-Nazis were ahead and one ordinary left-winger was on the siding? Well, 56 per cent would let the racists die. And 11 percent would use the lever to kill a neo-Nazi even if the train would otherwise hit nobody.
Here, it seemed to me, Drummond did expose the moral inconsistency of an audience that voted, 88 to 12 per cent, against the proposition that “abusing someone for holding an opinion is helpful”.
Did Drummond achieve much more?
Though he was asking us to think too often in black-or-white, non-nuanced ways, at least he got us thinking: about the elusiveness of agreement, the confusions of democracy, perhaps the tyranny of the majority.
But it might be more revealing if he’d pose his questions to less elite audiences than at the National. In Charlottesville? The Bronx? Britain’s Luton or London’s Brixton, with their large minority communities?
“What people are punchable, what words, what ideas?” he asks, leaving us to ponder the answers as he approaches the conclusion of what’s certainly an original, arresting, absorbing evening. “We need to disagree better,” he says. “But disagreement is good. Auto-agreement is the death of conversation, the end of thought.” He didn’t need to put that to the vote.
The Majority is at the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre, London SE1 until August 28. Book tickets here.