Clare, a young woman at university, happens upon an English translation of a play written by Hitler’s favourite playwright that upsets her entire world view. She can’t help but see strong parallels in how the media was manipulated then and now.
Filled with anxiety that the world she lives in is not as noble as everyone is led to believe, she digs deeper, jumping down a rabbit hole that eventually isolates her from everyone she knows and loves. Her friends shun her, her parents demean her and her teachers expel her. If the truth is the truth then why won’t anyone listen?
That’s the question that lies at the heart of A Nazi Comparison, a new play from my company Craft Theatre that’s currently running at Waterloo East in London. The production explores politics, climate change, the refugee crises and more, and through these topics it investigates how aspects of Nazism can resurface in contemporary societies through propaganda—and how the media can strengthen or weaken ‘confirmation bias’ in society: the tendency for people to search for and favour information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs
It’s that sort of bias that underpins the growing trend towards political polarization and the fracturing of communities—think Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ election in the USA, for example, or the manipulation and mythmaking that surrounded Britain’s vote on Brexit. Against that background it’s worth asking whether the arts can help to address this problem as well as to create it: can theatre change our minds in positive, life-enhancing, open-ended ways, and bring people together across the lines of difference?
I’ve been exploring the answers to these questions by engaging with the audience for the play itself, and what I’ve found is disturbing: overwhelmingly, people don’t think that confirmation bias applies to them even when they are shown evidence that it does. They think they are above it, and when they watch the work they don’t actually examine what’s in front of them. “I’m not like that” is a common reaction, “I get it, I understand the world as it is.”
But do they? To go deeper I needed to understand how audiences were internalising the play, and I didn’t think questionnaires would really provide the information I was looking for. On the whole people don’t know my face, and audiences generally don’t know I’m the director of the piece, so I decided to speak to people after each performance. I didn’t lie to them, but I implied that I was a ‘regular’ audience member too.
Of course not everyone wanted to talk, but many did. Bob, for example (not his real name), looked particularly agitated. “Oh I know for a fact that it’s all ‘hooey,’” he told me, “I have spent 30 years in the news industry, I read a lot, I know what’s going on—and I know for a fact that hurricane seasons haven’t changed in 100 years—it’s got nothing to do with climate change.”
“But I have the all the research that was used by the theatre company to develop the show,” I countered, “it has every fact in the script, properly quoted and referenced, 60 pages long. Can I email it to you?”
“No, no, I don’t have time to read anything” Bob said, proceeding to tell me that climate change is another symptom of the “left’s tricks.” I kept trying to offer insights from the research and he kept implying that he didn’t need to read it. He wasn’t listening. Bob just wanted me to agree with him.
Unfortunately, that was the trend among others from the audience I spoke with, too. Each person had their own nuance, but ultimately everyone was trying to convince me that they knew the truth, that their political opinions were the right ones—and they fought hard for their bias. I started to feel like I was in the Twilight Zone. It seems that A Nazi Comparison has actually activated confirmation bias in some people rather than correcting it. That was deeply worrying for me, so why are people so ready to ignore arguments that are contrary to their world view?
It’s here that culture and the media play a crucial role. In Hollywood, it’s pretty obvious that filmmakers support confirmation bias because telling audiences what they want to hear is both easy and lucrative. However it’s also been well documented that moviemakers are actively encouraged by government agencies to present a certain image of the world. Nicholas Schou, for example, explains how:
“Since the mid-1990s, but especially after 9/11, American screenwriters, directors, and producers have traded positive portrayal of the spy profession in film or television projects for special access and favours at CIA headquarters.”
In an interview with The Guardian, veteran CIA operative Chase Brandon confirmed that “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian…It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.” And shows like NCIS already receive special assistance from the US military.
Most people don’t think the TV programmes or films they watch are propaganda, just as they don’t like to think that their opinions aren’t their own, but these examples show that confirmation bias is hard at work under the surface of the media. In that case, what can be done?
I’m a theatre director, so that’s where I naturally look for solutions. What can independent theatres do to counterbalance the misrepresentations of history and the growing trend to inject political spin into the arts? I think they can help, but based on my own recent experience with A Nazi Comparison it’s clear that the whole model will have to change.
We need to take our theatre pieces away from tired ‘black box’ fringe theatres and grand palaces. Instead, we should be building stories around circumstances that actually happen to people, and then taking those stories to communities who can use them to foster dialogue, build bridges, and explore the facts together, in order to develop new communities of honesty and solidarity.
Television and film have a ‘fourth wall’: they come with an innate separation between actor and spectator. Theatre represents a different medium, because the fourth wall in the theatre is fake. It can be broken down and even removed entirely by encouraging feedback and interaction between the play and its audience.
The Brazilian theatre director, writer and activist Augusto Boal attempted something like this when he created “Forum Theatre,” a model in which the actors or members of the audience could stop a scene when a character was being oppressed. The audience would then suggest different actions for the actors in an attempt to change the outcome of the story.
That would be a good start, but it still implies an ‘us and them’ dichotomy. I think theatre makers should go beyond that dichotomy and dive head first into communities. The process of getting to know people and building theatre with them and from their circumstances can develop friendship and trust, perhaps even enabling people to see themselves in new ways.
In the BAFTA award winning documentary The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews people who were involved in the mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia. Some of the murderers gleefully dramatized the killings, but when they watched footage of the actual events something fascinating happened—they realised how horrific what they said sounded, and it started to change their lives.
I’m not saying that all theatre should set out to change everyone by forcing them to confront a particular reality. Rather, we should set out to make friends with people and in doing so, through the act of mutual creation, we can all begin to mend our bias. There are many different ways to do this, but the first step in all of them is to acknowledge that confirmation bias is real, and that we all have it. The next step is to think about what we can each do personally to address or free ourselves from these biases within our own world and social setting.
The highest form of art is the creation of community—worker-to-worker, person-to-person, friend to friend. Real learning—the only kind that counters bias—happens only when people are open with each-other in a trusted environment, where they can develop authentic relationships. When envisioned in terms of community, theatre is one place where this can happen.