The Principle of The Thing Paints Us All in a Corner
I'm having a drink in a bar. I'm alone because it was a long day and I just wanted a glass of rye whiskey to take the edge off, you know? A guy next to me is bloviating about the Evil Hillary and the Genius of Trump and I laugh to myself. He turns on me and asks what was funny. I smile and say "Nothing. Sorry." He starts in on his conspiracy theories and is getting quite animated and I ignore him. I just want my drink and some misanthropic time in a crowded dive. And in his zeal, he pokes me in the arm to get my attention.
According to the legal definitions of assault, he has assaulted me. I am now within my rights to call the police and press charges against him. Was he threatening me? If I say I feel threatened, he was. Do I call the police?
Of course not because only the most ridiculously litigious person in the Olympiad of Victim Status would reasonably perceive his finger poke as assault despite the legal definitions. The only reason fathomable to escalate that gesture in a misdemeanor crime would be the Principle of The Thing.
Back in 1997 WNEP Theater was producing an original musical based on a 1960s semi-porn novel called The Wicked and The Sexed. It was adapted by Lori McClain with a score and songs written by Jeff Shivar. I was the producer, the vocal director and one of the actors. Karin McKie and Kate Hendrickson co-directed it.
With songs like Spank Me, the musical was about a drifter lothario using sex as a power grab in a gubernatorial campaign and how he upends the campaign by bedding both the wife and daughter of the politician. It was campy and over-the-top in a Dallas meets Austin Powers sort of way and it was hysterical.
We performed the show at the Famous Door space in Hull House in Lakeview. The technical director had never worked with a lighting board like the Door's and, given we were a late night rental, had limited time to learn to program it. Thus, the night of our first technical rehearsal, Bob was both learning how to and programming the board. It took a looong time. We had all agreed to stay until we got the show plotted but really had no idea that we would be in the room from 8 p.m. until close to 5 a.m. before McKie finally called it a night.
Approaching the 1 a.m. mark, we were getting a bit testy as a group. Our patience with Bob's snail-like speed and the constant "OK. We're good on that scene. Uh. Hold on. Wait. Fuck." began to wear on us. Tempers flared in small moments. Tension was thick and frustration was palpable across the faces of the cast and crew. This thing we were doing, mostly for the love of doing it, was becoming complete hell.
Backstage, I was trying on costume pieces for my governor's character and Kate called me out to look at something or ask about a prop piece or something and I came out onstage in a t-shirt and boxer shorts. A few people started laughing at my casual disregard for decorum. Pat Carton cackled, "At least he's not naked!"
And in my hazy late night, fatigued mind, a juvenile lightbulb, like one of those Boob Lamps from Spencer's Gifts, went off.
If you ever watched The People's Court, you were assailed with court cases that often were as petty as they come. Neighbors suing neighbors for cutting down trees, going to court against family for a George Foreman grill that was left and won't be returned, rage-filled people suing each other over slights and financial hardships that amounted to children spatting with each other over stolen marbles.
It was always more about the Principle of The Thing than The Thing. My experience dictates that those more concerned with the Principle than genuine harm or real world accountability on a case by case basis are just like those folx on The People's Court—angry, petty and unrelenting. For them, the cousin who boxed up their collection of Hummel figurines and threw them away out of spite are elevated to true villains, criminals who got away with an injustice so heinous that only true destruction will appease the aggrieved.
I waited for roughly 15 minutes, stripped down to my birthday suit and then casually started walking through the theater as if I was inspecting curtains and lights in full clothing. I thought it was stupid and funny and felt like maybe it was a goofy-ass way to break some of the tension. A chubby naked white guy (like so many Terry Jones' bits in Python) aimlessly wandering around struck me as high fucking comedy.
The best part was that, while everyone noticed, only Carton giggled once when he saw me and everyone else completely ignored me. The fact that no one even bothered to acknowledge it somehow cracked me up even more. A few more minutes and finally someone yells out "Can we get Hall some socks?" and there was some laughter and I went and put my clothes back on.
Was it dumb? Oh, yes. Sophomoric? No question. Funny? To some (mostly me), but not especially to anyone else. More of an eye roll moment than anything else given the long night and circumstances. Was it sexual harassment?
There was no power dynamic at play. There was no overt sexuality—unless we are so Puritanical to assume nudity in any case is sexual. There as no threat, either obvious or implied. It was a goofy thing to do that involved a naked asshole wandering around like a moron. Do I owe anyone an apology? No one's asked for one so I'm not offering one, but if 20 years later someone from that cast came out and told me the sight of me walking around the theater naked as a jay bird traumatized them, I'd definitely apologize. And mean it.
Should I be destroyed for it? Should I be prevented from making a living because of it? Is it reasonable to include me in the same category as a serial rapist or habitual sex offender for it? Only in a bizarre dystopian world of no context, thoughtful reflection and unending knee-jerk rage I suppose.
Would I do it again? Probably not. My sense of humor will likely always err on the side of an idiot but, as an older guy not steeped in the world of theater anymore, the joke no longer seems all that funny. This is not, however, in any way an apology for someone who uses the excuse of "I was only joking" when it is apparent that he used this as a cover for serial dating his students, using his money and power to intimidate women into accepting his tawdry advances, and shaming them when they said anything about it.
Sense of humor still doesn't make toxic behavior funny. That said, a lack of a sense of humor and an absence of common sense can easily paint benign behavior as toxic. It is up to us to be able to parse out the difference while still being supportive unconditionally to those who have come forward with their stories of abuse.
Be wary of those so rage-filled about generalities that they only want to teach people a lesson. Be cautious of those who want revenge upon people as a matter of Principle rather than justice. Remember that The Red Scare was a genuine threat—the Communists were the enemies of America—but remember also that the overwhelming desire to paint anyone in this country who had even attended an informational meeting or had friends who were Communist Sympathizers opened the door for destructive zealots like Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy.
The wide unforgiving brush of Principle covers us all in the paint of guilt with no regard for context or actual culpability.