The last two months have seen a couple of scandals fairly close to my own field. Over the same span, I’ve been asked five or six times what I think of the behaviour of Person X, who has apparently Done Something Bad, or who has apparently Failed to Do Something Good. There’s nothing unusual about my experience here: anyone in any field (in science or beyond) will see equivalent scandals and be asked the same questions. And as a species, we love to judge – often, to judge hastily.* (We’ve invented social media, it seems, in part as a tool to make shallow and hasty judgment very shallow, very hasty, and very, very efficient.)
Each time I read a condemnation of Person X for Doing Thing Y, or for Not Doing Thing Z, I remember a modern dance performance I saw two dozen years ago. It’s long enough ago that I can’t remember (or find) the work’s title or creator – but the work itself I’ll remember forever. (Which, given my complete lack of interest in dance of any form, whether doing or watching, should tell you something.) Let’s see if I can describe it.
When the curtain opened, in one corner there was a large blank canvas on an easel, and a single dancer beginning to paint on it. As she painted, other dancers – singly or in pairs – would enter from one side, dance for a few moments, then disappear into the wings. It wasn’t that these dancers would begin and complete a sequence of moves and then leave – instead, they would enter abruptly already in a twirl or a bow or whatever, and leave the stage just as abruptly, in the middle of a sequence that hadn’t come to any obvious conclusion. This didn’t make sense to me, so I found myself watching the only really continued thread: the solo dancer painting. It wasn’t obvious what she was painting, but as she added more strokes I started thinking that soon I’d be able to tell. More dancers entered, and left, and I thought I could almost tell what the painting on the easel was going to be – and then, a swell of music and the curtain closed.**
Reading that over, it all sounds a little sophomoric. In performance, it wasn’t – for example, the dancer’s painting was finely choreographed so that you believed you would soon know what it was, but you never quite did. That can’t have been easy.
So why has this stuck with me, and why am I bringing it up now? Because the piece carried a simple but important meaning for me: we never know the entirety of anyone else’s story. Each dancer who entered and left the stage made that point, but the dancer painting tempted me to think there was one story I’d know. The curtain closing broke that expectation. We’re often tempted like that: tempted to think we understand someone else’s story. We never do.
I remember this performance every time I see judgment, or am tempted to pronounce it. I see Person X having Done Bad Thing Y, but not why they did it or what else they’ve done less publicly. I see Person X having Not Done Good Thing Z, but I don’t see what might have stopped them or what other positive actions they took away from the public eye. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bad actors in the world – of course there are! It’s just that identifying and judging them with certainty is difficult given that I don’t know anyone’s full story but my own. Would knowing the full story change my judgment, in any given situation? It might not. But it might; that’s what it means not to know.
Now, I set this up with reference to huge scandals and conspicuous bad behaviour, but it applies just as much at a more pedestrian scale. I was at the grocery story the other night and the cashier was remarkably surly. I could have called her on it (and I’m embarrassed to say that it wouldn’t have been the first time I’d made that choice). But I thought about the dance, realized there was surely something I didn’t know, and thanked her anyway. Has a student missed a deadline? Dean or Chair neglected to congratulate you on your latest paper? Reviewer been unnecessarily snarky? Think about the dance.
And if anyone recognizes the dance piece from my description, could you let me know? It’s been nagging at me for a long, long time.
© Stephen Heard February 18, 2020
Image: Not the particular dance in question. Complexions Contemporary Ballet © Steven Pisano CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com
*^To be very clear: nothing in this post should be construed as endorsing bad behaviour when it exists.
**^Actually, I’m not confident in my memory about the music, and I may have other details wrong. It’s been two dozen years! But I’m confident of the big picture. Well, not the big picture on the easel –that’s sort of the point.