“Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic with empathy and understanding.”
This quote has scrolled through my newsfeed so many times in the last year that I am unable to find the original author.
This quote goes against what I was taught as a child. My family was always willing to have a lively, spirited conversation at home but at work, the rule was to not talk about politics, religion, or money.
I will never suggest breaking the rule of talking about how much anyone makes in public or in this forum but I would like to take some time to discuss politics and religion. You may ask why I have chosen this article to discuss such a thing. Politics, philosophy and religion have nothing to do with lighting, you might say. It’s a valid question. However they are not as separate as you may think. When I take on a new project, one of the first questions I ask of my client is about the politics of the job. Did I replace someone? If so, did they quit or were they fired? Who do I answer to? Does the crew miss that person? Who wants to see me succeed at this job and who wants me to fail? The politics of the job should never be underestimated.
The second set of questions often refers to the philosophy of the gig. What message do we want to portray? How do we want the audience to feel? What sort of an impact do we hope to impress upon the audience? The better we can understand the politics and philosophy, the longer we can keep the gigs that we like and avoid the ones that will lead to failure.
Talk to everyone
On my most recent tour, I had the pleasure of going around Europe with a very colorful triple platinum artist who probably couldn’t find a watch that matched her costumes. She was constantly late to show time. This left us with more than ample time to sit on headset and talk about everything that passed through our consciousness. After just one night of talking about the weather and lighting gear I remembered the above quote and decided to step up the conversations.
Each night we had a new topic. Some nights we would stick to the original topic right up until the intro video and some nights we bounced from topics to issues to propositions. We covered many discussions from Brexit to guns, transgender rights to religion, and the fear of death to the welfare state. Discussing these topics allowed all of us to learn more about the lives and concerns of our fellow crew members. We discovered far more about each other than gear talk ever could. Towards the end of the tour, we had circled back to Germany where we had repeat locals enthusiastically asking what we were going to be discussing tonight.
Difference of opinions
Traveling around Europe, we had two local follow spots and a rotating crew of bus drivers and technicians who ran the PRG GroundControl Followspot System. Every night we would have new people with new insights on the various materials. Some people had solutions and some people had even more questions. Either way, by the end of the discussion, we had all been heard and our opinions had been voiced.
There were two conversations that were especially meaningful. On the night that we discussed transgender rights, one of the crew members felt comfortable enough, for the first time, to discuss that his brother of fifty years had recently come out as transgender. He was having a hard time calling his brother by her newly affirmed pronouns and was uncomfortable talking to his family about the transition. He was able to listen to several people from around the globe give him advice while simultaneously receiving empathy from his fellow crew. He came to me after the show and let me know that he rarely allowed himself to be this vulnerable. In my past, this was the sort of conversation that could have only happened in a bar after too many drinks to really remember the outcome of the discussion.
The second conversation that I will always remember happened on the last night of the tour. Our topic for the evening was the fear of death and how to prepare for our inevitable demise. It’s a topic that does not come up enough. We are all going to die and we all have to sort out what our loved ones will do without us. After having the discussion on headset we all realized that some people were unaware of straightforward steps that we can take to prepare for our dissolution. A few of the drivers had ex-wives that still had rights to their property. Some of the crew members had never considered life insurance and I realized that I had not finished enumerating my assets for my revocable trust. We all left the show realizing that we cannot run from the grim reaper and that we need to prepare for his visit.
What I’m not saying
I realize that the taboo of talking politics on headset has been placed there for a reason. All too often, conversations about deeply held beliefs can bring up strong emotions. Certain ideas on certain topics about a certain problem that affects a certain class of people can be easily misinterpreted as ignorance or contempt. These conversations can get heated. I am definitely not saying that we should all get on our soapbox and monopolize work time on headset airing out our dirty laundry. I am saying that we should allow each other the ability to talk on headset with freedom from judgment and antipathy. I’m saying that the more we have difficult discussions, the more we will be able to understand each other and ourselves.
Lifting the taboo
Overcoming this prohibition is not easy. It requires each participant to willingly engage in the conversation and freely abstain when they don’t feel that their views are being considered. As John Featherstone of Lightswitch Inc. said when I discussed this article with him, “I think so long as it is boundaried by respect for the work environment, intellectual conversation on headset is actually beneficial. Much of what we do on headsets is cerebral, and so keeping mentally nimble is a good thing…. right?” He followed this up brilliantly by reminding me that F Scott Fitzgerald once said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – we have lost our societal ability to do that, and we need to relearn that. Conversations always need to be anchored in respect, understanding and the much-maligned ‘agree to disagree’.