Drama Box specialises in forum theatre. Currently, its production is titled “How much?”, about prostitution, sex workers, and our attitudes. A small incident happened during the intervention time of its performance on Saturday afternoon (9 April 2011) which illustrated very well the conservative mind. Let me describe the incident and explain what it illuminated.
First of all, I need to explain what is meant by “intervention”. This is the part of a forum theatre event when members of the audience are invited to speak up about one or more mistakes that a character has made. It leads to a discussion about what the character should have done instead.
The scene in question was one in which a young female was waiting for her next appointment in a coffee shop in Geylang, Singapore’s red light district. A coffee shop employee looks at her lecherously from head to toe. An audience discussion then ensued about how he should not be doing that, even if she might be a sex worker. It violates her dignity as a person.
A some point in the discussion, a man from the audience said, “The coffee shop guy also insulted her father.”
(At this point, I should clarify that I wasn’t taking notes, so the dialogue below has been reconstructed from memory. However, since the words were memorable, I’m quite sure I have captured them fairly well.)
Half the audience then went, “WHAT???” with some adding, “Are daughters the property of their fathers?”
To that, the man said, “Hey, I am also a father, so I understand what fathers feel. If she were my daughter, I would feel very insulted by the coffee shop guy’s behaviour.”
After a bit of uproar, during which the man said something more, using the word “honour” in the process, the moderator moved on to another topic.
I thought moving on was a mistake. That comment potentially opened the door to a deeper exploration of our attitudes to women and sex work and how our attitudes to sex work are linked to our gender attitudes. So, I am going to finish saying here what I never got the chance to say yesterday. I don’t think that father should have had the last word.
The man was apparently concerned that in the discussion preceding his intervention, interest centred on the young woman’s feelings, ignoring what to him might seem to be another important aspect — the feelings of the father. The question then becomes: Why were the feelings of the father considered so important to him that he had to voice out that point of view?
Almost surely, he would not consider daughters to be properties of fathers, yet he saw the father’s feelings as worthy of mention, almost to the point of trumping the woman’s feelings. The process in his mind was obviously an unconscious one. While he agreed that the coffee-shop guy’s behaviour was wrong, something in him judged the audience discussion to be missing the true measure as to how wrong it really was. The young woman’s feelings were no doubt important, but female feelings do not count as much as male feelings. A correct assessment of the wrongness of the coffee shop guy’s behaviour cannot be made by merely looking at female feelings alone. It was essential to incorporate within the assessment the feelings of males linked to her, and their conceptions of honour.
It’s not dissimilar to the idea that a woman’s testimony in court should be given half the weight of a man’s, and that violation of a female’s personhood is an affront to her male relatives’ honour sufficient to justify revenge by those relatives.
This higher valuation given to the male and his feelings is a classic feature of social conservatism.
Then, when challenged, the man did something else that was also classic conservatism. He quickly asserted his authority. Additionally, his choice of authority to assert was one that was based on relational rank: “I am also a father,” he said. He assumed that the audience would accept his point of view because he had authority.
As I have explained before in previous articles, the conservative mindset gives greater weight to authority than the liberal mindset. Appeals to authority therefore works well in a conservative-leaning crowd, and it becomes force of habit for many speakers. To a liberal-minded audience, it does not work, because authority counts for much less to them. They also see family differently (much less hierarchically) and therefore “father” does not have the same meaning to liberals as it does to conservatives.
It was a pity that this learning opportunity was missed.