Speech and Music

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has decided to cancel a performance by pianist Valentina Lisitsa, apparently due to complaints about her online postings concerning the war in the Ukraine. Lisitsa was born there, has expressed strong feelings about the conflict, and apparently some people found her comments offensive.

Strictly speaking, this is not a censorship issue. No one is telling her she cannot express her opinion. And although she is an artist, this is not an artistic issue either. Her performances are completely apolitical. Nor is this an issue of private life spilling into the public arena, as she was speaking publicly. She is simply, like many people before her, someone who said something unpopular on social media and lost their job over it.

It’s hard to blame the employer. Protests are bad publicity, and while some businesses ride it out, not all want to, or can afford to, stand behind an unpopular employee. Suggestions that people should keep unpopular or controversial opinions to themselves are pointless. Innocent statements are taken out of context, and beliefs change. The fault lies with the mob.

The mob has a certain set of views, and tolerates no discussion. Issues are simple – you either agree, or you are the enemy. Thus a piano player who expresses an opinion about a war in another country should no longer be allowed to play the piano. This intolerant, black and white view of the world benefits no one. It allows small differences to separate us from other people, and makes it harder to resolve any issue, because solutions are seen as winning or losing. Unfortunately, two-party democracies reinforce this binary world view. Politicians trying to score votes make it worse by promoting and exploiting all manner of social binaries – criminals vs law abiding, hard working vs welfare cheats, gun owners vs non-gun owners, unions vs management, men vs women, foreigners vs citizens, and so on. Wars are both a result of intolerance and way to further it. A question we ask in almost every dispute, from a romantic disagreement to a war, is “whose side are you on?”

Imagine if we didn’t take sides? We could all agree that Valentina plays very well, regardless of her political opinions, which she in turn may not feel so compelled to express, ideally because there would be no war at her birthplace. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

Update: The TSO originally arranged for Stewart Goodyear to play the scheduled piece of music, but he has been bullied into declining. ‘Goodyear says he was accused of supporting censorship and what began as one of the happiest moments of his life turned into a “shattering display of mob hysteria.”‘ The mob scores another victim.

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