When I pick shows for our main stage productions every year, I have to be mindful of a number of things such as student population, budget, feasibility (big one that students and faculty often don’t get when they request that I do Phantom of the Opera or Wicked) and this thing my boss calls “Community Standards.” This is important because I’m not directing plays in Marin County, California where I’ve known high school productions of Hair have taken place. There are a lot of shows I would like to direct that I feel have educational and artistic value. But I don’t get to just do what I want or even feel is appropriate. I have to be mindful of the community. It’s my job after all and as much as my students want to do Sweeney Todd, it’s not going to happen around these parts.
Now some would say to challenge the status quo because the status is not quo. We have to challenge community standards to change them. Trans people would not be visible without this practice of advancing what the community deems appropriate. I would not be thinking about my spring musical if not for people pushing the envelope of what the community expects and even I play a small part in pushing that envelope. My very small contribution to the cause. It is important work, challenging the community to accept what was once not acceptable.
Sometimes community caretakers, those with an interest in halting progressive thought or who feel that the status most definitely is quo or who are simply happy with the way things are, push back. They toe the line and demand that what some of us deem progress be halted or, better still for them, reversed. They hearken back to some imagined “better time” when things seemed “simpler.” It’s like those nostalgic for their high school days because life seemed, and most likely was in many respects, simpler. But they do not remember the reality of high school. Just an imagined ideal. These caretakers are not concerned with those who remember high school as the worst time in their lives because everybody’s got the right to be happy so long as their own rights are primary and really not everyone has the right to be happy at all because if those people are happy, then their own version of happiness is questionable. Being a caretaker of community standards often requires a deep sublimation of empathy.
Sometimes one group that challenges community standards is at loggerheads with another. They only accept their ideologically pure version of where the community ought to go and often outright deny the existence of another group because they have created a version of the status quo where the other group is in service to the very community that often actively shuns them. This is a tricky bit of business because it requires selective blindness to reality. It also requires them to believe that if they attack a group of people, they will stand idly by and accept the blows…perhaps the opposition will see that they are somehow right and stop their own need to open up what the community deems acceptable. But it sometimes gets to be something like a Harry Potter/Voldemort struggle… neither can live while the other survives. Ultimately, those who are most active in this fight against each other, through their actions and words, escalate the arguments until there is no possibility of accord. Capulets and Montegues one and all. The ridiculous part is that the community at large doesn’t even know this fight is going on and rally couldn’t care what the outcome is. The fights, for the most part, have no discernible affect (every once in a blue moon, this is not the case and the community notices and takes a side – but this is rare).
My view is that you cannot change the community in the way you would like with negative actions (unless your goal is to provoke fear and hatred, often of yourself, in the community). That being said, the caretakers can use negativity to fight against change and if those seeking change attempt to use the tactics of the caretakers, then they will not win the day. This is why it is so difficult to change community standards and, when it happens, it should be celebrated, even if the change is by very small degrees.