“Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” a man asks us. One or two audience members say yes. The rest shift awkwardly in their seats, unsure what to do. The unwillingness to give a definitive answer encapsulates the argument behind DV8's show Can We Talk About This?, presented at the National Theatre in 2011 and 2012: Western publics have become afraid to voice opposition to Islamist autocracy and prejudice from within minority communities for fear of offending Muslims and people of color.
Reflecting on the show more than a decade later, I can see the seeds of the “culture war” arguments that now rage daily on social media, on university campuses, and in many western governments. Exploring why an artistically radical theatre company famous for tackling socio-political subjects felt it necessary to align themselves with conservative criticisms of multiculturalism to defend free speech raises difficult but important questions about the changing nature of identity politics in globalized cultures like the United Kingdom and the United States.
Can We Talk About This? is an example of "pinkwashing:" using gay rights to launder Islamophobia and anti-Black racism into a defense of liberal values. The history of multiculturalism CanWe Talk About This? explores can be grafted onto the parallel history of the British LGBTQI+ community fighting for equal rights. The successes of these campaigns are proven by the legalization of gay marriage, gay couples being allowed to adopt children, and equality laws protecting same-sex couples from discrimination. Such gains have been weaponized over the past decade to perpetuate fear of othered identities threatening a fictional social equilibrium.
A more extreme version of the pinkwashing tactics present in Can We Talk About This? have also been employed by professional troll and alt-right darling, Milo Yiannopoulos, to justify his use of dehumanizing language. Yiannopoulos was an editor at the far-right publication Breitbart from 2014 until 2017. His mobilization of camp aesthetics in The Dangerous Faggot Tour worked to normalize transphobia and racism. His obsessions with alt-right topics—particularly the “war on men”—highlight the inadequacies of common understandings of queer liberation politics. This is often reduced to a heteronormative caricature of transgression in mainstream culture that focuses on individual appearance and behavior over the serious ideas it possesses. Conservative attacks on genderqueer people are born from the fear of queer liberation being revived as a revolutionary project in distinction from the narrative of inclusion within the existing social system.
From the Radical to the Mainstream
DV8 was a British theatre company who started making work in the 1980s using their seminal combination of dance and drama to explore male sexual desire, the AIDs crisis, the serial killer Dennis Nilsen, domestic abuse, and homophobia. The company has always been interested in making performances with and about the gay community, which has meant their work is often interpreted through the lens of the identity politics of the late and post-Cold War era.
To put this in context, Margaret Thatcher's government passed Section 28 in 1988 to ban the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and the wider public sphere. The LGBTQI+ community’s fierce opposition to this brutal piece of homophobic legislation led to the formation of groups like Stonewall and OutRage! who campaigned for its abolition. Whilst these groups were united in their condemnation of Section 28, there were divergent views within them about the shape and nature gay liberation should take. Does liberation mean gaining equality within a cisheteronormative society—replete with its myriad forms of oppression—or does it mean dismantling the system itself?
DV8 has traditionally been associated with progressive leftist ideals in the public imagination. But Can We Talk About This? shows that no concrete definition of such ideals exists.
Their tactics were indicative of these differences. Stonewall pursued a conventional lobbying campaign to persuade Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) to repeal Section 28. In contrast, OutRage! used protests and controversial “outing” tactics of gay MPs and Bishops who supported the exclusion of LGBTQI+ people from public life. The longer-term goals of the campaign were never settled. The eventual repeal of Section 28 by the Labour government in 2003 and increasingly positive cultural attitudes to gay and lesbian people resulted in the radicalism and tensions within queer politics becoming glossed over by liberal-conservative understandings of tolerance in mainstream political discourse.
As a consequence of this gloss, DV8 has traditionally been associated with progressive leftist ideals in the public imagination. But Can We Talk About This? shows that no concrete definition of such ideals exists. The title is a homage to the dying words of the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by a jihadist for making Submission, a short film about violence against women in the Muslim community. The politics of the show express a deep hostility to what is now called “woke” before the word entered into popular debate as a pejorative. Can We Talk About This? paints Islam and Muslims as the “other” that cannot be tolerated within the rubric of liberal equality. Multiculturalism is presented as a system that upholds hierarchies of oppression with racism and Islamophobia at the apex, beneath which sexism and homophobia are less important.
Can We Talk About This? was an early warning sign that deep schisms were opening in British culture between those who believed religious intolerance masked racist ideas in the name of free speech and those who were concerned that fear of offending Muslims was leading to the left ignoring homophobia and misogyny in Muslim communities. DV8 takes the audience on a journey through what artistic director Lloyd Newson called key “landmarks” from 1985 up to the present day that led to what the right now claim is a “free speech crisis.”