at Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 21st March 2014
“Be hard on your beliefs; take them out onto the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat” – Tim Minchin
I’ve just finished reading Kathryn Schultz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error which, for someone as frequently dogmatic as myself was both a painful and illuminating read. In it, Schultz discusses how our belief in our own rightness can hinder genuine dialogue and education, citing research which shows that we frequently stop listening when faced with an oppositional argument, which Schultz cites in order to demonstrate our lack of openness when faced with differing viewpoints. She suggests, rather, that being open to being ‘wrong’ in any scenario is both liberating and invigorating, with the potential to teach us more than righteous belief. I quote:
Rollo May once wrote about the “seeming contradiction that we must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong.” Note that this is not an argument for centrism, or for abandoning the courage of our convictions. May’s point was precisely that we can retain our convictions—and our conviction—while jettisoning the barricade of certainty that surrounds them. Our commitment to an idea, he concluded, “is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.” (Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error)
This question of how dearly we hold our convictions and find ways of bolstering them in spite of doubt is at the heart of Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation. Or, at least, it is to an extent.
On the surface, Thorpe is attempting to consider how we use evidence – no matter how tiny, contradictory or insignificant – to bolster our own beliefs. Beneath that, however, is the far larger question of how we talk to one another, about processes of argument and engagement in relation to those with whom we’d rather not associate.
Confirmation takes as its framework a conversation between Chris Thorpe (who performs the entire show solo) and a white supremacist, ‘Glen’. Sat in a square formation around the central playing space, we as the audience also become a part of this documented debate, being asked to chime in here and there. It’s not an oppositional space. Or rather, it’s not an oppositional space for anyone except Chris, who finds himself trapped by four walls of audience members with little possibility of escape.
It’s important that Thorpe chooses to place himself at the centre of this space, because this is a piece focussed around our individual experience of – and interaction with – the world around us. And before you get worried about that sounding a tad neoliberal, it’s actually an extraordinarily generous, open gesture. By exposing himself and his ideas to us this candidly, Chris makes both himself and us far more vulnerable and implicated than were he to simply use an abstract, non-specific and third-person encounter. Indeed, you often feel uncomfortable sitting this close to the words being spouted by a right-wing extremist; for many of us, this is as close as we’ll ever get.
Thorpe and Confirmation’s director, Rachel Chavkin, take care to prime us for the conversation that follows in the opening of this show, offering examples of confirmation bias at work, from number sequences to Donald “Unknown Unknowns” Rumsfeld (is there such a thing as “Known Unknowns”? I’ve always wondered). It’s a smart sequence, which puts everyone in the audience on an equal footing without resorting to condescension, and gives us a lens through which to tackle the ideas of racism and fervour which will come up throughout the next eighty minutes.
What’s even more intelligent is the way in which this actually throws us off course, making us look for one thing whilst exposing us to another, parallel idea, which is less about confirmation bias than the mechanics of argument and the way it changes us as human beings. We watch and listen as Glen and Chris explain their positions to one another, each wanting so much to make the other see their point of view but in the process somehow failing to truly listen.
Though that isn’t really the case, is it? Due to the fact that we are now watching Chris recite these conversations, he must have listened somehow, even if it was after the event on a dictaphone. Built into the very structures of Confirmation, then, is an interrogation of the way in which the act and modes of listening can alter our perception of an argument, as Thorpe and Chavkin ask us to question the validity and context of the ideas they are presenting as a way of contemplating the mental processes which governs righteousness.
What with the songs and the mentions of Anders Breivik, it’s almost like a punkier version of The Events, but somehow the arguments it makes are a little different, more focussed. Thorpe mentions academics like Jonathan Haidt and addresses his thoughts directly to us (all, importantly, without losing aesthetic intensity), asking us to confront our own prejudices and biases head-on. It’s painful, but there’s something beautifully optimistic and democratic in its ability to blow all of our minds equally.
Then, after all this, you remember what the show’s about: confirmation bias. Which is, broadly, the “tendency for people to favour information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.” What if, you think, the whole thing was fabricated? Chris shows us a portrayal of an archetypal ‘right-wing political extremist’ and we believe it hook, line and sinker. Because even if this whole discussion did actually happen, all it has served to do in these circumstances is affirm our belief about this group of people as bigoted, racist and ignorant. We take it as true because we want that deeply-held hypothesis of ours to be proved correct. If it’s not, everything collapses. The argument that Confirmation seems to be making is that is not necessarily a bad thing.