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Carmen Aguirre in Toronto, on May 31, 2011.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

In a no-holds-barred video, Canadian playwright, author and actor Carmen Aguirre is calling for an end to cancel culture in the theatre community. The provocative video essay – originally produced for a Vancouver theatre event that was cancelled – calls on fellow artists to end what Aguirre calls “the great purge.” It is a time, she says, “of cruelty and psychological violence” – when people can be publicly humiliated, shamed, mobbed on social media and fired from their jobs for expressing their beliefs, just because those beliefs might be offensive.

“I do not consent to being part of an arts community that engages in witch hunts of people who don’t think like me,” Aguirre says in the nearly 30-minute video, which she posted to YouTube.

“If I am to argue with someone because I oppose their views or even find their views harmful, then I’d like the argument to state why I think that person is wrong, not why I think they’re evil,” she says.

“Arguing with someone about why I think they’re wrong requires reasoned discourse. It demands that I back up my argument. Arguing why I think they’re evil usually just requires me to talk about my hurt feelings and to state that I feel triggered and unsafe and therefore need a segregated space where I won’t encounter any contrary views. It requires no actual content.”

The video was originally commissioned for the PuSh Rally, an event created in response to internal difficulties at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival after last year’s controversial departures of three staff members, including the artistic director.

The PuSh Rally – which was to address these issues – was itself cancelled after concerns were raised about the event.

Aguirre had shot the video the day before the cancellation and is now sharing it as an individual, with the blessing, she says, of the Rally’s co-curators, Maiko Yamamoto and Marcus Youssef. It was written in response to the Rally’s theme of navigating conflict without destroying relationships and community.

“If we want uniformity of thought in our theatre world as opposed to sovereignty of thought, we have no right to claim that we strive to be inclusive and diverse,” she says in the video. “We have no right to be making art.”

Aguirre is the author of Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, which won CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2012. She is a prolific playwright whose works include The Refugee Hotel and Anywhere But Here, and she is currently a core artist at Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre. She is also co-founder of the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition.

In the video, Aguirre cites the story of Sky Gilbert – whom she does not name – co-founder of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which cancelled a reading of his work after an outcry over controversial blog posts he had written criticizing the title of trans writer Vivek Shraya’s book I’m Afraid of Men.

She also talks about Governor-General’s Award-nominated playwright Sean Harris Oliver – again, not named – who parted ways with Vancouver’s Hardline Productions last summer. It followed the posting of a video of Jordan Peterson to Facebook, along with controversial comments. After a lot of heated debate, he took the video down, she says, and asked the community to educate him. “He was eventually accused of extracting free emotional labour.”

Aguirre, who was born in Chile and lives in Vancouver, uses the word “tyranny” to describe the situation.

“Their defence for purging is usually around offended sensibilities and hurt feelings. None of the colleagues they have cancelled have ever come close to breaking Canadian hate-speech laws. Which begs the question: Who in our community decides what is acceptable and unacceptable speech? When and by whom was it decided that there are good and bad people as opposed to good and bad ideas?”

In an interview, Aguirre said the response to the video has been “huge” and overwhelmingly supportive – both on social media and privately.

“I’ve gotten quite a few private messages specifically from young people telling me that they really love the video and that it’s very telling to them that they’re too afraid to share it,” Aguirre, 53, said.

She makes it clear that her issue is with people being “cancelled” because of their ideas – not their behaviour.

“If somebody’s been a bully or harassing or assaulting people, that’s a whole other thing.”

This is not the first time Aguirre has engaged publicly with this issue. She was a spokesperson for UBC Accountable, which called for “due process” for Steven Galloway, the bestselling novelist who was fired from the University of British Columbia where he had led the creative writing program. In 2016, she published a piece in The Walrus titled “Steven Galloway is Innocent Until Proven Guilty.”

When asked why she made and posted this video and whether she was worried about backlash, Aguirre said she felt she was the right person to do this for several reasons. “One, I’m a woman of colour. Two, I spent my youth living under fascism and fighting it, so I think I bring a unique lens to this because of that lived experience. And three, I truly don’t care what people think about me.”

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