This week's invertebrate organization: The Toronto Symphony

TSO tells pianist to just play and shut up. An upcoming performance by Valentina Lisitsa, a rising star in classical music, has been can...

TSO tells pianist to just play and shut up.
An upcoming performance by Valentina Lisitsa, a rising star in classical music, has been cancelled by the Toronto Symphony for reasons that are altogether unacceptable.

Lisitsa, born in Ukraine but ethnically Russian, has been tweeting statements about the ongoing strife in Ukraine, and that has apparently pissed off the wrong people. Media reports attribute the cancellation of her performance to a decision by TSO that her tweets are "provocative" and “deeply offensive.” (source)  But try as I might, I cannot find any analysis of the situation that rises above the level of knee-jerk pandering to political correctness and, possibly, ingratiation to funders - who are admittedly few and far between these days.

No one yet seems to have produced an analysis of the tweets, which are themselves difficult to find. None of the media outlets that I checked bothered to reproduce them (though some were quoted), so it seems we're left to trust the TSO, and the various organizations that claim to have seem them - all of which have vested interests in the matter. (I’ll tell you how to find her tweets for yourself near the end of this post.)

It appears that the performance was cancelled after TSO received a complaint from a pro-Ukraine cultural organization in Toronto. This raises the spectre of coercion - another matter no one seems willing to talk or write about, except to categorically deny in a most politically correct way that anything at all happened.

Some have argued that the TSO's cancellation of Lisitsa's concert amounts to censorship, but it isn’t really. First of all, near as I can tell, the TSO does not have the standing to censor anything as a publicly funded organization. But even more importantly, the TSO has not prevented Lisitsa from voicing her concerns, nor have they required existing tweets to be deleted. How can it be censorship? The argument is that if this sets a trend, then as time goes on anyone wanting to play with the TSO will self-censor. There’s a lot wrong with that argument. For one thing, it’s a slippery slope problem; and there are no slippery slopes, only slippery people. Get rid of TSO management, and things will change. For another, there is an unjustifiable assumption that if TSO does this then every other organization will do the same. There is significant evidence to the contrary on that. So the less said about the censorship angle, the better; it will not end well.

The TSO is a public organization. Can they censor in this way? Is it even censorship, since the TSO didn't actually prevent the publication of Lisitsa's tweets? Did they do due diligence in informing Lisitsa about their expectations of her behaviour off stage? Isn't this more a question of contract law? What conditions were placed on Lisitsa at the time they booked her performance? Under what clause of that arrangement would her statements as a private citizen impact her performance with the TSO?

It’s not even clear that the tweets were made after TSO contracted Lisitsa to play. Clearly this would make a huge difference. If they knew her tweets were “provocative” and “offensive” before they booked her, then the TSO is dumb as dirt.

And since when was being “provocative” cause for termination, even if for a single performance and even if full fees were paid anyways? Rob the Slob Ford said all kinds of sick and disgusting things while he was mayor of Toronto, yet he remained in office to the bitter end.

How is offence measured? In this case, the applied standard appears to have been whether anyone was offended at all, regardless of reason (or lack thereof). The whole question of where the boundary is between acceptable and unacceptable offence is worth it's own study, so I won't get into it in any detail here. But I will say that there are tests to which one can put a claim in this regard.

In any case, the arguments made (so far) on the offensiveness front are pretty much non-sequiturs. Jeff Melanson, CEO of the TSO, has said: "As one of Canada's most important cultural institutions, our priority must remain on being a stage for the world's great works of music, and not for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive.”  How do we know that those who are offended are correct to be offended? Melanson is clearly referring to the various Ukrainian groups who are disturbed by Lisitsa’s statements. How do we know they’re even being truthful, especially when they clearly have a vested interest in making Ukraine seem like a wonderful place? (I’m not saying that Ukraine isn’t a wonderful place; I’m saying that one does not take the word of vested interests in anything without other, independent lines of evidence.)

Melanson also said: "I can tell you from my position, as the president of the institution, I know of no Ukrainian donor who is putting pressure on us in any way in this instance and in this situation.”  But if there is not full transparency (and there isn’t), how can anyone be sure? Also, notice the wording: has there been any pressure from any donor? We don’t know. Basically, Melanson may as well be saying: Trust me; I have nice hair, so I must be telling the truth.

He also said: "We're not choosing sides between Ukraine and Russia.” But that’s not the point, because Lisitsa’s comments were not made on behalf of TSO. Melanson’s choice was between truly putting the music first and letting Lisitsa play, or putting political correctness first and cancelling her performance. And anyways, the only thing you get from sitting on the fence is a wooden post up your ass.

Were cultural differences (between yer typical Canuckistanian on the one hand and the Russian Ukrainian minority on the other) accommodated, or were Canadian sensibilities naively applied de facto as if they were universally justifiable?

Is a tweet, or even a series of tweets, a sufficiently robust platform on which to determine an issue like this?

Have certain tweets been cherry-picked to make Lisitsa seem more “provocative” than she actually is? I find very few people writing or discussing perfectly reasonable yet relevant statements of hers, like this one: "The worst thing that can happen to any country is fratricidal war.”

Accusations that Lisitsa compared the current Ukrainian regime to the Nazis and that the government there has set up “filtration camps” do not go on to include - for our benefit - any context provided by Lisitsa. It appears in some cases at least that she was recycling insults apparently levelled by Ukrainians towards Russians. The assessment of Lisitsa’s remarks is impossible without context. What motivated her to choose precisely those words for her tweets? Has anyone bothered to find out? (CBC has tried, but only half-heartedly; you can listen to Lisitsa's interview here and decide for yourself.)

To further poison the conversation, media outlets are shovelling horseshit at a prodigious rate. The Globe and Mail has published a "sampling of opinion” on the matter ( - all of which come from people with no apparent training or demonstrable experience in anything but the arts. That’s like asking a neurologist for their opinion on LFTR power reactors - a stupid, pointless, and potentially damaging activity.

Matters got worse when Lisitsa’s almost-replacement, Stewart Goodyear, came up with this pearl of wisdom: "With all due respect to the pianist who I was going to replace, one must own one's opinions and words, and have the courage to defend her position without hiding behind the pseudonym, ‘NedoUkra├»nka.’”  Yet even the freshest social media noob who actually bothered to visit that Twitter page would clearly see that Lisitsa is in fact the owner of that account. Her name’s all over it! She’s not hiding at all, and Goodyear is an ignorant fool.

By the way, if you go to that Twitter page, you will be able - with a bit of effort - to find the allegedly offensive tweets. You can also find all kinds of other things that she’s tweeted. You won’t read any deep philosophy there, but you will definitely get a sense of Valentina Lisitsa, the person, and you’ll see that she really, really hates all the violence going on in the Ukraine, especially with respect to the ethnic Russian minority - her own people. It’s enough to make one want to have a conversation; not just try to turn it into a hate speech crisis.

Let’s be clear:
This is NOT about Valentina Lisitsa.
This is NOT about the Ukraine/Russia conflict.
This is NOT even about the TSO.
It’s about how we as Canadians respond to controversial subjects. Do we stop and think it through? Or do we just bend over for whoever is yelling the loudest in an effort to seem as harmless and flaccid as possible?

Here’s an analogy by Marcus Gee of the Globe and Mail, in regard to Melanson’s insipid attempt to justify his barring Lisitsa: "Imagine if an Israeli violinist with strong Zionist views were invited to play Roy Thomson Hall. Imagine she had once said that the Palestinians were not a true nationality, that their leaders were terrorists and that Israel had the historic right to live in all of the Holy Land. Wouldn’t Palestinian-Canadians have the right to say she should be banned?”

See what I mean? Pretty soon, no one would be playing with the TSO because someone, somewhere would be offended by something. That’s stupid on a cosmological scale.

Susan Cole at Now Magazine also at least manages to remain cool-headed: “[Lisitsa’s] other difficulty is that she expresses most of her views via Twitter, not the platform where you’re most like to encounter complexity. If you’re looking for nuance in a 140-character message, you’ll be disappointed. Consequently, her views come across rather crudely. Still, when she compares the Ukrainian gov­ernment to Nazi Germany, she’s not comparing anyone to Hitler, only ex­pressing the deep fears of an overwhelmed minority.”  Of course, anyone going through Lisitsa's tweets with anything approximating an open mind would come to the same conclusion.

So, in the end, the TSO is clearly run by a bunch of useless, spineless cowards who get off kowtowing to political correctness, and in so doing perpetuate a seething silent anger towards the things we don’t understand - when they should have instead been open and engaging with all the participants for the sake of helping everyone learn.

I can’t remember the last time I went to the TSO, but until the current management is fired, wild horses couldn’t make me attend.



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The Trouble with Normal...: This week's invertebrate organization: The Toronto Symphony
This week's invertebrate organization: The Toronto Symphony
The Trouble with Normal...
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