A couple months back, I saw Antigone in Ferguson at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. The project pairs dramatic readings of Sophocles’ Antigone with a moving choral arrangement performed by a diverse cast of activists, students, police officers, and Ferguson & NYC community members. I don’t tend to go for gospel, but these stunning voices shot through me like a revelation. The powerful, vulnerable expression of the human voice — a profound manifestation of the human capacity for creativity and beauty — broke my heart and raised my optimism for humanity. I got a lot out of the discussion of racial injustice following the performance, too. Don’t miss it if you get the chance.
The relationship between Antigone and King Creon struck me in a new way, no doubt because recent encounters with autocratic and sexist behaviors have been front-of-mind lately.
The play depicts Creon as the relatively thoughtful king of Thebes and doting uncle to Antigone and her sister, Ismene. He forbade the burying of Polynices while still in the heat of the just-ended civil war, and, despite his advisors’ best arguments, stubbornly rejects revoking the law. His inability to admit mistake despite the clarity of its recklessness — even to his own mind — exemplifies classic authoritarian behavior: never admit error. Naturally it leads to his downfall.
While Creon’s advisors appeal for revocation of the law, his niece, Antigone, refuses to submit to it, and declines to compromise her integrity or the tone of her voice when speaking against it. She deliberately flaunts the law by burying her brother, makes makes no attempt to deny it, and angrily excoriates Creon at her very public trial. His intransigence will be his downfall, she proclaims. The girl doesn’t sugar-coat it, and in her passion, her voice rings out loud and true to all assembled.
But, to Creon’s ear, shrilly.
Stung by Antigone’s passionate defiance, Creon finds her tone reason enough to ignore the substance of her argument, to dismiss the risks she highlights. The entire community rallies to her cry, but Creon, blinded by his bruised ego, commits to his folly and sentences Antigone to death. It is his undoing, and a tragedy for Thebes.
One can learn a lot from Creon.
How often do we discount a woman’s message because of her tone? When passion speaks truth to power, what reasons do we find to dismiss it? When someone cares, but poor leadership prevents understanding and growth, does the anger, the passion, the righteousness wound the ego or motivate action?
Passion is a virtue, and tone a reflection of commitment. People who care about their world — their work, their environment, their society — will be angry when it fails them. If it stings when they tell you that you’ve made mistakes, that you’re failing them and other people, put ego aside, recognize that your implicit biases might seek reason to dismiss them, and instead, simply listen.
My fellow white dudes, don’t be like Creon. Recognize your fallibility, head off your urge to disregard feedback in the name of your discomfort, and beware the ego reflexively assigning labels such as “whiner”, or “negative nelly”, or even “not focused on problem-solving”. This, too, tells you something. Because the people who don’t care say nothing. Those with the passion to speak and the willingness to do so expect more of you. They may be disappointed in you or your actions, but want you to take the opportunity to be better, to admit and rectify your mistakes, and to set things on a better path.
So maybe let’s take a stab at meeting their expectations.