Chris Thorpe’s show tries to converse with political extremists without preconceptions getting in the way, writes Mark Fisher
IT WASN’T always like this, but these days a conversation with Chris Thorpe is a minefield. Everything changed for the Fringe First-winning writer and performer when he started reading about confirmation bias. This is the theory that we choose our friends because they share a similar set of values; the more we hang out with them, the more they reinforce our beliefs. There’s a distinct advantage in this because it means we can make a load of assumptions about each other without getting bogged down with asking questions all the time.
Thorpe, though, has become hyper-aware of the assumptions we make. Talk to him now and he takes nothing for granted. When I mention that I can’t imagine anyone voting for Ukip, for example, he feels compelled to pick my observation apart.
“You’ve made a series of assumptions there which are fascinating,” he says. “One is that I am not a Ukip voter. You and me have never had a conversation about which way we vote, yet on the evidence I have presented you and on our personal interactions, you felt that was a safe assumption to make. We’ve unconsciously agreed the common ground.”
He’s got me bang to rights. And there’s more. “Also what we bring into play is the idea of a Ukip voter as a much more monolithic, inflexible creature than you or me. We do not give them the dignity of complexity.”
This is the territory he is in with his show Confirmation. It’s about the way we come to an opinion and then hold on to it – for reasons that reach far back into our evolution as a species. “We have evolved this propensity not only to reinforce each other’s beliefs if we’re on the same ‘side’ but also to unconsciously ignore evidence that doesn’t fit with the viewpoints we hold. As a tactic for the survival of the group, it’s tremendously beneficial. When the world was a much more threatening place, the groups that had to be constantly asking the same set of questions died.”
Good for the species, then, but there’s a downside. Confirmation bias accounts for the reinforcement of all our beliefs – that includes everyone from arty liberals to neo-Nazis. If groups of people develop opinions that the rest of us find abhorrent, it can be next to impossible to change their minds. That’s why Confirmation is billed as an “attempt to have an honourable dialogue with political extremism”. It presents an imagined struggle between two voices: Thorpe’s own as a reactionary liberal and the anonymised Glen as a reactionary conservative. He wants to let no-one off the hook.
As part of his research, he spent time with people whose opinions were wildly at variance from his own, including one man whose world view made the BNP’s look mainstream. Director Rachel Chavkin watched from afar as, in her words, Thorpe “vanished down rabbit holes of angry comment sections and white supremacist websites”.
The easy thing, says Thorpe, would have been to present a crowd-pleasing show about his exploits with extremists – the kind of thing you can imagine being done by Jon Ronson, Louis Theroux or Dave Gorman. That could have been fun, but it would merely have reassured a liberal-minded Fringe audience that anyone with far-right beliefs was a crackpot. Such a conclusion would have been antithetical to a show that set out to challenge our assumptions.
“There’s this feeling that people who hold what we perceive to be the wrong opinions are just versions of us that haven’t been given the right information yet,” he says. “That is dangerous because everybody thinks they’re right. Whether we’re committing acts of hideous violence, arguing for what we perceive as a better world or denying someone the right to life because of a religious difference, we all think we’re right.”
His solution was to try to keep himself open to viewpoints he despised. “I want to know how I am receiving that person. I also want to know why they believe what they believe. That helps me learn why I believe what I believe. I’m constantly questioning the why and the how of each other’s beliefs, rather than the what.”
In Fringe terms, the makers of Confirmation are a bit of a dream team. Thorpe won a Fringe First in 2011 for the conference room comedy of The Oh F*** Moment and impressed with last year’s There Has Possibly Been An Incident. He has fingers in Fringe pies ranging from Forest Fringe to Belarus Free Theatre.
Chavkin, meanwhile, is a lynchpin of the TEAM, the New York ensemble behind a string of theatrically explosive Edinburgh hits including Give Up! Start Over! in 2005, the first of four Fringe First winners, and the National Theatre of Scotland collaboration Architecting in 2008.
The company is back this year working again with the NTS on The Scottish Enlightenment Project, a work in progress written by Davey Anderson that compares Scottish and American attitudes to being the underdog.
Rather than the multimedia barrage characteristic of her work with the TEAM, Chavkin is taking a spare, light-touch approach to Confirmation. “Something I’ve always loved about her work is the feeling that every moment is honed,” says Thorpe. “That’s what she’s helped me apply to the script and the different kind of relationship I have with the audience. This is a concentrated version of her biggest-scale work.”
Thorpe himself is not immune to the questioning process. Putting on this show has changed him. “It’s deeply destabilising,” he says. “If your world view rests on believing there is a narrow, stupid inflexibility to extremism and you actually sit down and talk to people who are extremists, you are going to have that world view destabilised. You can’t allow yourself the luxury of being able to treat them that way any more.
“It’s also destabilising because you realise the extent to which you agree with people. We branch off from each other a lot further down the line than I would have expected, which gives them much more complexity than I would allow. The show has made me more liberal, but it has made me hate a certain kind of liberalism. There’s an aggressive liberalism in me now.”
Originally published in Scotland on Sunday