The RMT Is Right, Just This Once

I used to be an investment banker.  This apparently makes me a class enemy to some in the Labour movement.  Although I voted Labour throughout the Blair years, I have been told that my vote is not welcome.  This is the kind of debate, I suppose, that will inform the leadership competition.  Electability or purity?  My point here in bringing this up as a preliminary is so that you do not think I am an automatic union partisan.  I think on this occasion — for the first time — the RMT is right, and if I as a generally unsympathetic person think so, perhaps they are.

It is a principle of employment  law that you cannot  arbitrarily make adverse changes to people’s contracts.  In fact, you can’t ever change a contract without the agreement of the other side.  Public sector management seems to act as if in ignorance of this surprisingly often.  When I was in private equity, we would never have done that.  Sure, we would have fired people who were incompetent and made people performing activities that were no longed needed redundant, but no-one gains from having a disgruntled workforce — and what is more likely to make them disgruntled than trying to change their contracts against their will?

Here’s how you handle this TfL situation if you are a competent private sector manager.  You say to the workforce, “guys, we need to run an all-night service.  We need volunteers to work ten weeks of nights a year.  We are offering an uplift of five grand.  Who’s up for it?”.  You then find out if you get enough people who want to do it.  We can assume that the current uplift of two grand is inadequate, both for the reasons that it looks inadequate — an extra 100 quid a month in your pocket after the government has taken its cut does not look like a good deal — and because the RMT have chosen to strike rather than accept it.

One of two things now ensues.  With luck, you get enough volunteers to run your service.  Maybe the younger drivers think they can go to Ibiza a couple of times a year and its worth it to them.  Maybe the older ones value spending time with their families more.  This is fine.  If you don’t get enough volunteers, you either up the offer or recruit.  Maybe you recruit specialist night drivers — there is some evidence that the adverse health effects of shift work are more to do with the disruption of shift changes than the nocturnal activity.  You might have to pay more for these specialist night drivers.  The union should not want to stop you doing this.

This may of course result in your service becoming more expensive.  This has to be paid for.  The obvious thing to do is increase prices to users of the night time service.  Most of us have had one drink too many in Soho and ended up taking a cab which might cost £30.  If the alternative is a tube which is twice the normal tube price, say £8, that’s a good deal, right?

Although I still think that £49,673 is quite a high non-graduate starting salary, I do think it is fair enough for the RMT to say that it is not on to impose night working on their members.  It is a major adverse contractual change and drivers can reasonably insist on the right not to do it; the response is to pay them more until enough of them agree.

“Rape” At The Royal Opera House

There has been a lot of controversy in old and new media over a scene in a new production of Guillaume Tell at the ROH; cf. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jun/30/william-tell-nudity-and-scene-greeted-with-boos-at-royal-opera-house

Two preliminaries:.  One: I was there at the first night, in seat W14 at the back of the Orchestra Stalls.  If you weren’t, then you will have to take my word for it in terms of what actually happened.  Two: I am a philosophical psychologist (cf. http://www.psypress.com/authors/i9043-tim-short) so if you would like to respond, do so to exactly what I write below and not to something in the vicinity of what I say which annoys you.  If you want to be formal about it, I suppose the proposition for which I am arguing is “the scene was appropriate.”

I will start by outlining the events I saw and then show that all of the objections aiming to show that the scene was inappropriate fail.

A foreign army is occupying Switzerland.  At the point in the libretto of interest, we are told that some soldiers force the local women to dance with them.  One woman is offered champagne, somewhat against her will.  She acquiesces nervously.  She is then doused in champagne.  The leader of the occupying forces, Gesler, molests her by placing a pistol between her legs at around mid-thigh level.  She moves on to the dining table, upon which is placed a large table-cloth.  She disappears behind a group of perhaps 10-15 soldiers.  Shortly afterwards, she reappears naked.  The duration of the nudity was something like half a second.  She partly wraps the table-cloth around her and moves away from the table.  The hero, Tell, appears and ensures that she is fully covered.

That’s it for the stage action. There ensued enormous amounts of booing which interrupted the action.  One man shouted out “one step too fucking far mate” and another shouted “Holten out”.  (Kaspar Holten is Director of Opera at the ROH.)  There were a number of noisy walkouts.

The objections I have seen are as below.

The scene was too long

I don’t really see how this objection works.  People have spoken of a ” five-minute gang rape”.  I do not think you can get to five minutes even if you include all of the events I outline above in your duration.  I would put it at two minutes; perhaps three at the outside.  In any case, the nudity was momentary.  This means at the outset we have to decide what constitutes a depiction of rape.  That is a difficult question.  Naturally, there was no sex or simulated sex on stage by anyone, so a fortiori there was no sex or simulated sex involving multiple men and the woman. However, it was clearly the intention of the director to depict rape in some sense and that intention we may assume was realized, because of the intense audience reaction.  I think that this intense negative reaction meant that the “rape” that was perceived by the audience was too long simply because any duration was too long to be comfortable.  But if we are purely talking about seconds on the clock, then it could not have been shorter and remained what it was.  (You may wish to challenge me here by noting that the scene has now been cut and shortened.  Is it still what it was?)  You will also need to deal with the question as to how fictional objects get their properties; see my Sherlock piece: http://www.opticon1826.com/articles/10.5334/opt.bs/

The scene was gratuitous

This objection cannot succeed; it gains its initial plausibility by appearing to be the nearby objection “the scene had a negative effect”.  To make out the claim that the scene was gratuitous, you have to show that the scene had no effect.  In other words, the aesthetic impact of the piece would have been identical if the scene had been eliminated.  This is transparently false since the audience reaction to the scene and the reaction of others who were not there was immense.  You may well feel that the aesthetic effect of the scene was undesirable, but that is not consistent with saying that its inclusion was gratuitous.

The scene was unnecessary

I can again respond similarly to what I said to counter the previous objection.  In addition, I can observe that nothing is necessary.  Even claims like “everything is identical to itself” are questionable under certain circumstances.

I do not expect to see that at the opera

Why not?  I will defer to others, notably the Director of Opera, to make a number of valid points in response to this.  The scene is fully justified by the libretto (cf. http://www.roh.org.uk/news/guillaume-tell-a-response-to-recent-debate-and-discussion); perhaps also the purpose of art is to shock, sometimes.  Bear in mind that this is about war, not the marriage of Figaro.  Also, why are we holding opera to a much different standard to those we permit on the theatrical stage, or film (cf. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0290673/reviews), let alone what one can see on the internet.

We need to protect victims of rape from depictions of rape

Was this a depiction of rape?  Do we also need to protect people who have had a family member murdered from depictions of murder?  There were several of those in this piece; they aroused no comment.

The inclusion of the scene condones rape

I don’t understand this objection, so if you share it, you will have to explain it to me.  One question is whether or not it matters that the perpretators of the “rape” were the villains of the piece.  If this is an alleviating factor, then it would have been an aggravating one to have had the hero Tell perpetrate it.  Perhaps that would have been the provocative directorial choice.

The scene was “the last straw”

This is one of the more common objections.  It seems to run approximately as follows: `this was a terrible production full of infantile symbolism, each scene was more offensive and unimaginative than the last, the “rape” scene was one step too far’.  I happened to think that the production was brave and innovative, but that is not actually relevant to the argument.  The problem with this objection is that it seems to entail the following: `this rape scene would have been appropriate in a more traditional production, or a production I liked more.’  That seems unmotivated and hard to argue for.  It seems to be caused by the phenomenon of “moral licensing,” which is not a way to stand up an objection.

Conclusion

I conclude that all of the objections fail and the scene was appropriate.  It is therefore unfortunate that the scene has now been modified by weakening it and shortening it.  We may at least note that the Director of Opera did not insist on this; in fact he apologized for the offense that seemed to have been caused and explicitly did not apologize for the production.  This is right and proper; I do not want what I can see at the Royal Opera House controlled by reactionary prudes who can only stomach totally traditional productions.  The changes were made by the Director; so our regret should be that a courageous and ground-breaking production team have been forced to weaken the impact of their vision.

For me, the most dismaying part of the experience was seeing the change in the countenance of Malin Bystrom, who was superb.  She was quite clearly delighted by the richly deserved approbation she received in her curtain call, but was still there for the booing of the production crew.  This is what I call gratuitous.  In fact, I can’t see any occasion on which booing is appropriate.  Walk out silently if you must, but otherwise why not just stay at home.  The ROH is generally sold out; we can do without your ticket money if you think you are going to decide what is appropriate in a production.