In January of this year, the Charlie Hebdo attacks provoked worldwide debate about the right to publish images which others might find offensive. Free speech, most commentators agreed, includes the right to offend.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) apparently disagrees. This week, it cancelled a performance by pianist Valentina Lisitsa on account of comments she made on Twitter about the conflict in Ukraine. Lisitsa is an outspoken opponent of the current Ukrainian government. As a result her performances have become the focus of protest by that government’s supporters. They have sought to persuade orchestras and theatres to boycott her, and in this case, they have succeeded.
I suggest that there are a number of factors which can help us think about whether the TSO’s decision is justified, namely: the nature of the institution; the role morality of musicians and orchestras; the nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements; and the task which she was invited to perform.
1) The nature of the institution: As a private individual I am ethically free to invite or disinvite anyone I choose into my home. Somebody else’s right to free speech does not extend to a duty by me to provide that person with a platform. Public institutions are different. The state is meant to be politically neutral. It would surely be wrong for a public organization to take somebody’s legally-expressed political opinions into account when determining its relationship with that person.
Is the TSO a private or a public organization? In 2012 the TSO received about $5 million from private donations and $5.8 million from government funding. It is officially a private institution, but it receives very considerable public funding. Consequently, I believe that the TSO does have public responsibilities, and that its decision to uninvite Ms Lisitsa is not a purely private matter. It seems to me that it should be of some concern to Canadian citizens if a publicly funded institution chooses whom it invites to perform on political grounds.
2) The role morality of musicians and orchestras: Aristotle remarked that a ‘good flautist’ was somebody who played the flute well. A good pianist is thus somebody who plays the piano well. On these grounds, Valentina Lisitsa could be a good pianist even if she is (and I have no reason to think that she is) a loathsome person. Philosophers make a distinction between ‘general morality’ and ‘role morality’, between the values of society as a whole and the morality required in a given role. The role morality of the TSO is founded on what it means to be a good orchestra. That is to put on the best possible performances for its audiences. Its performers’ political opinions are irrelevant to this obligation. There were, no doubt, classical music lovers in Toronto who were looking forward to hearing Ms Lisitsa play Rachmaninov, and now will miss that. TSO is not serving its audience well as an orchestra.
That said, any institution also has to guard its reputation. Consequently, an organization might rightly decide not to be associated with a given person if that person holds views which might reflect badly on it. The TSO cannot be a ‘good’ orchestra if it entirely ignores general morality or public opinion. At the same time, though, free speech and tolerance of different political opinions are key values of liberal democracy. Intolerance will damage rather than enhance a reputation. Disassociating oneself from somebody because of that person’s legally-expressed political views is something which should be done in extreme cases only.
3) The nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements: The key issue may be the nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements on Twitter. The mere fact that somebody might disagree with an artist, or even find their views offensive, is not sufficient for a public organization devoted to the arts to disqualify that person from performing.
The TSO’s position is that the views in question go beyond that. According to Slavyangrad.org, in a private letter to Ms Lisitsa the TSO claimed that its lawyers had determined that she might have committed ‘public incitement of hatred contrary to section 319(2) of the Criminal Code of Canada’ due to statements she had made on social media. If this is true, then it could constitute a legitimate reason for the TSO not to wish to be associated with her.
Certainly, some of Ms Lisitsa’s tweets are decidedly crude, as can be seen by those mentioned at this link. But crudity is not synonymous with inciting hatred. Moreover, in its public justifications of its action, the TSO has said nothing about ‘public incitement of hatred.’ Rather the TSO has made a more limited claim, that ‘Due to ongoing accusations of deeply offensive language by Ukrainian media outlets, we have decided to replace Valentina Lisitsa. Valentina Lisitsa’s provocative comments have overshadowed past performances. 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.’
4) The task which Ms Lisitsa was invited to perform : A final consideration is that the TSO did not invite Ms Lisitsa to come to Toronto to give a political speech. She was to play Rachmaninov’s piano concerto no. 2. Had the TSO allowed her to perform, it would not have been, as it fears, providing a ‘stage … for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive’ but rather a stage for Rachmaninov’s music.
Although freedom of speech includes the freedom to be vulgar and offensive, I am not a fan of those who choose to exercise their liberty in that way. None of the above therefore should be read as an endorsement of Ms Lisitsa’s tweets. Nevertheless, it is worrisome that the TSO should apparently be so easily pressured. If we prevent people who hold controversial opinions from carrying out professional activities entirely unrelated to those opinions, we create a situation in which any public deviation from one particular simplified version of the truth becomes socially unacceptable. McCarthyism of that sort is not a desirable outcome.