On Wednesay Jamie and I performed the Rap Guide to Evolution for a group of 120 students and teachers at Union County High School in East Tennessee, and I’m proud but also sorry to say there has been some backlash since. I’m proud because my intention with the show has always been to bring the most controversial aspect of Darwin’s theory to the forefront and give those debates further exposure and I’ve certainly done that. But I’m sorry because the offense I caused wasn’t entirely intentional.
I’ll cover the backlash first, and then the show. The first was a Twitter exchange I had with a student that went like this. Him: “If we aren’t allowed to pray in schools how can we invite atheists to come and speak” Me: “Because critical thinking is educational” Him: “nothing educational about cursing and flipping off high school students” Me: “unless it’s in a theatrical context, to make the point that cultural evolution is driven by imitation of words and gestures” Me again: “but I think you’re right, the point didn’t come across, just the offence. Hence, performance, feedback, revision” End transmission.
The next round came the day after the performance, when NIMBioS received several complaint emails from both the principal and the biology teacher. I wasn’t allowed to read the emails because of confidentiality clauses, but the gist of them came to me pretty clearly watercooler-gossip-style, since the incident was the talk of the institute (briefly). On a semi-related note, one of the researchers here is developing a mathematical model for predicting the spread and veracity of rumors. This one ought to be a candidate.
Obviously I can’t verify the exact wording, but the phrases I heard tossed around were “utterly disgraceful” “inappropriate” “obscene gestures” “insulting” “too much cursing” and “Christianity bashing”. The general message was that the content was not school-appropriate and it focussed too much on the religion and too little on the science, and I’m told they held a special assembly so the principle could address grievances and questions about the show. The director of NIMBioS had to issue an apology to the school (first time!) and the show I had scheduled at a different school the next day was abruptly cancelled. I guess the High School Principals in the area stay in touch.
* Correction: I recently learned that the second high school actually cancelledbefore the performance at Union County, citing concerns about the potential offence I would cause to believers in intelligent design after watching some of my YouTube videos.
Banned in the USA like 2 Live Crew! Not really; probably just banned from Knoxville-area High Schools. Speaking of 2 Live Crew, I was honestly surprised by the cursing and obscene gestures complaint. We started the show with the song “Natural Selection“, with its less-than-conciliatory “Creationism is dead wrong!” refrain, actually a hip-hop paraphrase of Darwin: “The view… that each species has been independently created, is erroneous.” Then we moved on to “Artificial Selection / Black-eyed Peas“, but it was half way through “I’m A African” that I was urgently signaled to stop. I told Jamie to cut the beat, thinking “that’s it, they’re pulling the plug” but instead I was handed a note that read “NO MORE CURSING!”
I was truly bewildered for a moment, because the off-Broadway version of the show is rich with (non-gratuitous) foul language, f-bombs galore, and I had cleaned it right up for the school show. Then it hit me, so I said to the kids: “I’ve been asked to stop swearing, and I assume they are referring to my use of the expressions ‘damn right’ and ‘hell yeah’ in the chorus of “I’m A African”, or possibly my use of the expression ‘pissed-off’ in the previous song. I’d like to apologize for my cultural ignorance, since these are simply not considered swear words in Canada, where I’m from. I was allowed to say them in school as a student and I’ve said them dozens of times in schools while performing this show in Canada and the UK and even other areas of America, but it’s my first time here, so I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone. Okay, on with the show… I’m a African!” I heard later that the teachers were furious at me for repeating the offensive words again. It just seemed like a teachable moment.
I was told later that the religious offence was caused not only by my choice of words but also by my choice of images in the keynote presentation. I showed the new video for “Darwin’s Acid” while performing the song, and also projected the classic jesus-with-a-dinosaur portrait face-to-face with a portrait of Darwin during the family dinner creationism/evolution debate in “Creationist Cousins“, as we do in the off-Broadway show. This was another moment of cultural insensitivity on my part, since I literally added those slides in the car that very morning, thinking it would increase the entertainment value of the scene. As per my tweet, in retrospect I think the theatrical context, ie a dramatization of actual debates with family members, was overwhelmed by the image projected six-feet-tall on stage behind me.
As for the “obscene gestures”, that’s a piece from the song “Artificial Selection / Black-eyed Peas” where I perform the show’s only (intentional) Eminem impression. The lyrics go:
Survival on stage is a non-random process
‘Cause those who get massive responses
Tend to influence those who aspire
To get massive responses
So if you say I sound like an Eminem rip-off
Then I’ll probably get pissed-off
And start flipping you off
And grabbing my crotch
And acting obnoxious
Screaming [in a nasal old-school Eminem voice] “Naw dawg, that’s proposterous!”
Here’s the same bit in a recent Wired Magazine feature:
I complete the impression by momentarily grabbing my crotch and giving the crowd the finger in the style of Em’s “My Name Is” video (among others), part satire, part tribute, part serious point about how memes spread via mimicry. In this school, however, giving students the finger and crotch-grabbing were not welcome, and at least one student was more offended than educated. Then, in an uncanny coincidence, I accidentally slammed the offending finger in a minivan door the following day and my fingernail turned black. My crotch, at the time of this writing, is fine.
At the end of the show we had a productive and entertaining question period which included such gems as “What if the world blows up and Jesus comes back and there’s no more evolution?” and “Wait, are you saying we should have sex, or we shouldn’t have sex?” and afterwards the students who were interviewed by NIMBioS staff said the show was interesting, entertaining, made them think about the science, etc. Some of them said they disagreed with me and believed the religion version and not the evolution version, but none of them seemed too put-off by the experience. NIMBioS is working on a video with those student interviews, but in the meantime if you’re curious about my very judicious answers to those priceless questions, you can watch it unfold here:
Then, two days after this performance in which I confess I did blaspheme and mock religion mercilessly, I was stricken by a plague, tonsillitis actually, and spent three days in bed with a 104 degree fever and horrible sore throat, shivering and contemplating the origins of both the religious and the rational interpretations of chance events, especially ones that look uncannily like some kind of comeuppance.
Anyway, I’m fine now thanks to science-based medicine, penicillin having kicked the bacteria’s ciliated ass, and tonight is the big show here at the University of Tennessee, which means the drama is still unfolding. We’ll see if the college crowd responds better than the high school one.
* Update: The (uncensored) on-campus show got a redemptive unanimous standing ovation.
So is there any revision called for? In the future I’ll consult more closely with teachers to make sure expressions like “damn” and “hell” aren’t deal breakers. They spice up the show but are certainly not essential to the experience, and maybe I could have reached more students by toning it down (although I’m skeptical, more likely the toned-down version would reach fewer students while placating more teachers).
As for the unequivocal “creationism is dead wrong” message, that most definitely IS crucial to the show and I’m happy to defend it to anyone. Hence, caveat emptor, but this is definitely not my last high school appearance.