Kill Climate Deniers is a lot of things. At its core, it is a play about political violence. When democratic systems produce (what are intuited to be) anti-democratic outcomes, to what extent do we sympathise with the use of violence? In this case, David Finnigan portrays Australia’s response to climate change as one of these failures of the democratic system, and we follow a (clearly absurd) drama about eco-terrorists storming a Fleetwood Mac concert at Parliament House and their encounter with our protagonist, the Environment Minister.
The play is also a platform for controversy, and David clearly knows how to play this aspect to his advantage. The violence suggested in the title outraged various outrage merchants. In this day and age, how could we — even jokingly — refer to killing people? Was this yet another example of the Left being secretly totalitarian, threatening innocent conservatives, and — worst of all — using taxpayer funding to do it? And so on and so forth.
I was very flattered to be asked to join a panel with Ginger Gorman and Bernie Slater to discuss the nature of controversial taxpayer-funded art for the You Are Here Festival. The panel was inspired by the reaction to David’s play, and I was asked to contribute the conservative perspective on the issues. As part of this, I got to see an early performance of the one-man show version. So was the conservative reaction any more than a storm in a teacup?
The play combines political discourse with action film tropes. The play skips between discussion of environmental policy and terrorism legislation, and crawling through airvents and outrunning bullets. The two fit together surprisingly well. There’s a theatricality to political debate, a performance and rhetoric that is designed to work with the emotions rather than the intellect. The action film tropes fit this space well. How often do we question whether the good guy is really the good guy? How often do we challenge the heroes’ motivations for resorting to violence? How often do we overlook more sensible options available to the protagonist (like calling the police or donating the profits of their military contracts to poverty-reducing charities)? The purpose of the action film is to bypass our critical faculties (suspend disbelief) and accept the narrative. The purpose of contemporary political debate is the same: don’t think too hard and don’t stray too far from your intuitions.
Within this framework, we catch an important point about the reactivity of politics. None of the characters is advancing a positive thesis about the world. Instead, these are people identifying themselves as the negation of their opponents. The eco-terrorists are less about the protection of the environment than they are the destruction of the political system. The Environment Minister is less about advancing a political response to the allegations of the eco-terrorists than she is about proving that she can be tougher than them. The action-reaction model of cinematic storytelling draws out the action-reaction media cycle of political debate.
It’s at this point that I struggled with the play for ideological reasons. If you accept the overall (progressive) narrative about counter-terrorism, environmentalism, and political activism, then the political message of the play and the action narrative of the play mesh seamlessly. If you don’t, you’re stuck never quite being able to slip entirely into the action narrative. But is this a glitch or a feature?
Political art comes with its own unique set of problems. What is the difference between ‘this is good’ and ‘I agree with this’? Kill Climate Deniers is clearly a good play, but it is not clear if the play is intended only for those who already agree with the political message. Is it escapism to vent frustrations, to laugh at a topsy-turvy world where eco-terrorists fill the antagonist’s boots? Was it designed as a protest statement, to state that the only way the political debate could get more absurd was if it were set in a Hollywood blockbuster?
The play capitalises on the controversial elements of violence within politics to raise some good issues about the nature of public debate. It unabashedly seeks attention in order to achieve a broader goal of providing a platform for a good discussion. Even where I disagreed with statements presented as ‘neutral’ facts, the deeper points about the quality of public debate still worked.
Outrage in response to the title was obviously performative. It provided an easy opportunity for various megaphones to score political points and signal to their audiences about authenticity. The only good thing that can be said of the response to the title is that it gave the play additional publicity.