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Masterclass: Conducting a Code

Masterclass: Conducting a Code

In the world of new ideas, innovative thinking and artistic minds, “transgressive behavior” has been often associated with ‘being bold’ and daring. Doing something new that is yet unheard of and challenges the status quo, is what keeps the world of the arts interesting and exciting. But when used to describe unacceptable behavior in the industry, the expression misses the mark. 

Today we often hear the expression ‘transgressive behavior’ used to describe the behavior of people who abuse their position to behave inappropriately, harass and intimidate others. The concept refers to behavior that causes physical, mental or emotional harm to another person, regardless of whether that harm is intentional or not. And yet, the expression previously associated with aspirational values causes confusion in the artistic sector when used to describe this type of behavior – there is nothing “bold” and daring about unacceptable behavior.  

During Go Short 2023, professionals from the film industry and filmmakers gathered to talk and learn about this toxic behavior. How can festivals act and what can festivals do to prevent it? 

The root of the problem 

In recent years, unacceptable behavior has dominated headlines in the Netherlands, reporting on cases involving the judges on The Voice of Holland, teachers from the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague and Marc Overmars, head of Ajax. The pattern of ill-behaved people at the top who misused their power in unequal relationships has caused outrage across sectors and set different movements in motion. New initiatives were started to try to challenge and spread power and diversify at the top, in order to make sure this would not happen again and again. 

And even though there is still a long way to go, much progress has already been made. The news headlines have accelerated societal awareness and addressed an issue deeply rooted in history, stretching back to the beginning of time. Keep Festive, for example, an initiative that helps festivals all over Europe in particular, went from ‘inexistent’ in 2021 to a new Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Organization in 2023. They consist of an international network of festivals helping each other in setting up toolkits and sharing best practices. Within the Netherlands, we saw the establishment of Engagement Arts NL, a non-profit organization with a mission of addressing and purring efforts in education and prevention around gender-based violence, sexism, discrimination, and abuse of power in the Dutch arts and design field. 

 Language Matters 

An essential element about unacceptable behavior is the conversations that are being held and the words that are used for these conversations. “How we choose to talk about this behavior affects how we think about that behavior,” states Vivian Cintra from Engagement Arts NL. “In the process of making this topic more palatable to discuss with wider audiences, we have started to make use of a dangerous euphemism: sexual assault and sexual violence became sexually transgressive behavior. Note the change in connotation that takes place here: assault and violence, expressions that carry an undoubtedly negative, reprehensible connotation, become ‘transgressive,’ a word that in the artistic sector is traditionally associated with a rebellious attitude, which has a more positive connotation.” 

Cintra further explains: “This conversation is important because it cannot be expected that everybody shares the same understanding of things, especially with respect to complex problems concealed by ambiguous language. Everybody has their own moral compass, their own individual ideas about right and wrong – these values are commonly shaped by one’s family, cultural context, and belief system growing up. As you can expect, this can lead to conflicting views about certain topics. And yet, even though there is a tendency to assume that in certain circles there is a shared understanding of things, what is acceptable to one person might not be acceptable to another person.” 

According to Cintra, we need to look at what is necessary at the community level to create safe spaces for all. What shared definitions are there of right and wrong? What are allowable actions, reprehensible acts or expected behavior within a community, institution, or organization? “It has been established that predator behavior is a product of socialization – not addressing it only permits it to escalate. We have seen how poor behavior becomes normalized and it is then justified as acceptable or expected in the production of ‘great’ art. That can no longer be an excuse.” 

Conducting a code 

Where the law can codify certain ethical standards and establish penalties for non-compliance, a code of conduct can strive to be something bigger. A code of conduct can introduce values and principles a community should be oriented towards, in order to inspire people to think and act under those values in their decision-making. “We look at ethics and law as interchangeable terms, but they often do not go hand in hand. For example, the current Dutch Criminal law defines rape as ‘actions comprising or including the sexual penetration of the body that has taken place by force.’ That definition is outdated as it does not include the scenario in which the victim could not offer resistance to as they might freeze or be intoxicated, even if that intoxication was involuntary. So the Dutch law on rape is unethical by today’s societal standards, as it has been established that the threshold for sexual assault and rape is the absence of the will of the victim. That is why a conversation about consent is important and should be encouraged in events like festivals. This is one example of where ethics and law are not aligned, but there are many more,” says Cintra.  

 Cintra also elaborates on the phenomenon of the bystander’s effect. This is a significant sociological phenomenon that highlights how individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other bystanders or witnesses are present, often assuming someone else is or will take care of the situation. Helping and instructing people about this cognitive bias is important to effectively contain escalation when possible, and to share the effort of making policies such as a code of conduct that last. 

Go the extra mile 

A code of conduct should not only concern itself with a reproduction of the contents of the law, but also introduce ethical values and principles the members of an organization or institutions should abide by. “Looking for bad apples is a good thing, but after studying this behavior thoroughly, we knew we needed a more systematic approach,” adds Luce Grosjean from Keep Festive. That’s why they are setting up multiple tools for festivals, which concern active listening, building a safe community around the festival and conducting a code. This should offer a framework to festivals to make sure that transgressive behavior does not get a place on the festival. 

So yes, there is still a long way to go if the law is still conservative. But luckily, the right effort is being put in trying to make more workplaces and festivals become a safe environment. And in the end, isn’t that what we all want?  

Luce Grosjean and Vivian Cintra were speakers at a masterclass during the industry program of Go Short 2023 on this subject. The masterclass was moderated by Emilia Mazik and organized in collaboration with Kaboom Animation Festival. The information and quotes in this article were based on this keynote. 

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