Last week the novelist Lionel Shriver gave the keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. It did not go well. She addressed the question of ‘Fiction and identity politics’ (apparently the organizers had originally asked her to talk about ‘community and belonging’, but she had submitted to them a different topic), providing a robust critique of identity politics and of the idea of ‘cultural appropriation’. Beginning with a story about colleges attempting to ban the wearing of sombreros as an act of cultural appropriation, Shriver observed,
The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.
In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of ‘identities’ – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.
Shriver picked up on the definition of cultural appropriation by Susan Scafidi, law professor at Fordham University, as ‘taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc’. ‘What strikes me about that definition’, Shriver observed,
is that ‘without permission’ bit. However are we fiction writers to seek ‘permission’ to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?
She then argued that cultural appropriation lies at the heart of all fiction writing:
who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?
The fiction writer, that’s who.
This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best.
Finally, Shriver challenged the meaning of identity as it is often currently understood:
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.
I made this same point in relation to gender in Melbourne last week: both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.
Shriver’s speech caused a ruction, both at the festival and globally. One audience member, the Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, ostentatiously walked out of the lecture live tweeting her actions on Twitter. Another apparently accosted Shriver later demanding, ‘How dare you come to my country and offend our minorities?’ The Festival organisers removed from their website links to Shriver’s talk, while also organising a ‘right to reply ‘session with, among others Abdel-Magied and the Korean-American author Suki Kim. Lionel Shriver was not at this session because it was deliberately organised at the same time as Shriver was speaking, promoting her new novel The Mandibles. There is something more than a little ironic for a festival of writers to remove from their website the keynote speech at the festival because some objected to it, and to organise a ‘right to reply’ while both ensuring that the speaker being replied to cannot attend and removing the speech which is being replied to. The Festival seemed less concerned with opening up debate than with assuaging hurt feelings.
Abdel-Magied later wrote an article venting her fury, published in the Guardian and on Medium. The issue raised by Shriver, Abdel-Magied suggested, ‘was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?’ There is, Abdel-Magied suggested, ‘a fascinating philosophical argument here’. Instead, however,
that core question was used as a straw man. Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of ‘others’, simply because it is useful for one’s story.
Abdel-Magied’s point was not simply that Shriver was missing the point, or was mistaken in her arguments. It was rather that in targeting ‘cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness’ Shriver was committing some kind of thought crime, that it was simply unacceptable in some deep moral sense for Shriver to tackle these issues as she did.
The issues that Shriver raised are a matter of debate and contention. What is striking about much of the criticism, though, is the sense not that Shriver is mistaken in her beliefs, but that she should not have said what she said, and that what she said was in some way a personal attack on all minoprity or non-Western writers. Even more nuanced accounts of the controversy could not shed the sense that Shriver had somehow crossed a line that she should not have. Writing in the Guardian, Nesrine Malik criticized both Shriver and Abdel-Magied. Shriver, she wrote, was ‘disrespectful’ and showed insufficient ‘humility’. Disrespectful how? Certainly Shriver was contemptuous of identity politics and of ideas of cultural appropriation and mocked attempts to ban appropriation. What is wrong with that? There is a world of difference between being contemptuous of ideas or beliefs and being disrespectful of people holding those ideas or beliefs. Unfortunately, the line between the two has become increasingly blurred.
According to Abdel-Magied, Shriver’s attitude
drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: ‘I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…’
The insistence that one should not challenge or question ideas or beliefs that some may deem ‘important or sacred’ is a deeply pernicious claim, the modern secularized version of religious blasphemy. And, as I have argued many times, those who suffer most from such an insistence are those whose interests Abdel-Magied claims to be defending – minorities and the powerless:
‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged… Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
Who is appropriating what in Abdel-Magied’s argument? She is appropriating the right to define what may be said by whom about issues she regards as ‘important or sacred’. In other words, she is setting herself up as a gatekeeper to particular identities or cultures. But it’s the gatekeepers who are the problem. ‘The real fight against injustice’, as I have observed, ‘begins with ridding ourselves of our self-appointed gatekeepers’.
In her Guardian article critical of both Shriver and Abdel-Magied, Nesrine Malik pointed out that
To demand that writers not encroach upon the experience of others is a death sentence that seeks to limit us not only by what we know, but also by our place in a hierarchy of inequality. The most valuable literature not only teaches us what we do not know about others (and ourselves), but also reminds us that common human traits – love, fear, loss, family – bind us together both vertically throughout history but also horizontally across race, gender, disability and sexual orientation.
Similarly, the novelist Aminatta Forna observed last year,
The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply “writer”.
Forna posted on her Facebook wall the question: “Where did the new orthodoxy arise that writers must only set stories within their own country of origin or nationality?” To which the novelist Kamila Shamsie responded:
When I was at uni in America in the 90s there was a lot of criticism around the idea of ‘appropriating’ other people’s stories. What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.
Many supporters of the campaign against cultural appropriation argue, like Abdel-Magied, that theirs is a stance against racism:
It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?
It is true that women, blacks, minorities, face discrimination and can find it difficult to make their voices heard. That requires a social challenge to racism and inequality. Claiming certain identities or cultures or ideas as one’s own, upon which others cannot encroach, creates not a more just world but a more fragmented one that makes the struggle for equal treatment and universal rights more difficult. The campaigns against cultural appropriation express not a struggle for equality but the disintegration of the meaning of ‘anti-racism’:
Once it meant to struggle for equal treatment for all. Now it means defining the correct etiquette for a plural society. The campaign against cultural appropriation is about policing manners rather than transforming society.
As for Abdel-Magied’s claim that challenging ideas of cultural appropriation is to believe that ‘You are less than human’, the ‘kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide’, it is not only overheated to the point of hysteria, it is also the reverse of the truth. The ideas that now underlie the claims about cultural appropriation once underlay racial ideas:
The idea that the world could be divided into distinct cultures, and that every culture belonged to a particular people, has its roots in late eighteenth century Europe. The Romantic movement, which developed in part in opposition to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, celebrated cultural differences and insisted on the importance of ‘authentic’ ways of being. For Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher who best articulated the Romantic notion of culture, what made each people – or volk – unique was its particular language, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history.
Herder was no reactionary – he was an important champion of equality – but his ideas about culture were adopted by reactionary thinkers. Those ideas became central to racial thinking – the notion of the volksgeist was transformed into the concept of racial make-up – and fuelled the belief that non-Western societies were ‘backward’ because of their ‘backward’ cultures.
Radicals challenging racism and colonialism rejected the Romantic view of culture, adopting instead a universalist perspective. From the struggle against slavery to the anti-colonial movements, the aim was not to protect one’s own special culture but to create a more universal culture in which all could participate on equal terms.
In recent decades, however, the universalist viewpoint has eroded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated. The social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics. As the broader struggles for social transformation have faded, people have tended to retreat into their particular faiths or cultures, and to embrace more parochial forms of identity. In this process, the old cultural arguments of the racists have returned, but now rebranded as ‘antiracist’.
The dangers of promoting claims of ‘cultural ownership’ can be seen in contemporary discussions of immigration in which many on the right (and not just on the right) use (‘appropriate’) arguments about cultural difference and ownership to make the case against immigration as undermining their culture and values. In his book Multicultural Politics, the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka makes a case for the right of cultures to protect their unique characters from changes wrought from the outside. ‘It is right and proper’, he argues, ‘that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its members.’ But ‘while it is one thing to learn from the larger world’, he insists, it is quite another ‘to be swamped by it’. That is, I have observed, ‘a telling phrase’:
For the fear of being ‘swamped’ has long been a rightwing trope, used to whip up fears about immigration and about the Other. ‘It’s not our country any more’, has become the common cry of those opposed to immigration. ‘There are now substantially growing areas in many of our major cities which are in some important respects rather more like foreign countries than those of the ordinary English domestic scene’, argues the Oxford demographer David Coleman, a leading critic of immigration . ‘They’re not parts of the country where most English people will want to go.’ This has led to the ‘dethronement’ of what ‘the ordinary people of Britain… take to be their national identity and their history.’
Kymlicka, I noted, is liberal to his bones, resolutely hostile to such reactionary arguments against immigration. But once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist anti-immigration arguments.
We can see the problem in Lionel Shriver own work. In a review of novels on immigration, Shriver makes the interesting and valid point that most novels about migration are from the viewpoint of immigrants, rarely from that of the ‘host communities’. She goes on, however, to talk of immigration seemingly as a form of inappropriate cultural invasion. ‘Illegal immigration’, she claims, ‘occasions the sensation of a householder when total strangers burst through his front door without knocking and take up indefinite residence in the guest room’. Mass immigration, she insists ‘duplicate[s] the experience of military occupation – your nation is no longer your home’. Westerners, she argues, are ‘being made to feel a foreigner in one’s own country’, and reveal ‘understandably primal reactions to the compromise of one’s home’. For Shriver then, it seems that certain cultures, certain ideas of ‘home’ – but only certain ones – must be protected against ‘invasion’ and change.
This might suggest that Abdel-Magied is right in her critique of Shriver. In fact what it reveals is that Shriver’s argument about immigration to the West is not that different from that of Abdel-Magied about Western cultural imperialism. That makes the critique of cultural appropriation and cultural ownership not less valid but, ironically, more urgent.
My thanks to Jonathan Portes for pointing me to Lionel Shriver’s book review on migrant novels.