On Cultural Appropriation and Literature

Lionel Shriver gave a provocative speech at the Brisbane Literary Festival, where she raged against the idea of cultural appropriation as essentially destroying literature. Unfortunately, like many white people who are made upset by this discussion, Shriver engages in some straw man slaying, along with more than a bit of tendentiousness, while missing the point of the discussion entirely.

But first, here’s part of her case for why literature is under threat:

But I’m afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around “identity politics” has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing. Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.

Her evidence for this rather strong assertion? A racially-insensitive “sombrero party” at Bowdoin College, and a book review that complained criticism one of her books contained mostly white people with a problematic portrayal of its one black character (who was chained in a yard after suffering from Alzheimer’s). It’s helpful to unpack the first thing, since small incidents like this are increasingly becoming the “hook” for aggrieved white intellectuals to complain that they’re being silenced.

At Bowdoin, which is a small private liberal arts college in the Northeast (meaning: it is not remotely representative of academia or higher education in America), some students held a Mexican-themed party where white people drank tequila and played with goofy-looking mini sombreros. As Shriver recounts the incident, the minorities on Bowdoin’s campus were so aghast at the presences of sombreros that they erupted in a PC-rage and demanded safe spaces and trigger warnings, shutting down an innocent party in the process. From this, Shriver derives that the very act of creativity is under threat because white authors will be forbidden from including non-white characters and experiences, while also being subjected to endless criticism for being white.

If this sounds like the most ridiculous florid bullshit, that is because it is. For starters, Shriver badly misrepresents what actually happened at Bowdoin, relying on the retelling by self-interested race-baiters at conservative media (who overwhelming reject the idea of racism by redefining it in such a way that it could never actually happen in 2016) instead of the accounts of the actual students involved in the incident. The reality is that white students at Bowdoin have been hosting race-themed parties for years, where they use props of other cultures as an excuse to get blackout drunk and misbehave (from “Cracksgiving” involving white people in Native American headdresses, to a “gangster” party where white members of the sailing team dressed up like black gang members), and the sombrero thing was a last straw:

Several Mexican and Mexican-American students expressed exhaustion and frustration at the public comment time at Wednesday night’s Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) meeting. “As a senior who has seen multiple racist incidents at this college, I’m at the point now where I’m really, really tired,” said BSG Vice President for Student Government Affairs Michelle Kruk ’16.

So, the incident Shriver thinks is representative of the end of creativity is actually just minorities pushing back against an endless string of racism by white student. This is recurring theme in the collective freakout by white intellectuals against “political correctness,” whereby they complain of censorship when the people they casually condescend to raise their voices and say “enough.”

That being said, “cultural appropriation” is a concept that can be abused, and it has been. Many people had a laugh last year at Oberlin students who thought American Chinese food and “inauthentic” Vietnamese bahn mi was “cultural appropriation.” This is clearly a misunderstanding of the term, and of how food works (bahn mi, for instance, is as much French as it is Vietnamese, and American Chinese food was created by actual Chinese people living in America). It was a silly protest, and we were all right to laugh at it.

But the cultural appropriation discussion should not be reductio ad oberlinum — pretending small private liberal arts colleges represent anything other than themselves is a very odd fundamental attribution error for ostensibly smart people to make. There are very real problems with deploying the artifacts of a minority culture as a prop for laughs or misbehavior: beyond being disrespectful (the vast majority of complaints about political correctness are really complaints about white people being told to stop being disrespectful), within the academy and the worlds of literature and art it actually is a malignant presence. The constant drumbeat of messages, explicit and implicit, that a minority culture is not worth preserving alongside the constant drumbeat of messages, explicit and implicit, that the majority culture must be preserved at all costs (witness the collective freak out over Colin Kaepernick declining to stand for the national anthem in protest of police brutality against black people), serves to suppress that minority culture. To be brutally honest, when other countries do this — when the majority ethnicity of another country deploys systemic acts of appropriation and condescension to suppress minority expression — we are comfortable decrying it as abusive and anti-democratic. When it happens in the U.S., people defend it and whine about the “PC police.”

Shriver made the opposite point. In her up-is-down universe, being aware of how cultural ques are employed (often unintentionally!) to silence minority voices, she claims that literature itself is at stake.

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.

Yet were their authors honouring the new rules against helping yourself to what doesn’t belong to you, we would not have Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. We wouldn’t have most of Graham Greene’s novels, many of which are set in what for the author were foreign countries, and which therefore have Real Foreigners in them, who speak and act like foreigners, too.

In his masterwork English Passengers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained himself from including chapters written in an Aboriginal’s voice – though these are some of the richest, most compelling passages in that novel. If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled – because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to “appropriate” the isolation of a paraplegic – we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun.

This is, again, a tendentious straw man. The thing people react against is not representation, but condescension. Matthew Kneale was not condescending to aboriginal culture, he was trying to highlight that culture. Contrast with Rudyard Kipling, whose beautiful writing in The Jungle Book covers up some rather shocking racism, or Mark Twain’s casual racism in Huckleberry Finn. Does that mean they stopped being important authors, or that their books should never be read? Absolutely not: being racist does not make a book unworthy of reading — just as owning slaves does not automatically invalidate the Founding Fathers’ political ethos. But it does allow us to temper the otherwise boundless admiration for these men: they were imperfect, and their imperfections are as important to understanding them intellectually and artistically as their masterpieces are.

Moreover, in 2016 we can do better. You can understand why Kipling didn’t think twice about promoting the British Empire and talking down to the jungle natives in his books: that’s just what people did back then. We know better now! And we should strive to be better than that, and we have been and can continue to be. It isn’t the end of literature, but rather the beginning of it.

Let’s use an example from science fiction. I recently got around to reading Alastair Reynolds’ Poseidon’s Wake trilogy. In essence is it an epic space opera story of an East African family as in the peaceful aftermath of a horrifying global war, and they build a space empire and eventually create sentient elephants that colonize other star systems. Really, it’s a better tale than that makes it sound. But Reynolds, a white Englishman, chooses to have very few white Europeans in his book at all: the vast majority of the characters are African and South Asian. In his universe, Earth’s political center of gravity is the Indian Ocean, and wealthy African expats set up in lower-middle class European cities for the cheap rent. In his books, the races of the characters are not the subject of any part of the story — no one stops to remark “oh look, an African in space, how novel.” Reynolds didn’t use race isn’t a prop for any preaching, or for laughing at another culture’s expense (LOL sombreros, right?) — rather, he used race as a way to play in a science fictional universe with different cultural queues than Anglophone cultural references. And guess what? It wasn’t remotely controversial!

Now, this does not mean that the term “cultural appropriation” cannot itself be appropriated for an inappropriate purpose. That Oberlin protest about campus food was one example. But why not just say that? “This is not appropriation.” To point to a misuse of a term as reason to invalidate that term is mendacious nonsense — it is the very act of silencing that the cultural appropriation debate is meant to combat. It is the embodiment of asshole culture: “I found a thing that was misused slightly, so all things are now invalid.”

And yet. “Don’t be an asshole,” which is how I summarize this entire debate, seems to be a foreign concept to Shriver, who seems to think the only way to portray minorities is to be cruel:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

Sigh.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.