So it is that another fusillade has been fired in the great, searing war of attrition of the 21st century.
On Monday, Lionel Shriver delivered her keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. And a charged speech it was.
Her subject matter? ‘Fiction and identity politics.’
Her thesis? That the ongoing rapid expansion — or at least steady promulgation — of concepts like ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘safe spaces’ threatens to destroy the ability of writers to dream, to empathise, and to inhabit characters that do not look like their creators.
Her delivery? In all honesty: condescending, reductive, and covered in farm smell from the giant straw man standing at the centre of it all.
Now, despite the paragraph just above, I am conscious that continuing to sling clods of patronising shit over the fences bring minimal benefit to anyone. So, with that in mind, I would prefer to look at Shriver’s speech openly and with calm curiosity.
This isn’t Donald ‘fuck continuity and coherence’ Trump we’re talking about.
At the same time though, that does comes with the added proviso that usually when shit like this comes up in a debate in a pub, I tend to end up a bit like this:
Fuck it though, let’s see how we go with the speech.
Shriver begins by laying out the foundation of her argument with admirable economy:
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.
She goes on to talk about a recent incident at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine where two members of the student government had eventually been impeached for attending a ‘Mexican-themed’ college party where tequila was served and sombreros were handed out. Shriver tells us that that this was due to a ‘campus-wide’ outrage over the ‘cultural insensitivity’ of the party. She implies that clearly the disproportionate nature of the chain reaction that this single, isolated incident caused should be a cause for concern for all freedom-of-speech loving folk everywhere.
Except, really, as Snopes tells us, there is a lot more nuance to this story. And, as usual, the nuance is the story, and the statement by Bowdoin College President provides it:
There is currently commentary in the press and social media about a “tequila party” on campus and the reactions of students and the administration. Some aspects of what has been reported have been accurate, others have not, and some facts and context are missing. Because of our legal obligation to protect student confidentiality, I cannot comment specifically on this party, although I will say that the issues we are dealing with are not really about hats or drinks.
Context matters, and over the last year or two we have had several incidents where students have engaged in racial and ethnic stereotyping—a violation of our Social Code—and there has been much discussion within our community about these incidents, as well as action taken by the administration.
A two-second internet search tells me that those two other incidents were a ‘Cracksgiving’ party where lacrosse team members dressed up in Native American-themed outfits, and a ‘gangster-themed’ shindig where ‘several sailing team members arrived in the dining commons after the party wearing baggy clothing, gold chains and cornrows.’
So, then: not so much a violent flare-up of an indignant and out-of-control PC bonfire; more of a concerted effort by people of color to try and quell the continual and systemic propagation of stereotypes that make it easier to reduce and demean those cultures being stereotyped, which in turn facilitates the widespread institutional racism that allows abiding societal and economic structures to maintain control.
But never mind all that apparently. It’s at this point that Shriver warms to her subject — based on a nothing-argument though it may be — and she becomes quite playful, pivoting on a rhetorical axis, and sinking her teeth into her other nemesis — the demon that is the idea of cultural appropriation:
But what does this have to do with writing fiction? 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.’
Now, there are many nuanced conversations to be had about cultural appropriation. Its limits and edges; the blurred areas where appreciation becomes appropriation; the vital contextual cues that give clues as to the answer. Occasionally they appear difficult to read.
But, sometimes, you just need to look at an interview with British rapper Akala to find the answer:
I think it’s about an attitude. Cultural exchange is beautiful and what has always driven human progress. To me there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from anyone’s culture. To me it’s this history, that mainstream white Britain and America seem befuddled about, in America it wasn’t long ago that black people weren’t allowed on the radio, and they taught white black people to ‘talk black’. Eric Clapton, turned around and said a whole load of racist shit but he made his name with music brought over by Caribbean immigrants.
Cultural exchange is beautiful, cultural appropriation is when you deny, delete or obscure the innovators who have paved the way for you.
Judging by her speech, Lionel Shriver seems either ignorant of this definition of the phrase, or she is just unwilling to engage with it due to a hardening of a defensive stance that she is exhibiting in response to a few incidences she describes. She talks of occasions where a reviewer or two (or a reader) has taken issue with her characterisations of certain non-white characters in some of her books. Intending only to tell a good story, these were moments which upset her.
It seems, then, that the central crux of Shriver’s talk is actually — despite appeals to common good sense or perhaps some quantitatively measurable quantity — empathy. Empathy, a trait so valuable it could be said that civilisation itself stands on its shoulders. Shriver talks of empathy that she and other writers of fiction exercise when entering another person’s head; she talks of the empathy she expects others to direct at her when assessing her characters; and she talks of empathy when she expects non-white people to understand white people’s apparent need to make a pick-and-mix collage out of their cultures, no matter how offensive they may find it — or ‘claim’ to find it, as some would term it.
It seems, however, that not all empathies are created equal for Lionel Shriver. One in particular seems to be lower down on the list. It’s the strain of empathy that has for so long been marked above all else by its glaring absence — that empathy that has been anything but forthcoming for the vast majority of people who do not belong to a very specific-looking class of human, those who are by and large shut out of most of the institutions and corridors that a select few can take for granted and never question. Those people who as a group are still, despite massive progress, in such a position in the global power-rankings that they are not even here asking for complete parity, but are instead still just fighting for dignity — for a consideration of, ‘Hey, you think you could just for a second think how being used as a costume prop or narrative tool might make me feel? I wouldn’t usually mind, but what with the colossal system set up to severely limit opportunities for my own advancement, and the money being made otherwise everywhere else off people like me, but not for people like me, well I guess I’m a bit sensitive.’
That’s an empathy that seems to be off the table for Lionel Shriver. There can be over-zealous people on every side of a debate, but to keep yourself blind to the huge real-world implications that a lack of that empathy has?