The dead end of “culturally appropriate” art

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Standpoint October 2016

Can there be a culturally appropriate art? There is no shortage of activists arguing for one, and they are arguing for something new and sinister, in free societies at least.

Let me be clear about the stakes. Artists reflect the ideas of their times, and nearly all Western novels and dramas now treat, say, gays and lesbians sympathetically. They are a world away from the thrillers of the 1970s in which the lisping homosexual was invariably the villain. Such stereotypes are not the issue today. Nor is the argument about whether a male novelist can create convincing female characters or vice versa or a white novelist create a convincing black character or vice versa. Readers have always been able to complain that a novelist has produced inauthentic work. Rather than an argument about what is said, we have an argument about what right artists have to speak at all.

As Lionel Shriver put it in a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, “Ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic underprivilege 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.”

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a “social advocate and writer”, walked out, her eyes blurred with tears. Her blog denouncing Shriver was a sensation. The Guardian reprinted it, the New York Times and Washington Post covered it, and she was quoted with approval across social media. Abdel-Magied complained that Shriver was a colonialist and racial supremacist. She alleged the message was, “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”. To justify her insults, she advanced what I suppose you could call the “lump of literature fallacy”: because a white writer published on black Africans, black Africans could not get their works into print.

She offered a grotesque misrepresentation of what Shriver had said. But on one point Abdel-Magied was accurate. Shriver thinks writers should write what they want. Abdel-Magied thinks they shouldn’t. Unless you are a black African woman, you should not write about black African women unless you grant them copy approval.

The clarity of this position dissolves, however, as soon as a writer accepts it. Jonathan Franzen said recently that, because he had few black friends, he would not dream of creating a black character. Notions of identity politics and cultural purity lead to segregation. Yet when Franzen acknowledged it, the same type of social justice warrior who criticised Shriver criticised him. None quite demanded that he must create black characters, but, as one said, his reprehensible admission had weakened the fight for “diversity and inclusion” — as if the two were synonymous.

Do not think these arguments are trivial. Universities teach the novelists of the future on creative writing courses and the readers of serious fiction on literature courses. Their repressive culture must influence what the future will read, watch, write and perform to some extent.

Gore Vidal and Martin Amis are members of a parade of cultural pessimists who have argued that, as egalitarianism proceeds, the final distinction of talent will be all that is left. And when its turn for a confrontation comes, talent will lose. It is easy to agree and believe that a more egalitarian, wired world will insist that the defence “X is a writer, and must be free to write what she wants” won’t wash.

What does Lionel Shriver know of being a mother of a dangerously mentally disturbed child, after all? Does she have a mentally ill child herself; has she consulted or asked the permission of anyone who has? Like Shriver, Jonathan Franzen is read by millions of serious people. How is it fair that he enjoys such a privilege, when by his own admission he has few black friends? Surely, he would be a better writer if he had a committee of black friends to advise him on their experience.

The only honest answer to these questions is the elitist reply that literary talent isn’t fair. Like physical beauty, if you do not have the potential, you will never attain it, however hard you try.

Given the passion behind the assaults on cultural appropriation, can we expect the appearance of culturally sensitive novels and dramas whose frightened writers confine themselves to their tribal homelands or apply for visas if they wish to stray beyond its borders. It’s possible, but unlikely.

Shriver asked who a writer should go to for permission to publish her story of a trans woman or Nigerian man, when no one had the authority to issue permission on behalf of others. When I wrote about freedom of speech, for instance, an editor wanted “a Muslim scholar” to assure him that a passage about the life of Muhammad was not “offensive” (by which he meant “not likely to get my office bombed”). A liberal Muslim activist said it was fine. If an Islamist or Salafist had read the book, he would have said the opposite.

The great failing of identity politics and arguments against cultural appropriation is they assume identities and cultures are islands with warships patrolling their coasts. Cultures mix. None exists that is not a hybrid except possibly in the Amazon rainforest. Not everyone in an ethnicity shares the same identity, and it is a rank prejudice to treat them as if they do. Freedom of the individual is the freedom not to have your autonomy denied by collectives who claim to speak on your behalf. In other words, there is no legitimate cultural authority to stamp a writer’s passport.

The logical conclusion of cultural appropriation is solipsism. For why stop at saying a person of one culture cannot appropriate the experience of another? By what right can I write about you, or you me? If no one can imagine or inquire about life in another culture, how can they do so about the life of another person? The self will then be the only subject. Solipsism may power the social justice warriors, who weep about how grievously their feelings have been offended. But it is unlikely to produce fiction even they will want to read.

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