The purpose of literature and fiction writing is not to serve the grand design of the social justice and identity politics movement – and Lionel Shriver should be commended for standing up for artistic freedom against the new age censors
At a recent speech given at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the author Lionel Shriver makes a passionate and compelling defence of the concept of “cultural appropriation”, standing up to the rabid social justice warriors who would seek to impose a new cultural apartheid and the return of “separate but equal” division between races, cultures, genders and social groups.
From Shriver’s speech, which begins by making reference to college campus scandals over the supposed “cultural appropriation” and “harm” caused by non-Mexican students wearing sombrero hats at tequila parties or Mexican-themed restaurants:
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.
Shriver’s barnstorming speech goes on to list many great works of literature which would be greatly diminished or simply not exist at all were their authors (like many writers today) bullied and pressured to avoid writing about cultural experiences and customs other than their own.
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.
We wouldn’t have Maria McCann’s erotic masterpiece, As Meat Loves Salt – in which a straight woman writes about gay men in the English Civil War. Though the book is nonfiction, it’s worth noting that we also wouldn’t have 1961’s Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of “blackface.” Having his skin darkened – Michael Jackson in reverse – Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. He’d be excoriated today, yet that book made a powerful social impact at the time.
(Shriver’s speech was too much for one delicate snowflake. Australian activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, whose sheltered mind was unable to tolerate hearing of a worldview which didn’t put her own identity on a pedestal, decided to walk out during the speech and then pen a tear-stained, self-involved piece about her feewings for the Guardian, aggrandising her supposed victimhood).
But what exactly is Lionel Shriver’s beef with the modern idea that cultural appropriation is heresy? It seems that what angers her – quite rightly – is the idea that any group, marginalised or not, can be the sole custodians of their traditions, granting or withholding license to “borrow” from their culture like a movie studio scouring YouTube for pirated videos.
According to Shriver, nobody, least of all an artist, should have to approach anyone for “permission” to write from a certain perspective, include a certain character or touch on any cultural tradition:
The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation 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 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?
While Shriver justifiably bristles at the consequences of weaponised identity politics, she does not use her speech to dwell on the reasons for the rise of this hyper self-conscious, self-censoring phenomenon. Fellow author Ian McEwan, on the other hand, is more than happy to point out the root causes of the identity politics resurgence, recently commenting in an interview:
“These children have grown up in an era of peace and plenty, and nothing much to worry about, so into that space comes this sort of resurgence that the campus politics is all about you, not about income inequality, nuclear weapons, climate change, all the other things you think students might address, the fate of your fellow humans, migrants drowning at sea. All of those things that might concern the young are lost to a wish for authority to bless them [..] rather than to challenge authority.”
To which this blog responded:
Doesn’t that just perfectly sum up the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics? A generation of students raised at a time of great material abundance, peace and prosperity arrive at university to find most of the great injustices of the past already slain by previous generations of campaigners. Bereft of purpose but still feeling the strong student urge to embrace a cause, they crank up their sensitivity settings to perceive any slight or inequity, however small or unintentional, to be evidence of the systematic oppression of one or more classes of prescribed victim groups.
McEwan’s last sentence is particularly profound – the idea that today’s young people no longer rail against authority in the way that student activists of old did, but rather make tear-stained appeals to authority figures to intercede on their behalf. This is the victimhood culture, clearly distinct from an honour culture (which would encourage the individual to stand up to minor sleights or “microaggressions” and confront the issue themselves) or a dignity culture (which would only sanction involving authorities in case of grave injury).
Later in her speech, Shriver hits out at the fad of shoehorning various “oppressed group” minorities into television shows in the name of making up some social justice quota, and the growing demand by some critics for the same affirmative action to take place in literature:
My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.
You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!
We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.
Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.
Besides: which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?
That last question is a good one – how on earth is a fiction author or television screenplay writer possibly to satisfy the competing demands to include more characters from diverse backgrounds yet avoid the unpardonable sin of presuming to write from their vantage point?
No doubt the social justice warriors would decree that fiction writing, so long a solitary pursuit, must now always be a collaborative effort, with a team of character writers standing by to offer their perspectives on a character’s true “voice” and authenticity. Or perhaps the process could be accomplished at the end of writing, by submitting draft novels to an Office of Social Justice Censorship where beady-eyed zealots who claim to speak on behalf of their entire social group go through the manuscript with a red pen, changing the author’s words and ideas to conform to some standard set in secret, behind closed doors.
You can see where the inexorable logic of these shrill demands ultimately leads: nowhere good. We either end up in a world where brilliant authors are too terrified of potential repercussions to ever pick up a pen in the first place, or one ends up with Soviet-style official “approved” art and literature, written to precise specifications in order to best glorify the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics.
As Shriver puts it:
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.
[..] Especially for writers from traditionally privileged demographics, the message seems to be that it’s a whole lot safer just to make all your characters from that same demographic, so you can be as hard on them as you care to be, and do with them what you like. Availing yourself of a diverse cast, you are not free; you have inadvertently invited a host of regulations upon your head, as if just having joined the EU. Use different races, ethnicities, and minority gender identities, and you are being watched.
Extra marks for the snide attack on the European Union – brilliant stuff.
As this blog has explained time and again, above all else social justice is not about fairness and equality but rather about power – specifically, the acquisition of power by the beady-eyed authoritarians who wield their weaponised victimhood and competitive tolerance as cudgels, granting them the power to determine what the rest of us can and cannot do or say. Television has already on the verge of falling to this long-running cultural siege, and the clear message coming from “progressive” reviewers in the literary community is that fiction is next.
Lionel Shriver has issued a timely warning to her fellow authors – let us hope that there is sufficient time and willpower to resist the final assault when it comes.
Top Image: Guardian, Daniel Seed
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