I have tried to ignore the current mania about cultural appropriation. It has seemed and still seems to be one stupidity too many. Our politically correct intellectual and academic cultures are not short of stupidity.
A strict cultural appropriationist believes that the experiences of his or her culture are uniquely his or hers. Thus, no one else has a right to adopt them, write about them, or even to fictionalize characters who belong to them.
Down with white people eating moo goo gai pan and down with Henry James writing The Portrait of a Lady.
Those who display great sensitivity about the failures of their civilizations say that cultural appropriation feels like colonialism and imperialism, like suppressing indigenous cultures in favor of cultures that have a better track record.
Your indigenous culture might be a monumental failure. It might have lost out in the clash of civilizations, lost out to Western civilization and to Chinese culture. One thing is for damned sure: you do not want anyone else to see it.
If anyone in the latter culture appropriates something from the former culture, it provokes a crippling feeling of shame—as though one’s failures are being mocked and derided. Thus, members of the better culture must shut up in order to spare the delicate sensibilities of those whose cultures have failed, who refuse to recognize the failures or to reform their culture.
Today, those who reject reform insist that their culture is theirs and that, by the dogma of multiculturalism, it is as good as anyone else’s. When you take this argument on its own terms it makes no sense. It smacks of idiocy. But, this tells us that those who adhere to it as a dogma are showing us why their own cultures have failed to modernize.
Lionel Shriver recently delivered a speech in Australia where she attacked the dogma of cultural appropriation.
She began with an anecdote from Bowdoin College. There a Mexican themed party was shut down for being insensitive. Because students were wearing sombreros:
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 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.
It reminds one of a child in a sandbox, exclaiming that his toys are his and that you cannot play with them—because you are of the wrong race or ethnic group.
The cultural appropriation crowd rests its argument on the idea that products of a specific culture belong only to those who are part of that culture. If you are not Austrian you should not listen to Beethoven, unless you are granted permission. And if you want to write about a Laotian tribesman you need to get permission from… some Laotian tribesman.
This smacks of despotism, of a will to turn every cultural product into propaganda. It also suggests that only those who are indigenous to a culture have the right to say what anything means.
Shriver offered an example of sophisticated defense of cultural appropriation. Sophisticated because it was written by a law professor. If this is true, we should bemoan the fate of the legal professions:
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 unauthorized 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?
The rank stupidity of the argument jumps off the page. Shriver took especial umbrage because she is a novelist and novelists create characters. In many circumstances novelists create characters who do not speak, act or look like them. Should we cease reading Othello because Shakespeare was not a Moor?
Did William Faulkner have any right to write a character who was mentally challenged? Shouldn’t that task have been left to those who are mentally challenged? Not only because they own their own experiences but because they alone can render it accurately.
Fiction does not render real experience. It renders fictional experience. It creates a fictional world. That is why it is called fiction. It is not written to serve a political purpose. If it were, it would not be called fiction. It may bear certain resemblances to reality, but it has never been judged by its ability to show what really is.
Shriver writes fiction, so she honed in on the fact that cultural appropriation would put novelists out of business:
Because 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 chutzpa 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.
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 paralyzing. 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.
As it happened, a member of Shriver’s audience, one Yassmin Abdel-magied took the occasion to throw a public tantrum and to march out of the address in protest. Her shame, we might say, was too much to bear.
To her, Shriver was celebrating:
… the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.
She adds that the world’s oppressed have no access to the media. The point is nigh unto idiotic in a world where everyone has access to the media. If you are a Nigerian novelist you might well find a publisher in Lagos. If not, you have access to Amazon which will publish your book. If you have an opinion you can instantly post it on Facebook or Twitter.
Abdel-mageid presents her position:
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 thosewith the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.
You see, it’s not just about appropriation. It’s about colonialism and imperialism, these being the twin devils that are often blamed for the fact that certain cultures have systematically refused to modernize.
But there is a bigger and broader issue, one that, for me, is more emotive.Cultural appropriation is a “thing”, because of our histories. The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well?
It’s those white devils, of course. But, let’s not forget that Asian devils are advancing swiftly in the clash of civilizations. What will this do to the effort to guilt-trip white people:
The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal. And in demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule: “I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”
Writing in Acculturated, Amy Anderson comes back at Yassmin. She asks why Yassmin does not speak about the way women are treated in Islamic cultures. Does she really believe that the systematic brutalization of women in those cultures derives from imperialism and colonialism?
Well Yassmin, now that you mention it, perhaps it would be helpful to take a look around at the “place” of women living in some Muslim societies today. As Kay Hymowitz has observed:
In the United Arab Emirates, husbands have the right to beat their wives in order to discipline them— ‘provided that the beating is not so severe as to damage her bones or deform her body,’ in the words of Gulf News. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote, drive, or show their faces or talk with male non-relatives in public.
Like it or not, the truth is that Westerners do not want your culture. They do not really want to have anything to do with it. Why would they want to appropriate honor killing and wife beating and female genital mutilation? And let's not forget, when Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote about her experience as a Muslim woman in Somalia, the champions of cultural appropriation tried to have her killed.
So, before accusing white Westerners of appropriating your culture, take ownership of it yourself.