Lion Shriver, Cultural Appropriation and Writing

Lionel Shriver recently gave a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival and called for the end to the fad of cultural appropriation. Clearly, headline writers have done a job encapsulating a speech that explored many ideas, but also helped draw a line in the sand where folk take sides.

It’s clearly not a call for rampant cultural theft to be overlooked, but in an age of 140 character soundbites and clickbait headline writing – it creates a handy narrative for people to argue over.

The most public of the rebukes against Shriver’s desire to see cultural appropriation be a sign of a past era was Yassmin Abdel-Magied and her heavy-handed and histrionic account of her walking out of the conference in disgust. I think ‘playing a straight bat’ and writing a more objective analysis of why she believes that Shriver is wrong, would have been far more appropriate and convincing, and slightly less like she’d just witnessed a thought crime.

This is not to say that cultural appropriation does not happen, and should not happen. But we need to think about both the intent, the approach and outcomes of attempts before being quick to label people and their actions in a broad context, one in which it’s only a short step away from branding someone as a racist.

Rachel Dolezal’s story is sad, complex and unjust on many levels but do we really think that her actions are in any way comparable in unfairness to people taking up yoga? Or that of non-Japanese folk culturally appropriating sushi? We have to be careful in the battles we pick, because if we pick too many we risk trivialising issues.

Pop culture appropriation is clumsy, clueless and gimmicky – such as Katy Perry or Iggy Azalea‘s attempts at cultural cosplay demonstrate: but who really gets the cultural cringe – is it Japanese or Indian audiences, or is it a western, middle-class, mostly white in colour and educated commentators? It’s becoming clear that we’re living in a society where boundaries and standards are changing, but there is also a growing culture of ‘calling out’ think-pieces by writers who are as concerned (if not more so) about their media influence and publishing opportunities as they are about the issues that they tackle.

When a ethnic minority actor loses work to a slightly more idiosyncratic caucasian counterpart, or when a company appropriates a cultural symbol from a specific culture, then we can call it what it is – appropriation or exploitation, and theft. To apply this to the common currency of experience, appears facile; to apply it to the act of communication and a world of enormous economic divides (and digital ones – the media that gives us all a voice) is a scandal, when simply having access to a computer and modem is in itself the ultimate privilege.

Yet to apply this to the writer, with the skills and craft of an experienced fiction writer, seems trite. The writer’s job is, after all, to imagine worlds that are unbeknown to he or she, to imagine experiences and research them to the point where they become real, legitimate and authentic. That a white, middle-aged male author (or example) can manage to plausibly write a tale of a Nigeria girl – Shriver’s example – should be celebrated for its craft and attention to detail. That such a person of social ‘privilege’ should have done so, does not deny a voice and there is no evidence to make such claims.

The artist, writer and creator operates in an imaginary space and brings other worlds to life. If we inhibit that, then the bookshelves – digital or physical – will be filled with drab autobiographies by writers too afraid to write what their curiosity urges them to do, for feel of impinging on someone else’s experience.

The call-out culture of social media has become a worrying symptom of continuous information flow. It’s a symptom of people ‘filling in the gaps’ when there seems to be little else to say i.e. boredom and finding fault with something that is completely irrelevant. It’s also the psuedo-intellectualisation of discourse – where kudos is traded on name dropping bell hooks and calling out those who do not tow the party line.  No wonder the right-wing are growing ever more extreme.

Worryingly of all, this is coming from those who claim to be politically progressive. Along with the ‘no platforming‘ strategy of denying dissonant opinions a right to air their views, the left is taking a worrying path: one that demands absolute orthodoxy in thought and language, one in which not only calls out but also labels and exiles those who do not comply with its puritanical ideals.

In a society where public spaces, public services and even public funds have been commandeered by private interests we need more than ever channels where ideas and thoughts can be expressed freely. Of course there is a limit to what can and should be given a platform, but we’re developing a very weak stomach for those we disagree with; a society where its constituents and sub-cultures live within its own echo chambers is not only bleak but dangerous too.  For all the need and talk of safe spaces – we have precious few where rational ideas can still be debated, rationally.



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