We need to talk about cultural appropriation: Why I agree with Lionel Shriver

I agree with Lionel Shriver.

On 8 September, in a keynote speech titled Fiction and Identity Politics at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the celebrated author Lionel Shriver did what few in her profession have shamefully shied away from. She put front and centre the disease of cultural appropriation.

Lionel Shriver has put the debate on 'cultural appropriation' front and centre with her recent speech. Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Lionel Shriver has put the debate on 'cultural appropriation' front and centre with her recent speech. Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

I call it a disease because of the ridiculousness of the movement (and term), especially on college and university campuses in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Shriver cited the example of a tequila-themed party in a college in America and the accusations of cultural appropriation that the said party organisers and goers had to defend against.

Whether or not the people involved were actually appropriating the culture of a different country or ethnicity was immaterial. In the court of public opinion, the easily offended and humourless convict you of thought crimes. One becomes guilty of what the accuser is projecting onto the act and/or situation. And before you even realise it, you're backpedaling, trying to defend yourself against accusations of racism, sexism, bigotry, cultural appropriation, political incorrectness.

The worst of human behaviour is projected on the most mindless of acts.

Then, there are those magic words, of course.

Unsafe. Triggered. Racist. Homophobic. Sexist.

Where these terms used to be reserved for the most despicable because acts of bigotry, sexism, racism, homophobia, are horrible and should be condemned unconditionally, these terms and their cousins are bandied willy-nilly without as much as the slightest sense of irony.

Because, especially in the creative arts, and in fiction, when barriers such as these, barriers that don’t really mean anything, are erected, one quickly gets pushed into territories of authoritarianism and censorship. And I would not be off the mark if I were to make the blasphemous claim that no writer of any worth wants anything to do with it.

What’s the difference between the Ayatollah issuing a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing a novel, and Jenny from Chelsea who accuses Marko, a first-time novelist, of usurping the experiences of a Caribbean transgender who identifies as a Japanese businessman because Marko’s protagonist is Henry Powell, a 6’2 Caribbean transgender who walks around in immaculate business suits, and elongates his eye-liner to mimic slanted eyes and only answers when called Hirosito Mugami?

Now, for the record, the latter example does not exist. Or maybe it does. Maybe somewhere there’s a writer named Marko who’s writing a Caribbean-transgender-identifying-as-a-Japanese-businessman character as we speak.

I just made it up, and right there is the foundation on which all of fiction stands.

Right there is what Shriver was trying to convey.

So what exactly is cultural appropriation?

JK Rowling found herself in the midst of a cultural appropriation controversy when she borrowed from Native American folklore for her 'Magic in North America' series. AP/File photo

JK Rowling found herself in the midst of a cultural appropriation controversy when she borrowed from Native American folklore for her 'Magic in North America' series. AP/File photo

Do I, a cisgender, heterosexual male from a minority community in the Northeast of India appropriate Anglo-Saxon culture when I’m influenced by Hemingway, when there are snippets of Mark Twain in my writing?

What if I decide that my piece of fiction would be incomplete without a shy Kokanastha-Brahmin lawyer who has his first homosexual experience with a flashy sports-agent Sardar?

Should I stop rapping along to rap music because the black American-in-the-ghetto experience has nothing to do with mine?

In light of such ridiculousness, especially in the past couple of years, Shriver’s speech has been such an eye-opener because it takes on the issues of political correctness, cultural appropriation, and racism head on. Yes, racism exists. Yes, political correctness, in the correct environment can be a positive thing.

But you remove the power of these words and labels, when anything under the sun can be labeled politically incorrect, anyone with a different opinion of the other is called racist.

In her speech, Shriver spoke about Susan Scafidi, law professor at Fordham University and the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. Shriver stated that Scafidi 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.”

Shriver rejects this definition and I do, too. Fiction is difficult and it is a result of attempts to make sense of the world around us, the world as we see and understand. A world where dances, dresses, music, language, folklore, cuisine, medicine, religious symbols are all tangled up. Mixed up and diverse. Borrowed and adopted and adapted.

Because human civilization has always been about that, and no amount of this far-left, meaningless progressivism that we see seeping into all facets of art, music, politics, and literature, can ever change that.

Updated Date: Oct 02, 2016 09:01 AM

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