All Power Rests In Belief

The American author Lionel Shriver recently gave a keynote speech at a writers festival in Brisbane, Australia. Rather than give the talk she had advertised, she decided to say a few words about the victimological specialty known as “cultural appropriation”. She denounced and anathematized it root and branch, and said, very clearly and correctly, that it would be the death of literature. This provoked a storm of outrage and abuse.

Best of all, by the way, Ms. Shriver delivered her remarks wearing a sombrero. (I think I ‘m in love.)

You can read about the event here. (See also this related item.)

The transcript of Ms. Shriver’s talk is here. An excerpt:

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?

How indeed? But even if it were possible, the very idea that culture is somehow property, and that anyone alive needs anyone else’s permission to write or eat or think or say or wear whatever the hell he likes, should be beneath the contempt of serious adults.

We must remember always that those who seek to silence and control us have only the power that we choose to give them. In this case, even to say “who the HELL do you think you are??” — a perfectly fair question, under the circumstances — is to pay too much attention; the very idea of “cultural appropriation” is one that should simply be ignored.

“The dog barks, the caravan passes.” The choice is entirely ours.

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  1. Oy … just shoot me now.

    Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Whitewall says

    “cultural appropriation” could be endless if allowed to run its course. Division after division leading to walls and fences between citizens. Seems to be the goal.

    Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Jacques says

    It’s interesting that the halfwit who came up with this definition of ‘cultural appropriation’ makes no limitation on its scope. Under this definition, Asians who play classical music are appropriators. And I guess Robert Johnson was also an appropriator, since the guitar wasn’t invented by Africans or Afro-Americans. Likewise all the black jazz greats were appropriating European horns and harmonic theories and ‘standards’, etc. Well, unless they got ‘permission’. Of course there’s an implicit scope restriction: ‘appropriation’ is bad if and only if the person doing it is European and the culture undergoing it is not. (Same restriction as for rape, assault, murder, terrorism, etc.)

    Posted September 20, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Nice to see you again, Jacques.

    The response to the Robert Johnson objection would be — you guessed it — racism! This was the response given to Marc Jacobs when he suggested that black women who straighten their hair do so only because a racist culture has imposed white norms of beauty upon them. (The pitiable Beyoncé, who of course is nothing more than a pawn in the white man’s game, poor and helpless and bereft of individual agency, would qualify as a good example of this, I suppose.)

    Likewise, what choice had Robert Johnson? I very much doubt that his local music store had a kora or bunchundo for sale, and so he had to abase himself and his people by taking up the guitar.

    Posted September 20, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Whitewall says

    As a native North Carolinian, I watched a Japanese person play Blue Grass music right near my home. I also watched black people play the same music. And THEN…black people AND white people played the same music at the same time! What’s next, someone “appropriates” a Hurdy Gurdy?

    Posted September 20, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  6. epicaric says

    The notion of Cultural Appropriation has always been essentiality about the exercise of seemingly adolescent power. There is some irony that its continued and growing currency is a product of the this same power. As they say, never appease a tyrant; you will only make him stronger.

    Posted September 20, 2016 at 11:17 pm | Permalink