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.)
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.