A new thing called cultural appropriation is suddenly in the news lately. Just yesterday, designer Marc Jacobs was in the news because the Social Justice Warriors were appalled that his runway models — mostly white — wore fake, multi-colored dreadlocks. (SJW’s have a real problem with white people wearing dreads.) That they said, speaking in English, which is probably not a “heritage tongue” for many of them, was impermissible cultural appropriation. To his credit, Jacobs had a great bitchy comeback and refused to apologize. Jacobs is not the only cultural icon pushing back against the totalitarian impulse behind the SJW’s attacks on so-called “cultural appropriation.”
Lionel Shriver, a well-known American novelist, got invited to give the keynote speech at the Brisbane [Australia] Writer’s Festival. Her speech was entitled “Fiction and Identity Politics.” However, she had a surprise for an audience expecting her to tell them that the only person who can write about American Blacks is an American Black, the only person who can write about gay men is a gay man, etc. Instead, she launched a polite and comprehensive attack against the stifling effect on fiction when an author stands accused of cultural appropriation. For those of us who value free speech, and who fear the totalitarian instincts behind the social justice warrior’s attacks on free speech through the vehicle of identity politics, it was a call to arms:
I hate to disappoint you folks, but unless we stretch the topic to breaking point this address will not be about “community and belonging.” In fact, you have to hand it to this festival’s organisers: inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about “community and belonging” is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose.
The topic I had submitted instead was “fiction and identity politics,” which may sound on its face equally dreary.
But I’m afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around “identity politics” has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing. Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.
A good start to a speech, right? It got better from there. Shriver’s factual starting point was an incident at Bowdoin College, a small, prestigious liberal arts college way up in Maine (annual tuition around $45,000). Bowdoin’s grammatically creative “purpose” statement promises that it offers incoming students an “intellectual challenge and personal growth in the context of an active and engaged learning community closely linked to the social and natural worlds”:
A liberal education cultivates the mind and the imagination; encourages seeking after truth, meaning, and beauty; awakens an appreciation of past traditions and present challenges; fosters joy in learning and sharing that learning with others; supports taking the intellectual risks required to explore the unknown, test new ideas and enter into constructive debate; and builds the foundation for making principled judgments. It hones the capacity for critical and open intellectual inquiry – the interest in asking questions, challenging assumptions, seeking answers, and reaching conclusions supported by logic and evidence. A liberal education rests fundamentally on the free exchange of ideas – on conversation and questioning – that thrives in classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories, studios, dining halls, playing fields, and dormitory rooms.Ultimately, a liberal education promotes independent thinking, individual action,and social responsibility. (Emphasis mine.)
Think of this self-praise when you think of the incident Shriver talks about: Two well-respected Bowdoin students threw a tequila party for a friend and, in keeping with the theme, gave guests little miniature sombreros:
Shriver describes the subsequent outcry:
When photos of the party circulated on social media, campus-wide outrage ensued. Administrators sent multiple emails to the “culprits” threatening an investigation into an “act of ethnic stereotyping.” Partygoers were placed on “social probation,” while the two hosts were ejected from their dorm and later impeached. Bowdoin’s student newspaper decried the attendees’ lack of “basic empathy.”
The student government issued a “statement of solidarity” with “all the students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and demanded that administrators “create a safe space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.” The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that “creates an environment where students of colour, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” In sum, the party-favour hats constituted – wait for it – “cultural appropriation.”
With the “Bowdoin miniature sombrero scandal” as her starting point, Shriver challenges the mindset that allows only people who can legitimately lay claim to a culture the right to use that culture whether in clothes, recreation, fitness or, in Shriver’s case, writing fiction. To Shriver, the sombrero story is a perfect symbol of new rules insisting that authors, whose entire being is dedicated to imagining other peoples and even other worlds, are no longer allowed to try on other people’s 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 under-privilege 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.
Yet were their authors honouring the new rules against helping yourself to what doesn’t belong to you, we would not have Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. We wouldn’t have most of Graham Greene’s novels, many of which are set in what for the author were foreign countries, and which therefore have Real Foreigners in them, who speak and act like foreigners, too.
Taken to its extreme, the anti-cultural appropriation standard would make fiction books boringly one-dimensional. If a gay man writes a book, he can only people it with gay men — and the characters had better have the same race or religion as the author. Likewise, a Chinese-American author would be barred from writing any non-Chinese-American characters. (Of course, you and I know full well that the gay or Chinese author would naturally be able to include white, heterosexual men in the book provided that they were properly shown to be brutal, greedy, and generally bestial. Double standards, you know. If the Left didn’t have them, it wouldn’t have any standards at all.)
Shriver’s transcribed speech is long, so I won’t summarize it all here. I’ll just say that you should definitely read it because it is furniture for the mind of every informed person committed to free speech and free thinking.
Instead, I’d like to turn to a rebuttal to Shriver’s speech. (To its credit, the Leftist Guardian printed Shriver’s speech, as well as the rebuttal.) The rebuttal was written by a young woman named Yassmin Abdel-Magied. I cannot be 100% certain, but I believe that this Wikipedia article is describing the same woman — it is, after all, a fairly unique name:
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an Australian mechanical engineer, activist and founder of Youth Without Borders. Abdel-Magied gave a Tedx Talk that has been viewed upwards of 1.5 million times. In 2016 she released a memoir, Yassmin’s Story – Who do you think I am?, in which she describes growing up migrant and Muslim in Australia.
After attending the Islamic College of Brisbane for primary school, Abdel-Magied moved to John Paul College (Brisbane) for secondary school in 2003. In her memoir, Abdel-Magied stated that her father chose John Paul College “following the principal’s positive response to my request to wear the hijab. Unlike other schools, which took weeks to send lukewarm responses to the idea of altering the uniform to fit my requirements, JPC quickly got back to say they were happy for me to wear a hijab as long as it was in school colours”. In her final year, she was elected as Senior School Vice Captain and graduated first in her class.
Abdel-Magied obtained her Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) from the University of Queensland in 2011, receiving First Class Honours.
Abdel-Magied was born in Khartoum in 1991. Abdel-Magied’s mother is an architect with part Egyptian, part Sudanese heritage. Her father is an engineer of Egyptian descent.
Abdel-Magied is a muslim and wears hijab.
To say that I was stunned by her rebuttal is an understatement. Although she meant to be purposeful and impassioned, I viewed it by turns as something funny, ill-informed, insular, hyper-defensive, and overall extremely sad — sad, because it allows us into the mind of a young woman who defines herself as a victim and sees the world solely through that preemptively self-defeating lens.
Indeed, for once I was so stunned that I didn’t quite know how to address the rebuttal in a blog post. Merely fisking it would fail to convey the underlying breathlessness, pain, anger, paranoia, and extreme self-centeredness underlying it. So I did something I’ve never done before. I recorded a dramatic reading, complete with my own comments along the way.
You can read the rebuttal here, or you can give my dramatic reading a try. If my voice is irritating, tell me and I’ll never do something like this again.
I have a suggestion now. Once you’ve finished reading or listening to Abdel-Magied’s cri de coeur of wounded feelings, take a few minutes to read a Bloomberg piece on Milo Yiannapoulos, the face of the Alt-Right movement. I’m still coming to terms with both Milo and the movement. Two writers I greatly respect — David French and Ben Shapiro — have been on the receiving end of truly vile racist and antisemitic attacks from people identifying as Alt-Right. Clearly, it’s a big tent that provides space for people with really disgusting, hate-filled ideas.
But I’ve also come away with the very strong feeling that the Alt-Right movement is the inevitable response to the stifling orthodoxies of the hard Left. These Alt-Righters are the leading edge.
Unlike middle-aged people (that would be me) who have only recently been aware of and subject to the craziness emanating from America’s educational institutions, these young people — mostly men — have been marinated in schools that hate them for being male, for being straight, and for being white (or for failing to conform to the proper racial parameters that the Left demands from all non-whites). They’ve responded with a giant “F**k you!” to everything. There are no sacred cows for these young men. They are blowing it all apart (which is why they like Trump, who promises to blow apart the stifling, race-labeling, sclerotic, increasingly fascist political milieu in Washington, D.C.).
So, while I know there are bad elements in the Alt-Right movement, my current line of thinking is that the truly rotten people are a minority. The majority are young men, and some women, who have had it up to here and beyond with the strictures, lecturing, insults, and censorship coming from the Yassmin Abdel-Magieds of the world. If they’re going to act out, I’m glad they’re doing it on Twitter and not physically rioting. It’s enough that the Black Lives Movement has done that. It really would be civil war if the Alt-Right and the BLM crowds were competing for riot space on America’s streets.
If you’re a fan of thoughtful blog posts analyzing current issues — politics, national security, education, media, etc. — you should bookmark WOW! Magazine. Members of the long-standing Watcher’s Council and their friends are posting there a steady diet of just what you’re looking for.
UPDATE: I am very sorry to report that Marc Jacobs, who did nothing wrong, nevertheless backed down and apologized. He has lost my respect and set yet another horrible precedent of someone giving way to the vicious and totalitarian Social Justice Warriors.