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: