The writer Lionel Shriver took aim at the concept of “cultural appropriation” in her keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival last week. An American novelist and journalist currently based in the United Kingdom, Shriver argued that the notion of cultural theft — of someone drawing inappropriately from a culture that is not her own — places absurd restrictions on fiction writers, whose very job is to imagine the worlds of others. Shriver’s argument is a glib one — but it follows a long wave of pushback against “political correctness.” That pushback, in turn, reflects the way conversations about disparities outpace actual progress on the disparities themselves.
Shriver’s argument is this: A mob has emerged, oversensitive to cultural appropriation, that requires artists and others to engage only with the cultures to which they belong. Under the tyranny of this thought-police, Shriver claims, white authors are forced to stick to white characters; non-Mexican college students are forced to eschew tequila and sombreros at their parties. The latter example comes from controversy surrounding a tequila-themed party held at Bowdoin College this May, prompting the impeachment — which was later rescinded — of two members of student government. Shriver latched onto this example in her speech, donning a sombrero for the occasion to drive home her point that cultural appropriation complaints have made much out of nothing — have extracted controversy from something as silly as a hat.
Shriver’s fixation on the sombrero is a shrewd way of distracting from her straw-man argument. Many people will sympathize with college students who caught hell for organizing a party around a popular and conventional kind of alcohol; many of those who do not sympathize can concede that banning parties is not, by itself, a solution to racial divisions on college campuses. It’s easy enough, then, for Shriver to come off as sincere in her complaint that political correctness has gotten out of hand.
Shriver has written the checkmate against her own case.
But by hitching her argument to what she wants to portray as a frivolous symbol, Shriver skirts any actual content in the debate: for starters, the fact that the students objecting to the tequila-and-sombreros event were not blindly taking a pitchfork to partygoers, but were reacting to a concrete problem at American universities, namely the underrepresentation of black and Latino students and the kind of environment those disparities create.
When it comes to the central question of her address, as Constance Grady noted for Vox, Shriver seems to be speaking from a personal wound rather than seriously considering the arguments. Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles, was criticized for a passage in which its primary black character, Luella, loses her mind to dementia and is placed on a leash. In the Brisbane address, Shriver defended her novel as a victim of the cultural-sensitivity police, insisting that Luella, as a character, exists to indict one of the white protagonists. In Shriver’s own words, her major character Douglas marries Luella to attach himself to “arm candy of color that would reflect well” in his politically progressive circle. In the end, Shriver goes on to say, “the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early-onset dementia, while his [white] ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research.”
In this defense, Shriver writes the checkmate against her own case. She has explicitly stated that the purpose of the book’s most prominent black character is not to be a real, rounded person, but merely to further the character development of the novel’s flawed white patriarch. Luella does not reflect what Shriver defines as the spirit of good fiction in her speech—a spirit of “exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion.” Rather, Luella is the rendering of a black woman dehumanized by illness to make a point — more precisely, to play a thematic joke — with respect to a powerful white male.
That kind of writing, as Shriver notes, has upset what she considers the cultural-sensitivity police. But this criticism of her novel does not, as Shriver would have us believe, come from an aggressively politically correct desire to scare all writers away from exploring beyond their own immediate experience; it comes, instead, from the expectation that if a writer takes on a perspective other than her own, she will treat that perspective as belonging to a complete person. If the writer fails to do that, it’s not policing when readers recognize the failure — it’s fair-game literary criticism.
Shriver has plenty of supporters who have already taken up arms against political correctness, leading to what Damon Linker identified in The Week as the first presidential campaign — Donald Trump’s — where objections to cultural oversensitivity have featured prominently. The resistance to political correctness reflects a resistance to identity politics as a whole. Conversations about the issues specific to cultural groups have become common enough for phrases like “cultural appropriation” and “microaggressions” to enter the mainstream. All the talk around these issues seems to have inspired fatigue among thinkers like Shriver—the sense that we are discussing these themes not only to exhaustion, but to the detriment of individual freedoms that should transcend cultural parameters.
The problem with this perspective, of course, is that seeing headlines every day about a social disparity does not make the disparity go away. Shriver’s speech ends up reading like an attempt to silence a conversation of which she has grown tired — without acknowledging that the talk is driven by underlying issues that limit other people’s lives, a reality of which they have grown tired.