Lately I’ve been trying to figure out what people mean when they talk about “cultural appropriation.” The term bounces into the news now and then, when someone is accused of committing it—or of suggesting that it’s not actually a crime one can “commit” in the first place.
The manifestation (these things manifest, like ghosts) that got me prodding at the idea again was the furious reaction to a keynote speech by the novelist Lionel Shriver at a writers’ festival in Brisbane, Australia, in September. She described her talk this way in a New York Times op-ed piece a couple of weeks later: “Briefly, my address maintained that fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction—thus should not let concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own. I defended fiction as a vital vehicle for empathy. If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir.”
Shriver’s talk wasn’t flawless or beyond criticism. Its tone was pugnacious and mocking, so it’s little wonder that it elicited a pugnacious response. She challenged some sacred cows, so the sacred cows stampeded at her. We know how that goes: it’s the political theater de nos jours. It’s nearly the whole of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and the result is as edifying as one would expect. In a way, I wish Shriver had taken a more sober, carefully argued approach so that the reflexive anger of her critics could be separated out from the substantive disagreement. I’d like to know what people who take cultural appropriation seriously would have said to a serious challenge.
But it was a writers’ festival, and Shriver is a fiction writer—her talk was a dramatic monologue rather than a forensic argument. It was a fierce defense of fiction as the thief of all experience, written in a distinctive voice as opposed to the blandly impersonal voice of the polite academic. Trying on voices is what fiction writers do, and I suspect Shriver exaggerated the “I” of her talk as a way of practicing the very art of fiction she was defending.
What I would like to learn from Shriver’s critics is how cultural appropriation differs from what we call “education.” I would like to know what is actually wrong with trying to learn about cultures other than one’s own and enriching one’s culture with borrowings from others. Naturally, that learning can be done badly, and the borrowing can be superficial and inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean the attempt should be forbidden.
One of the slogans used by The Perfected to enforce the ban on cultural appropriation is “stay in your lane,” which I think is one of the ugliest and least progressive sayings the contemporary Left has come up with. Staying in your own lane can be essential on the freeway but not in life. Staying in your lane is the essence of selfishness, of greedy hoarding, of narrow insular indifference to everything but Self. What a vision of social justice—a world of hostile walled-off cultures refusing to interact with each other. The Left should be about generosity and sharing. Staying in your lane is for reactionaries. It’s for bishops and mullahs and the builders of walls.
On the other hand, there is the question of power, and it’s never safe to leave that out. People with power have more opportunities to use (or exploit) exotic cultures than powerless people do. Hollywood can make expensive movies set in India or South Africa that then shape what many people think they know about India or South Africa. The shiny, pricey Hollywood version displaces the actual one for most people, and “appropriation” may be the right word for that. Then again, most people are never going to know the real version. Would we prefer them to know nothing about it rather than a prettied-up and not-very-accurate approximation? I’m not sure.
I wish that the movie Gone With the Wind had never been made and the novel had never been written, because I wish that inaccurate and maudlin version of the Reconstruction Era South had never been entrenched in the popular imagination. But the problem there wasn’t a matter of not staying in one’s cultural lane; it was one of staying in it all too well. Hollywood took the “culture” of the post–Civil War white South at face value and ignored the black “culture” altogether. The U.S. movie industry seems unlikely to make quite that mistake again—unless the culture of Trumpism eats everyone’s brain—but that industry and all rich and powerful entertainment and culture industries can make related mistakes.
The way to address that problem, however, is by saying “Do it better,” not “Don’t do it at all.” Collaborate with the locals versus stay in your lane. Do your research versus shut up. Learn more versus stay ignorant. Pay better attention versus look away.
Some of the impulse to seal off cultures from contamination comes from love of what exists and reluctance to see it change. Cultures can change very fast, and often for the worse. I wince to see American fast-food chains all over European cities, and I would banish them all in a heartbeat if I could. Disney’s Cinderella and Snow White displaced much more complex and interesting characters for many children, and that bothered me even when I was a child. We should do what we can to keep cuisines and fairy tales and other culture independent of corporate homogenization, but at the same time, we should share and embrace each other’s cultures as much as we can. The impulse to purify is ultimately a fascist one, and we should choose generous mixing and mingling instead. Nobody’s pure; we’re all mongrels. Let’s make the most of it.
Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (2004), Why Truth Matters (2006), and Does God Hate Women? (2009).