May 22, 2017

On the appropriateness of appropriation

A week and a half ago, the editor of Write, the magazine of The Writers' Union of Canada (TWUC), has stepped down after an article he wrote generated numerous complaints. In this article, Hal Niedzviecki argued that there is no such thing as "cultural appropriation."

This generated numerous complaints from other members of TWUC, which was formed to "promote the rights, freedoms, and economic well-being of all writers," leading to a statement from the union in which they apologized "unequivocally," affirmed that the magazine exists to "offer space for honest and challenging discussion," and having been so challenged by Niedsviecki's editorial, bravely threw him under the bus.

I am not a reader of Write nor a member of TWUC. It is clear I could not be, given how they ignore their own mandate in favour of the intellectual Zeitgeist of the day, not to mention their apparent lack of a spine.

Jezebel, the influential "intersectional feminist" blog, defines cultural appropriation thusly in their self-identified "Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation," quoting author Susan Scafidi: "Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission." In addition, "[i]t's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects." In other words, it's pretty much a one-way street. No one is ever concerned about visible minorities speaking English or wearing jeans. Like most of the sins social-justice warriors invent, cultural appropriation assuages their own white guilt.

The very idea of cultural appropriation as generally defined is problematic. First of all, the idea of having to get permission to write a story about a fictional character whose race or sex doesn't happen to coincide with my own is ridiculous. From where do I obtain this permission? Is there an Emperor of Black People or a Gay Pope who grants special dispensations to authors? If I want to write a novel about a Chinese woman in the Han Dynasty, can I ask a Chinese lady friend? Is it all right if she is a natural Canadian citizen, or should I seek permission from a recent immigrant instead? Or should I go right to the Chinese embassy? Are any of them authorized to speak for all Chinese people?

Of course not. No one "owns" culture. If an author wanted to get permission to adopt an element of someone else's culture, no one could give it. The culture of the aforementioned Chinese certainly belongs to them in a way that it doesn't belong to me. It's "their" culture, in the same sense that Ottawa is "my" city: something to identify with and be a part of. But no one has intellectual property rights over their culture. It's a social contract that probably goes back centuries, if not longer, and is effectively in the public domain. We still have an ethic obligation to treat other cultures with appropriate sensitivity and respect, but that's not the same as saying we mustn't borrow from it at all.

Meanwile, Anthony Horowitz, the British author of the juvenile Alex Rider spy series, was recently "warned off" from creating a black protagonist in one of his books because it would be "inappropriate" or "patronising." He quipped that "all my characters will from now be 62-year-old white Jewish men living in London." He has a point. Having to get permission to borrow from another culture limits authors to writing only about their own culture or experiences. At best, this would reduce minority characters to stock or one-dimensional characters, assuming they appear at all.

But there are people who watchdog media like books, movies, TV, and so forth, to make sure they are sufficiently diverse. One well-known example of this is the Bechdel Test, intended to address the sexual imbalance in fiction, and more recently a test for racial diversity was proposed and coined the DuVernay Test. It seems to me that an author who aimed to pass the DuVerynay Test would be vulnerable to accusations of cultural appropriation; conversely, if he sought to avoid appropriation, he would fail the diversity test. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. SJWism is nothing if not morally schizophrenic.

It's this schizophrenia that is the problem with the myth of cultural appropriation. It is borne out of radical identity politics. It sees not individuals, but bundles of labels, and based on those labels, imposes boundaries which may not be crossed: essentially, a Leftist caste system. It is racism in the name of anti-racism.