Lionel Shriver defends “literary appropriation” and calls out the Repressive Left

Not long ago Yasmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese/Australian/Muslim writer, described in the Guardian how offended she became when author Lionel Shriver, speaking at the Brisbane Writers Festival, defended the right of authors to write fiction about “marginalized” characters (i.e., people of color and others seen as oppressed). Abdel-Magied, who came off as someone unable to tolerate even the mildest contradictions of her views, stalked out of Shriver’s talk in tears, virtually accusing the speaker of perpetuating racism by appropriating other cultures in her writing.

Not long after, Shriver published her full talk online, also in the Guardian,  and it turned out to be passionate, eloquent, and thoughtful, but not at all offensive—except to the overly tender ears of someone like Abdel-Magied. Read it for yourself. But I had no idea that, as Shriver describes in a new New York Times piece, “Will the Left survive the Millennials?“, that the ostracism of Shriver extended farther than the kvetching of Abdel-Magied. It did.

As Shriver describes:

The festival immediately disavowed the address, though the organizers had approved the thrust of the talk in advance. A “Right of Reply” session was hastily organized. When, days later, The Guardian ran the speech, social media went ballistic. Mainstream articles followed suit. I plan on printing out The New Republic’s “Lionel Shriver Shouldn’t Write About Minorities” and taping it above my desk as a chiding reminder.

Viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the identity-politics movement — in which behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs is par for the course — is an assertion of generational power. Among milliennials and those coming of age behind them, the race is on to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved — who can replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand.

When you read Shriver’s address, I suspect, you’ll be horrified that the festival disavowed it—and after having approved the topic in advance! And have a look at the New Republic column by Lovia Gyarkye, which basically says that cultural appropriation is okay, but only a minority group does it (“A Mexican in a Tyrolean hat is not the same as a group of college kids partying in sombreros.”)

But Shriver’s point is one we take up frequently here: the Left is under assault by college kids, many of whom adhere to “purity standards” so absurd that that parts of the Left are consuming other parts. I needn’t point out the sad saga of Peter Tatchell, or the way some feminists ignore the deep misogyny of Islam because many Muslims are brown. And now Shriver is in the center of the hurricane:

Viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the identity-politics movement — in which behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs is par for the course — is an assertion of generational power. Among milliennials and those coming of age behind them, the race is on to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved — who can replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand.

When I was growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s, conservatives were the enforcers of conformity. It was the right that was suspicious, sniffing out Communists and scrutinizing public figures for signs of sedition.

Now the role of oppressor has passed to the left. In Australia, where I spoke, Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to do or say anything likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate,” providing alarming latitude in the restriction of free speech. It is Australia’s conservatives arguing for the amendment of this law.

As a lifelong Democratic voter, I’m dismayed by the radical left’s ever-growing list of dos and don’ts — by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. There are many people who see these frenzies about cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and safe spaces as overtly crazy. The shrill tyranny of the left helps to push them toward Donald Trump. [JAC: or toward Milo Yiannopoulos.]

I used to question that last sentence—that the Regressive Left was pushing people toward the right. But now that I’ve heard so many Trumpheads mention “political correctness,” and seen the Left refuse to have an honest conversation about Islam, I’m not so sure Shriver is wrong. And yes, classical liberalism—the brand that defends minority rights and free speech at the same time, the people who promoted the Free Speech movement at Berekeley—is endangered by the antics of people like Abdel-Magied, who can’t even bear to hear her opinions contradicted.

Just like it’s salutary for nonbelievers to declare publicly that they’re atheists, so as to give courage to nonbelievers in the closet, so should we, as did Shriver, call out the bullying tactics of the Regressive Left, which might now be renamed The Repressive Left. Nick Cohen has been warning us about this for years, but few read him in the U.S. Perhaps they’ll read Shriver in the New York Times, whose peroration is this:

In an era of weaponized sensitivity, participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught out for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity, that many are apt to bow out. Perhaps intimidating their elders into silence is the intention of the identity-politics cabal — and maybe my generation should retreat to our living rooms and let the young people tear one another apart over who seemed to imply that Asians are good at math.

But do we really want every intellectual conversation to be scrupulously cleansed of any whiff of controversy? Will people, so worried about inadvertently giving offense, avoid those with different backgrounds altogether? Is that the kind of fiction we want — in which the novels of white writers all depict John Cheever’s homogeneous Connecticut suburbs of the 1950s, while the real world outside their covers becomes ever more diverse

. . . Protecting freedom of speech involves protecting the voices of people with whom you may violently disagree. In my youth, liberals would defend the right of neo-Nazis to march down Main Street. I cannot imagine anyone on the left making that case today.

Maybe Shriver will become the American Nick Cohen. Ceiling Cat knows we need one!


Lionel Shriver, wearing a fine pair of red cowboy boots


  1. Ann German
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    This is why I’m a member of the ACLU.

    • Ann German
      Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

      That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. And the ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.

      • Ann German
        Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        sorry – that previous post is a quote from the ACLU site and I didn’t give the attribution

      • GBJames
        Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink


    • ploubere
      Posted September 23, 2016 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      same here.

  2. GBJames
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink


  3. Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I spotted the boots even before I read the text below the photo. There is definitely something about this type of footwear!

    • Posted September 23, 2016 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      But I wonder, are they still cow*boy* boots when worn by a woman? Would cowgirl be offensive to an adult woman? Cowwoman won’t do. Neither would cowman. Is cowboy derogatory if the subject is African-American? So confusing. Is it cultural appropriation for a New Yorker to wear them? What if I wear them as part of a “gaucho” costume on Halloween? What if I wear them as part of a Jerry Coyne costume on Halloween?

      Also, off topic somewhat, as a white person am I allowed to eat yellow rice, or only white rice?

      • loren russell
        Posted September 23, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

        More to the point, cowboy boots, like just about all the traditional appurtenances of ranch life from lasso to barbecue, originated in Hispanic culture.

        The boots [and sombreros] remain popular in local Hispanic culture, and I’ve seen some nice-looking boot stores [one possibly doing custom boots] with primarily Spanish signage in nearby towns.

      • ploubere
        Posted September 23, 2016 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

        Good questions, that only have bad answers.

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    When I was young, conservatives used to say freedom of speech, expression etc was dangerous. Now it’s the young who are saying it to those of us who helped get society to a place where every person is valued. However, they’re picking and choosing who deserves to be valued in the same way conservatives used to – they just have different criteria.

    Now the extremists of the left and right have more in common when it comes to attitude than the majority in the centre.

    The rise of authoritarianism isn’t just a problem with Trump supporters.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Not that all Trump supporters are bad – plenty recognize and think they can control his worst impulses. There are many otherwise moderate Republicans who believe this.

      • GBJames
        Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Those Republicans are delusional.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          I completely agree, though I understand why they would tell themselves that.

          They want Republican picks on the Supreme Court so they can force the values of their conservative religious views on the rest of the population.

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    It’s definitely easy for a Euro-white writer to gum it up writing about other cultures.

    A good example is the very well-intentioned musical “Flower Drum Song” by Rodgers and Hammerstein which is trying to be friendly to San Francisco’s Chinese community, but just doesn’t cut it.

    But the character of Zorro is the invention of a European writer which has become hugely popular in the Hispanic community (unlike the ill-fated detective Charlie Chan- very popular in China but NOT with Chinese Americans), so it’s not really impossible.

    JAC has mentioned William Styron’s “Confessions of Nat Turner” as another effort which actually works.


    In junior high school, I was cast in a play (for a class project not public performance) as a Native American. We were allowed to develop our own costumes. Since my father is quite expert on Native Americans, he helped me a lot with developing an authentic costume. The other two kids playing Indians bought Halloween-shop style costumes. I got highly commended for the authenticity of mine.
    Would I be so commended today?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Anything requiring non-Native Americans to dress as such wouldn’t happen in the first place.

    • Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Isabel Allende, the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author, wrote a Zorro novel.

      It’s a lot of fun.

  6. chewy
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I have the answer: only autobiographical works — fiction and/or nonfiction — will be permissible in the Coming Safe Spaces Age.

    Though I’m sure somehow this will microally abuse someone/thing.

    • Christopher
      Posted September 23, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Good grief. What a horrifying point you make.

      My parents grew up in the Space Age. My son is growing up in the Safe Space Age. And I will bet my life that my grandchildren, if I have any, won’t get anything out it that will be even close to useful as Tang or that weird freeze-dried ice cream.

      I grew up in the age of freedom, with the Berlin Wall coming down, Eastern Europe opening up, and the end of the Cold War. Now the liberal left in the West has decided to build up a new wall, start a new Cold War, but one within itself, walling its mind off from rational thought and machine-gunning all who dare to sneak a thought across the boarder back into the rational world.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    The repressive left it is. And they are in danger of being tossed into the same narrow minded and perverted reasoning as the wacky right wing. Their ideas and actions are just as fried and void of freedom and liberty as the religious zealots on the extreme right.

    Thank you Lionel Shriver for the wake up call.

    • Lurker111
      Posted September 23, 2016 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

      Yup, on the right we have the Basket of Deplorables, on the left the Basket of Offendables.

      I write fiction, and if I had to write every story from the perspective of a grumpy, aged white male, I think I’d bore myself to death.

  8. eric
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Ms. Gyorkye’s counter-article in TNR ends with this:

    What Shriver seems to miss about cultural appropriation is its inextricable link to power. This example proves the necessity of cultural appropriation studies in the first place. A Mexican in a Tyrolean hat is not the same as a group of college kids partying in sombreros. Cultural appropriation is when the wearing of a hat makes one group the butt of jokes and another “cultured.”

    Here’s the flaw in your approach, Ms. Gyorkye: when the complainant gets to decide what a ‘butt of a joke’ and ‘makes you [seem] cultured’ is, then your whole idea of appropriation collapses into nothing more than a heckler’s veto on speech and expression.

    Ms. Schriver got it exactly right when she said “people who would hamper free speech always assume that they’re designing a world in which only their enemies will have to shut up.” People like Ms. Gyorkye think only liberals will ever be allowed to wield the victim card. But University administrations aren’t going to see it that way. Government isn’t going to see it that way. The courts aren’t going to see it that way. The majority of Americans don’t even see it that way. If ever the left gets to institute this sort of “victims allowed a heckler’s veto over speech,” concept formally, I expect that we’ll only be about a month or two away from being back in the pre-civil rights era. After all, it took South Carolina, what, one day to repeal all the voting rights measures after SCOTUS ruled the fed couldn’t oversee them again? One day. You don’t want to link cultural appropriation to a victim considering themselves the butt of a joke, Ms. Gyorkye. Because if you do, every confederate-flag-wearing Klansmen in the US will suddenly tell you that you aren’t allowed to talk about them, because your speech makes them the butt of a joke while it makes you look cultured.

  9. Walt Jones
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised that she hasn’t been accused of gender appropriation of her name.

    Seriously, being exposed to ideas that I don’t agree with helps me recognize why I don’t agree – and sometimes I realize that my reasons aren’t well founded (which is how I became an atheist). I even give constervative talk radio a chance – up to a limit of three lies, sexist/racist comments, or logical fallacies (so I never listen long).

    • Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Nope, that would be “punching up”.

      You know that it’s not possible for women to be sexist towards men, right? /sarcasm

      • Walt Jones
        Posted September 23, 2016 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        Tell that to my wife!

  10. Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a recent Australian audio interview with Shriver on free speech, identity politics, gender, Trump and her new dystopian novel, The Mandibles:

    Definitely worth a listen.

    I must admit she has slipped under my radar until recently. I’ve never even read We Have to Talk About Kevin. I’ll have to rectify that.

    • eric
      Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      Well if she likes writing dystopian novels, I suspect she already has enough material for her next one.

  11. Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised no one (that I noticed) has said this yet: Nice boots!

    • Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      I see now that I missed mayamarkov’s comment on the boots!

  12. Historian
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    All liberals are on the left, but not all on the left are liberals. We who are on the left and proud to call ourselves liberals are also ardent defenders of free speech and must make this distinction loud, clear, and often. Unfortunately, those on the non-liberal left, including craven college administrators, who think that silencing free speech is a way to help the “oppressed” and perhaps keep campus peace simply lack an understanding of history. The so-called regressive left has done a magnificent job of alienating the general public. If the ruling elite, let us say under the leadership of a President Trump, decides to crack down on the regressives, the latter will be crushed like a giant stepping on an ant as the public will stand aside. Alas, the regressives do not have an inkling of this.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    … whew, excuse me … I’m back; that New Republic piece you linked to works wonders as an emetic.

    That was, OTOH, a excellent piece by Ms. Shriver on the NYT opinion page. Good for her for offering an apologia instead of an apology. Makes me want to read some of her fiction.

  14. Merilee
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink


  15. Adrian
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I feel like a broken record always bringing up the same point, so I apologize in advance.

    Just like most people who like to call out the Regressive/Repressive/Authoritarian Left, Shriver completely conflates the left with what could best be described as radical liberals. The left does not play identity politics, it is radical liberals who do so. Here’s a quick explainer on the difference:

    One does not become a radical leftist by becoming more and more liberal, which seems to be Shriver’s belief. There is a fundamental difference:

    Leftists don’t obsess over cultural appropriation, microaggressions, and identity-based politics, SJW liberals do.

    I find it a bit ironic when the Alt-Right is given the courtesy of being treated with nuance and respect; people happily point out their differences with libertarians, conservatives, etc. on the right (as one should), but even the most obvious differences between factions on the left are very lazily ignored. Damn the Cold War, intellectually honest people have no reason to red-bait, one can win a debate without resorting to smears.

    I don’t think we can fix this very real problem if we can’t even identify it correctly. Your prescription on how to fix it may differ, but this misunderstanding no one seems to address is why I harp on about it so much.

    • Posted September 24, 2016 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      Yes, you say this over and over again, but people’s definitions of “leftism” and “radical liberalism” differ, so you’re not going to convince everyone by citing two people’s opinions. Well, you’ve had your say, so can you let this be and move on to other topics?

      • Adrian
        Posted September 24, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

        You’re right, Dr. Coyne. I should’ve shared this with you earlier in case you were by U of C today and interested:

        Maybe that would’ve helped my case. It was a great discussion on left vs liberal feminism and an explainer on why identity politics is not good. My mistake for being late with this, but the evidence is all around. Moving on.

    • Posted September 30, 2016 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      There still hardly exist scholary work. SJWs are commonly seen as leftists. I dislike it as much as everyone else who is both left and against them. Yet we are at risk of “othering” them, just as SJWs always “other” leftists that reject their particular beliefs.

      In my opinion, social justice warriors are not really left and are also not liberal, nor are they right wing. They have become a New Third Way, alongside fascism, that mixes ideas from both extreme ends. Their origins are in postmodernism, cited often as a left wing framework, but that can be disputed, as well (and was disputed by Sokal and Bricmomt).

      In practice and on this subject, they are antiracists, yet reject “colorblindness”. Even though they argue that races aren’t a thing, they acknowledge racist beliefs. Then they push it over the cliff, and say such racist categories create a culturally construct reality and then — rather than undermining them — want them reclaimed, and such minority experiences “legitimized”. In that fashion, and quite paradoxically, or perhaps dialectically, races become a thing.

      They then confer a identity to its members who then become like a victimized tribe in an urban jungle fighting against cis-het white male colonial oppressors who come to exploit and steal.

  16. somer
    Posted September 24, 2016 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Im not sure Im worried about 18C in Racial Discrimination Act (Australia) – as long as its understood not to be about criticism but about desire to belittle and humiliate and subordinate a race or ethnicity in an overt way. As far as Im aware its only been used in clearly racial offences and we do have a problem with Aboriginal people in particular being publicly insulted often in group settings for maximum effect. Occasionally a muslim woman will have her hijab pulled. And there is a section qualifying how it can be used – i.e. criticism or serious public discussion is exempted

  17. Will G
    Posted September 24, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    One thing that struck me about Shriver’s speech was how similar to (though obviously not stolen from) a speech Turkish writer Elif Shafak gave six years ago, The Politics Of Fiction:

    I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story. And this is a subject that I would love to think about together. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

    We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues. What I experienced as a child in that school in Madrid is happening in the literary world today. Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

    It may seem snarky, and we’ll be accused of being insincere, but as bad as identity politics is for white people, it’s still worse for everyone else. We may crush and maim the delicate cultural traditions of others by merely writing about them, but at least we have power and agency. In the eyes of her “woke” critics, Shafak will be nothing more than an avatar of her tribe.

  18. Posted October 1, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    If you can’t write about Blacks/Amerindians/Italian-Americans/etc without being one, how money great books would have to be taken off library shelves. You might start with one of my favorites, James Joyce’s Ulysses. But there are many more, including works by Dickens (who was not poor, at least not that poor).

    • GBJames
      Posted October 1, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      And the story of illiteracy would never be told!

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