I keep saying that Nick Cohen is an Anglophonic treasure. In terms of his straightforwardness and adherence to classical rather than Regressive Leftism, he’s the closest thing we have to the late Christopher Hitchens. And everyone should read his two books You Can’t Read this Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom and What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way.
In his column at Standpoint this week, Cohen has finally written about the Cultural Appropriation Wars, using as his springboard the fracas involving Lionel Shriver, a white woman who gave a talk at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival defending a writer’s prerogative to write about the lives of marginalized and oppressed people—indeed, about anybody. In response, the black Australian Muslim writer Yassmin Abdel-Maglied, mortally offended at what was not that provocative a talk, stalked out of Shriver’s talk in tears, and wrote a petulant screed in the Guardian about the dangers of culturally appropriating minority characters. I was strongly on Shriver’s side (see here, here and here for my posts on the story).
And so I’m pleased that Cohen agrees with me, and on several issues, including the right to try such writing, even if it fails, and on the notion that no group is homogeneous, and that there’s no culturally approved way to write about marginalized characters except to make them flawless heroes. And that would be a disaster for fiction, since everyone’s flawed and flaws, in fact, are what makes good fiction.
Just two excerpts of Cohen’s piece to whet your appetite. In the first, he shows how you just can’t win when trying to placate the social justice warriors. (I used to use that term but then stopped because I thought it was offensive to people who really were concerned about social justice instead of just promulgating purity tests and flaunting their own virtue and purity; but now I think I may adopt it again):
Jonathan Franzen said recently that, because he had few black friends, he would not dream of creating a black character. Notions of identity politics and cultural purity lead to segregation. Yet when Franzen acknowledged it, the same type of social justice warrior who criticised Shriver criticised him. None quite demanded that he must create black characters, but, as one said, his reprehensible admission had weakened the fight for “diversity and inclusion” — as if the two were synonymous.
And that is how the Left eats its own, a theme of Cohen’s book What’s Left. And in the final bit of his article, Cohen makes an argument for the right of cultural appropriation that I see as unassailable (I’ve put the telling bit in bold):
Given the passion behind the assaults on cultural appropriation, can we expect the appearance of culturally sensitive novels and dramas whose frightened writers confine themselves to their tribal homelands or apply for visas if they wish to stray beyond its borders. It’s possible, but unlikely.
Shriver asked who a writer should go to for permission to publish her story of a trans woman or Nigerian man, when no one had the authority to issue permission on behalf of others. When I wrote about freedom of speech, for instance, an editor wanted “a Muslim scholar” to assure him that a passage about the life of Muhammad was not “offensive” (by which he meant “not likely to get my office bombed”). A liberal Muslim activist said it was fine. If an Islamist or Salafist had read the book, he would have said the opposite.
The great failing of identity politics and arguments against cultural appropriation is they assume identities and cultures are islands with warships patrolling their coasts. Cultures mix. None exists that is not a hybrid except possibly in the Amazon rainforest. Not everyone in an ethnicity shares the same identity, and it is a rank prejudice to treat them as if they do. Freedom of the individual is the freedom not to have your autonomy denied by collectives who claim to speak on your behalf. In other words, there is no legitimate cultural authority to stamp a writer’s passport. [JAC: I’ve noted before that while some black writers criticized white author William Styron’s book The Confessions of Nat Turner, about a slave, other black writers praised the book.]
The logical conclusion of cultural appropriation is solipsism. For why stop at saying a person of one culture cannot appropriate the experience of another? By what right can I write about you, or you me? If no one can imagine or inquire about life in another culture, how can they do so about the life of another person? The self will then be the only subject. Solipsism may power the social justice warriors, who weep about how grievously their feelings have been offended. But it is unlikely to produce fiction even they will want to read.
We’re now past the time when blatant and invidious stereotypes can be counted as good fiction, and even if they are published, everyone has a right to criticize them. But nobody has the right to dictate what subjects—or what people—can and cannot be written about.