Nick Cohen on the flaws of the “cultural appropriation” warriors

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.


Nick Cohen


  1. Posted September 29, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    JAC – I share your opinion re the use of Social Justice Warriors [never did like the reference to violence]. I use it as a pejorative and for those truly working toward social justice, I use Social Justice Advocates.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      As I understand it, the initial meaning of the term Social Justice Warrior was as a pejorative, but since then it is used by both sides of the SJW table.

  2. Anthony Paul
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I appreciate the convenience and/or fun and/or accuracy (once you provide a definition) of using terms like social justice warrior but I think they may get in the way of the message. If (and that’s a mighty big “if” sometimes) you’re not just preaching to the converted, it’s an easy excuse for the audience to stop listening or write you off. Of course, if you already think they’re deplorable that may not be a concern. As a prof I once had often (annoyingly) said in response to a question, “It depends.”

  3. Posted September 29, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Perhaps a truce can be achieved with the SJWs if we can agree that writers can write whatever they like but the only people that can read those works will be the people in exactly the same group as the writer.
    So Shriver’s retort to Abdel-Maglied is “this isnt any of your business, the book wasnt written for you” And Abdel-Maglied can write a book about a transsexual atheist Jew if she wants, with the understanding that only African Muslim women from Australia will read it.

    I’m not serious with this of course, but I dont think its that much more insane than whats already out there, and would lead to less bickering.

    • eric
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Here’s an equally tongue-in-cheek solution: follow The Author of Jesus & Mo’s example. Declare the character in your story isn’t actually a (e.g.) minority Jewish woman, it’s just an alien body double of a minority Jewish woman. So unless your critic is an alien of the same species, they have no right to complain.

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Another example of a white (woman) writing about black (women) that was well-received in the African community is Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees” although it’s a tad too New Agey for most readers here.

    One GOOD example of asking permission (I don’t mean to negate anything said here!!) is Jay Leno had a few gay advisors on all his gay jokes, to make sure they were not generally offensive to gays (although probably a few here and there still found them offensive.)

    • Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Of course – and that’s part of the problem with the blanket requirement – who does one ask and how many “againsts” does one need to stop it?

    • eric
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      Maybe I’m drawing a distinction without a difference, but I would classify Jay Leno’s actions as “doing good research” rather than “seeking permission.” I expect he brought in advisors because he wanted his jokes to be funny to a broad audience. It strikes me that comedians are far more concerned about being labeled ‘unfunny’ than they are ‘offensive,’ so if some comedian is bringing in people to test their jokes on, its probably more to check the jokes appeal than it is to scrub it of offensive words, imagery, or content.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted September 29, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        Jay Leno overtly said he was trying to avoid offensive jokes.
        But I agree that it’s “doing good research” rather than “seeking permission”!!

      • phil
        Posted September 29, 2016 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

        I think the funniness of a joke is often closely related to its offensiveness. What frequently passes as humour is really the extent to which offense might be caused to subjects in the joke.

  5. Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I agree in general, but I think to “soften” one should also say … the dual to freedom to write should also be the “duty” to respond to criticism. If someone calls your portrayal insensitive, listen. Change, if necessary. Allow the dialogue.

    The dual to *that* is also that if you *are* slandered, to *say* something. Sometimes that’s not possible, admittedly, but I think the alternative, of shutting down debate before it starts, is worse, long term. (After all, why can’t the bigots use the same power to shut down anything you say anyway?)

    • Denise
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      No, a writer’s freedom is not subject to any “duty” to respond to criticism.

  6. Flemur
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    “SJW” caused my deformed mind to think of “social insect warriors” and how this discussion is like totally speciesist dude.

    Black Australian Muslim Yassmin Abdel-Mag[l]ied sez “I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.”

    Won’t someone think of the non-human animals that are neuro-different, differently abled, differently furred feathered scaled or slimy and haven’t had their voices heard and legitimized? (The NHANDDADFFSS community).

    Confession: I heard the coyotes’ voices this morning, speaking out about their unique experiences, but failed to legitimize them.

  7. J.Baldwin
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Among the more curious aspects, at least to me, of the concept of cultural appropriation is that it confers (or claims) a kind of property right in cultural expression. Its analog being intellectual property rights. It seems absurd to think anyone, or any group “owns” a form of expression but that does seem to be what these SJWs are saying, and they want that right culturally, as opposed to legislatively (for now), enforced.

  8. Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    (…Reading Cohen’s article in Firefox — with ads displayed, not here in Opera with Adblock…)

  9. Posted September 29, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Nick Cohen is vital.

  10. kevin7alexander
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m old enough to remember when Elvis Presley culturally appropriated Black music. What a disaster that turned out to be. Pretty soon, no one wanted to listen to…um..whatever was on the radio before.

    • Posted September 29, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      And that black music he appropriated was thoroughly saturated with functional tonal harmony, a system that originated around 1600 by European white males, mostly in Italy. You don’t see Italians going around complaining that tonal harmony, ubiquitous in worldwide pop music now, is a cultural appropriation.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      The Stones appropriated their name from the title of a Muddy Waters tune, and Dylan his from a Welsh poet. (The Doors copped theirs from an Aldous Huxley essay.) All of pop music — aw, hell, the whole of western culture — has been one damn appropriation after another.

      • GBJames
        Posted September 29, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        Pretty much the whole of human culture. All culture, frankly, is people borrowing ideas from other people.

        • Posted September 30, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          I wrote a response to critics of the possibility of AI as my first philosophy of science paper as an undergraduate. One topic I dealt with was “computers can’t be genuinely creative”. It occurred to me while doing that there’s no such thing as a completely novel creation; one is always using existing materials. In fact, what would an action totally unlike what has ever been done even *be*? How would it be possible? I restricted this even further: if it is so different, how is it, say, a piece of music *at all*?

        • Posted September 30, 2016 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          As someone said, “Try to write any 500-word text without referring to any books, articles, movies, video games, folklore and mythology… and you will realize how damn hard it is to be an ignoramus”.

  11. GBJames
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink


  12. Historian
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Almost all mass social movements that begin relatively moderate spawn a radical fringe that attempts to take over the movement, often with success. This phenomenon is not always a bad thing. For example, the abolitionist movement in antebellum America grew out of a rather tepid and bland antislavery movement. Initially, the abolitionists were viewed as dangerous radicals, who helped accelerate the breach between North and South. As the Civil War itself progressed they were viewed much more positively in the North. Quite often, however, when the radical fringe takes over a movement, the outcome is far from good. A contemporary example is the Tea Party, which grew out of the continued agitation by establishment Republicans and then ate the establishment and spitted out Trump.

    So, the fact that identity politics has been taken to the extreme should not be surprising. Indeed, it should have been expected. The only question is whether the radicals can be constrained before it is too late and the genuine goals of true advocates for social justice are thwarted by the rantings of the radicals.

    My crystal ball is cloudy today, so I won’t predict what will happen. I just hope more people will follow the lead of Jerry Coyne and Nick Cohen and speak out against the absurdities of the radicals whose twaddle is perhaps matched only by Donald Trump. We should not despair; sanity can be restored, but in today’s climate of extreme political and social polarization where rationality has been challenged by fantasists, the outcome is far from certain.

    • phil
      Posted September 30, 2016 at 1:57 am | Permalink

      “…whose twaddle is perhaps matched only by Donald Trump.”

      That’s a mean thing to say! 😉

      Actually I think the aforementioned radicals are at least earnest and believe what they say. Don OTOH seems to be just saying whatever he thinks his followers want to hear.

  13. Heather Hastie
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Any sensible person can surely agree that one of the main drivers of a more inclusive society is seeing people with a wide range of identities on television. That is newsreaders, journalists, interviewees etc as well as characters in shows, but the newsreaders etc came later.

    In regards to dramas, sit-coms etc though, that required a lead writer to imagine and write a variety of characters. We’ve just had the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, which was groundbreaking at the time because of the inclusion of Lieutenant Uhura. We’ve recently had the news that for the first time an openly trans child actor is to be in a show.

    My point is that writers who do this have the ability to advance our society. Many people wouldn’t even have a voice if it wasn’t for writers who introduced the world to characters with different backgrounds than we were once used to seeing on our TV and movie screens.

    I’ve never actually seen ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ but we all know what it’s about.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      You’re missing one of Stanley Kramer’s best “message” movies and the last pairing of Tracy and Hepburn.

  14. Posted September 29, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  15. Posted September 29, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Cultural Appropriation, conceptually, appears indistinguishable from Gatekeeping in nerd culture. Many liberals heavily criticize Gatekeeping (and rightly so). It’s a shame we don’t see such unanimous agreement when it comes to Cultural Appropriation. I wrote about this awhile back. Explore at your leisure:

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    On the radicalization of the abolitionist movement being a good thing: are you including John Brown and Harper’s Ferry in that category? (Seems to be a topic on which historians are divided.)

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      This question was meant to be in response to Historian’s comment at #12.

    • Historian
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      I was thinking more of the William Lloyd Garrison type of abolitionists. These type of people rose in response to those people who disliked slavery but didn’t think anything could be done about it. Garrison also opposed the efforts of the American Colonization Society, which had the unrealistic idea that all slaves could be freed and shipped back to Africa. Garrison called for immediate abolition. This idea was unpopular and indeed scorned prior to the Civil War. By the end of the war, Lincoln had immediately ended slavery and his action was generally popular throughout the North.

      John Brown and his raid at the Harpers Ferry armory in Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859 raises tough ethical questions. Brown’s actions were fueled by evangelical fervor and perhaps madness that did not shy from the use of violence. By today’s standards, his raid and prior actions in Kansas Territory would certainly classify him as a terrorist. There can be no doubt about that. The raid was a bumbling attempt that failed to incite a slave revolt in the South and culminated with Brown being hanged. Several innocent white people were killed during the raid. Should Brown be condemned for taking direct action when nobody else would to end the horror of slavery? This is the question that has been debated since the event itself. Without directly answering the question, I will note that during the war hundreds of thousands died, including non-combatants, to achieve Brown’s goal. Also, during the war, the song “John Brown’s Body” became quite popular in the North. For a significant segment of the northern people, he became a virtual deity.

  17. Posted September 29, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Trying to relate to those who are different from us by mirroring their behaviors, dress, foods, etc. was once thought to be an especially human (and good) way of relating. Trying to learn about the lives of others this way and incorporating differences spread cultures throughout the world. Mostly, we have benefited from this human behavior. I hate to see some of us regressing to “my way or the highway” behaviors, as though any human behavior is not legitimately the potential property of us all.

  18. Merilee
    Posted September 29, 2016 at 8:59 pm | Permalink


  19. phil
    Posted September 30, 2016 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    If white people can’t write about black people, etc, I’m wondering where that would leave works like To Kill a Mockingbird, where white people’s racism towards black people was a central theme of the narrative, and played out with characters of both “races” (for want of a better word). Is Lee’s story weakened because she was neither male nor black?

  20. chrism
    Posted September 30, 2016 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    So let me make sure I am understanding this correctly. I am not allowed to write about anyone other than cis-white men as to do so would be cultural appropriation. On the other hand if I only write about cis-white men I am guilty of crimes against diversity and inclusion. Kafka would be proud, as would Cardinal Morton (he of Morton’s Fork.
    The thing that bothers me most about Abdel-Maglied’s tantrum is that she wishes to deny both authors and their readers an opportunity to put themselves in another’s shoes, to imagine life on the other side of the fence. This is the basic engine that drives human empathy, and one would expect her to approve of it, yet once again identity politics triumphs and proves that we must be divided up into ever smaller groups, all of equal value and standing, of course, brothers and sisters. You have heard the saying that ‘little things please little minds’. I’m afraid Abdel-Maglied is dividing them more finely for a better fit.

  21. Posted September 30, 2016 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Surely asked before, but:
    The use of a computer (electricity, antibiotics and pretty much every scientific innovation) by a Black African Moslem woman isn’t cultural appropriation of White Christian/Jewish Western male culture?
    What is their excuse?

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