Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shriver strikes back

The American writer Lionel Shriver gave a speech to the Brisbane Writers Festival which was strongly critical of the idea of "cultural appropriation." Her arguments against cultural appropriation are devastating, and if you're interested I recommend you read the whole thing. Here is a taste of what she said:
The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad

It's difficult not to agree with Lionel Shriver. The concept of cultural appropriation is full of holes and unworkable in any consistent and principled way. Nonetheless, I doubt it will be a passing fad as Lionel Shriver hopes. That's because it serves a purpose within contemporary liberalism.

Think of it this way. For liberalism to work as a system then the choices that each individual makes should not impede the self-determining choices of every other individual. That's not really possible, but one option liberals have to make the system appear to work is to have everyone limit the sphere of their choices to individual lifestyle matters such as career, travel and consumption. At that level, liberalism can (mostly) work as a system, albeit at the cost of making individual life more trivial than it once was.

That's' the kind of liberalism that Lionel Shriver represents. In her Brisbane speech, she wrote of identity that:
we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are...

That's the older liberal-speak we are so used to. It's an ideological view, in which the good in life is thought to be a self-defining autonomy. Therefore, identities that we inherit (into which we are "arbitrarily dropped by birth") are thought of in negative terms as limiting the individual (as being "cages").

What then defines us in a liberal society? Lionel Shriver answered that in a column some years ago. She believes that liberal moderns answer the question of "What is life for?" differently than people did in the past:
baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the communal to the individual, from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lower-case gods of our private devising. We are less concerned with leading a good life than the good life. We are less likely than our predecessors to ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask if we are happy. We shun values such as self-sacrifice and duty as the pitfalls of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don't especially care what happens once we're dead. As we age - oh, so reluctantly! - we are apt to look back on our pasts and ask not 'Did I serve family, God and country?' but 'Did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat?' We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but with whether they were interesting and fun.

If that package sounds like one big moral step backwards, the Be Here Now mentality that has converted from 60s catchphrase to entrenched gestalt has its upside. There has to be some value to living for today, since at any given time today is all you've got...Furthermore, prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.

She goes on to quote a friend of hers, Gabriella, regarding the choice not to have children:
Having children in my 20s would have spelled the end of everything I had spent my life working towards and was about to really enjoy: the ability to spend my money the way I wanted, travel where I wanted, choose my partners, live as I wished."

So that is the mindset that liberalism is gradually pushing people toward: not being bound to anything, but being a "freewheeling individual" making little lifestyle choices ("spend my money the way I wanted, travel where I wanted").

That, then, is one way to make liberalism work as a system. But it's not likely to appeal to all liberals. After all, it is considerably apolitical - it's all about consumerism and lifestyle. What if you're a liberal with a more radical political agenda? What if you're an activist type? You'll then be looking for a different way to make liberalism work as a system, i.e. of answering the question of how everyone can equally make self-determining choices.

The answer that activist liberals give has become increasingly familiar. They assert that some groups of people have "privilege" (i.e. they get to have things their way more than others do) and that therefore the demands of underprivileged groups should take precedence over those of more privileged groups. There is no longer a belief that everyone can have untrammelled choice (as this leads to a system based on an apolitical lifestyle consumerism); instead, there is a ranking (the oppression Olympics) of who should get to have things their way based on which groups are judged to be most marginalised (e.g. men should give way to women who should give way to blacks etc.)

The concept of cultural appropriation is an outgrowth of this approach. People who choose the "privilege" approach to making liberalism work will become sensitive to ways in which they might be marginalised/oppressed/dominated, not only because it feeds into a sense of grievance and wrong, but because it is also the basis of their own right over others. And so you end up with an overly sensitive belief that someone else is exploiting your culture, alongside a blindness to the way in which you yourself might be "culturally appropriating" the mainstream culture.

As a traditionalist, I fear Lionel Shriver's approach to liberalism more than I do the newer, privilege ranking one. Her way is empty and futureless (as she admits in the second column I linked to) but people can amuse themselves with it if there are no other options. The newer, activist approach to liberalism is more confronting and difficult to live by, particularly if you are a white male. It's more likely to push people away from liberal modernity altogether, to shake up the whole liberal edifice.

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