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We Need More Empathy in the PC/Cultural Appropriation Debate

On September 8th, Lionel Shriver, author of a dozen novels including 2005 Orange Prizewinner We Need to Talk About Kevin, gave a speech about identity politics at the Brisbane Writers Festival. During her talk, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an author, mechanical engineer, and the founder of Youth Without Borders, walked out. Abdel-Magied says she did so because Shriver was making light of the issues that have given rise to the frustration and ire many have around cultural appropriation.

Here’s a synopsis of both positions: Shriver (pictured left) argued that fiction is inherently about appropriating cultures and experiences of all kinds, and exploiting them to serve the story. It’s about wearing other people’s hats, she said. To drive the point home, Shriver wore a sombrero as she made her argument.

Abdel-Magied countered that Shriver’s “but it’s fiction” excuse is obtuse and insensitive. She pointed out that the peoples whose cultures and identities are routinely appropriated so rarely get a chance to tell their own stories to a mass audience because of a racist dominant culture and the enduring legacy of colonialism that shuts out or marginalizes these voices. Abdel-Magied added, this same racial prejudice and colonial history leads to many an author writing myopic and/or offensive fiction about an experience or people s/he knows nothing about.

I can identify with some of the frustrations Abdel-Magied and Shriver expressed, but, mostly, I’m frustrated by the demonstrated lack of empathy on Shriver’s part, and to a lesser extent, Abdel-Magied’s.

In her speech, Shriver claimed that a writer’s attempts to inhabit and portray the experiences of others who aren’t like them are inherently empathetic. She went on to argue that effort itself should be applauded, and that failure to get it right should be accepted as collateral.

“Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given,” she said. “But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.”

Shriver expressed zero sensitivity to what it feels like to be the one whose life has been, and is being, entered (over and over again); and she demonstrated no curiosity or care about the stakes of failure. She did not mention the fact that the authors of color are reviewed far less by the New York Times, and other publications, than their white counterparts. Nor did she discuss the fact that far fewer writers who aren’t white even get the chance to be published.

Whether she failed to communicate this above hoped for sensitivity, or neglected to note the facts about identity disparity in publishing because she does not or cannot identify with the experience of seeing her story become more profitable when a white person’s name is on it, or because she doesn’t believe these factors are relevant to her thesis, or because she has little to no respect for those who raise objections about their cultures and identities being misrepresented is the debate.

As, Abdel-Magied aptly articulates:

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

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.

But part of Abdel-Magied’s response irks me too.

Though I wish she had stayed to listen to Shriver’s whole talk so she could assess the argument in real time in its entirety and participate in a post-lecture Q&A to engage Shriver in a face to face, I respect her decision to walk out. As she explained in her essay, for her, staying implied agreement with–and legitimizing–what Shriver was saying. Leaving in the middle, Abdel-Magied wrote, was her statement of resistance. I get it. There are times when you just can’t grin and bear.

My issue with Abdel-Magied’s reaction is that, while she chose to exercise her right to exit the room mid-lecture, she made blanket assumptions about those who opted to stay and hear Shriver out. Deciding the chuckles coming from the audience amounted to “reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern,” she labeled the audience “compliant.”

It’s a seemingly small judgment, but it bears the whiff of insensitivity she ascribes to Shriver’s position. It asserts there is only one right way to react to a point of view you disagree with, and that the same reaction means the same thing for different people.

Abdel-Magied describes a packed room, and people laughing in complicity at Shriver’s obtuse remarks. We don’t know if some of the chuckles in that full house were uncomfortable, or whether there were people who were having sharply whispered conversations of dissent outside of her sightline and earshot, or if there were attendees who were quietly reserving their judgment until Shriver’s talk was over. Abdel-Magied doesn’t know either, all she can do is guess.

When it comes to discussions about representing identity, particularly in writing, merely guessing is one of the main problems.

Yes, as Shriver lectured, writing necessitates guessing at the emotions of characters in situations the writer may or may not have experienced. But good writing requires we add to guesswork research, close observation, deep contemplation, the feedback of generous souls who will read or listen to early drafts, and, eventually, professional editors and fact-checkers. And even when a writer feels s/he has done this due diligence to authentically write a story or character that is personally foreign, s/he can still get it wrong because racial and cultural biases are so deeply embedded in Western, and global, culture.

This doesn’t mean anyone should steer clear of trying to write about certain topics or people, it just means we should try harder to humbly listen to those who have had an experience we haven’t–especially when there is overwhelming consensus among said group that we have misrepresented it.

Furthermore, if we truly want to tell the stories of people and places and cultures we don’t personally know, and if we want to see them told well, we will have to make way for writers who are intimate with the experience to tell their stories themselves. And we can’t be satisfied with just one or two writers, but many. So many we can’t associate a group with a trend or type anymore and push it into a pigeonhole.

Most writers don’t have control over our publication destiny, let alone another’s, but those who have written bestsellers, or have publishing experience have some leverage. Whether it’s the relationships necessary to put in a good word with an agent/editor; or reading the work of an aspiring writer telling a story we want to try and offering feedback, there are ways to support a diversity of writers and stories if that’s what we truly want.

Conversely, those of us frustrated with seeing our stories exploited and appropriated, and tired of being dismissed by the dominant culture for expressing our pain and anger about said appropriation, should be cognizant that our fellows in the struggle have the right to express their dissatisfaction their way. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached non-violence and Malcolm X advocated a “by any means necessary” approach to combating racism in America. Both were assassinated.

It’s not about methodology. It’s about compassion, and a continual commitment to seeing past ourselves.

For example, Shriver said, “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.”

While what she says is true on its face, I wonder if she has deeply considered why and how we got to the point where membership in an identity group means so much. Though white Americans, for example, may not think about or be aware of racism as much as a person of color might, they exist in a hyper-racialized nation along with everyone else in the country, and experience certain aspects of life in way that vastly differs from a person of color’s experience. Whether Shriver believes it or not, racial identity means as much to whites as it does to people of other races.

Membership of a larger group is not the sum of an identity, but in a world that sorts and shelves people based on identity groups–and specifically disadvantages those outside the dominant group–these memberships have shaped experiences and existences for generations. They have become culture and memory and life, providing spiritual and material refuge to those who leverage the power of their shared community. If history were different and prejudice non-existent, these identities might be treated incidentally, but they aren’t.

What if, concurrently, Abdel-Magied considered that Brisbane’s giving Shriver a speaking spot may not have been borne of an intention to personally harm her, or endorse a point of view she disagreed with? What if she moved past her assumptions of what her fellow attendees were thinking of her when she left, or why they stayed, and instead engaged a few of them after the event about how they felt about the proceeding?

Our collective lack of empathy keeps us trapped in our polemicist poles, paralyzed by the fear that if we acknowledge the merits of another’s position we will cede holy ground, unable to progress. Ironically, it also leaves us vulnerable to even more egregious appropriation, and makes for bad writing people think is good just because they tried. Perhaps most frustrating of all, it leaves us pretty much where we started: frustrated and isolated, the gap between our understanding, care, and consideration of each other only widening.

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