Sensitivity Training

Without burdening it with too many thoughts of my own, let me cue up the controversy surrounding American writer Lionel Shriver, author of the bestselling 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. At a recent writer's conference in Brisbane, Shriver gave a talk denouncing the idea of "cultural appropriation" – a term describing objections by minority groups to the use of cultural artifacts, styles or identities by artists or performers who don’t belong to those groups. The lineage of this idea is traceable to critiques of political and cultural hegemony by such writers as Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire; as it plays out in today’s culture wars, it tends to take on such questions as whether it’s acceptable for white people to wear dreadlocks, or whether, when singer Katy Perry performed as a geisha at the American Music Awards in November 2013, it constituted (as she described it) an homage to Asian culture, or rather what some Asian-Americans called an insulting travesty in “yellowface.”

In Brisbane, Shriver was supposed to give her keynote address on “community and belonging,” but after warning the audience about the dangers of inviting “a renowned iconoclast” to speak, she announced she wasn’t going to do so, and instead leveled a broadside against cultural appropriation and its implications for artistic freedom. She ridiculed the notion that, for instance, a white writer who creates a black protagonist may be engaging in some sort of artistic imperialism. Such strictures, in Shriver’s, are an outgrowth of the lamentable political correctness and identity politics currently engulfing American college campuses. She deplored critics of the white British author, Chris Cleave, who took him to task for daring to channel the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his novel, Little Bee. Shriver mentioned having been criticized herself for writing a black character in her own recent novel, The Mandibles, and acerbically defended her right as a writer to do so. “Otherwise,” she said, “all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina.”

Shriver is nothing if not pugnacious. In her talk she alluded to several students at Bowdoin College who were censured for throwing a Mexican-themed party, and as she did, she pulled out a sombrero and put it on – at which point, as the New York Times reported, several audience members walked out. One of them, a young writer of Egyptian and Sudanese background, later blasted Shriver for delivering “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension... a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction,” that “dripped of racial supremacy.” And after Shriver’s address, conference organizers erased mention of her appearance from the conference website while organizing a “right of reply” for her critics – actions that seemingly confirmed the charge of political correctness that Shriver had made in the first place. In a follow-up op-ed in the Times, titled “Will the Left Survive Millennials?”, Shriver did not retreat from the esprit de combat of her original talk – in passing describing the young writer who objected to her remarks as "a 25-year-old memoirist" (hah!) and then offering up this glittering bit of snark: “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.” Touché!

Shriver’s speech and subsequent defense of it have sparked a flurry of reprimands from progressive-minded writers. Writing in the New York Review of Books, novelist Francine Prose chastises her for ignoring the “complexity and sensitivity” of the topic “by adopting a tone that ranged from jauntiness to mockery and contempt.” Shriver’s talk served up “a kernel of truth encased by a husk of cultural and historical blindness,” including what Prose views as a willful refusal to engage the pedigree of the sombrero as a “racist symbol.” In addition, Prose charges Shriver with “trivializing valid concerns by ridiculing their most absurd manifestations and extreme proponents.” Interestingly, though, she accepts Shriver’s “important and legitimate” warning that forbidding cultural appropriation would have pre-empted some canonical novels. “Should Harriet Beecher Stowe have been discouraged from including black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” Prose asks.

Should Mark Twain have left Jim out of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that, more fully than any historical account, allows modern readers to begin to understand what it was like to live in a slave-owning society? Should someone have talked Kazuo Ishiguro out of writing The Remains of the Day, the beautiful novel whose protagonist—a white butler in England before World War II—presumably shares few surface similarities with his creator? Should immigrant writers and writers of color be restricted to portraying their own communities?

All in all, then, a curious rebuke, scolding Shriver for being rude while wholly embracing her argument. A far harsher critique comes from writer Ken Kalfus, in the Washington Post, who discusses Shriver’s remarks in the context of her new novel (he’s the one who originally reviewed it there), charging that “Shriver’s full-throated defense against imaginary charges of cultural appropriation is meant to obscure the offensiveness of her racial characterizations, in the same way that certain people who make deliberate, categorically insulting remarks about women and minorities claim persecution by the political-correctness police.”

Somehow, I don’t think Shriver will lack for an answer. As for me, I’ll confess that after reading her remarks, I’m torn, in a good-angel/bad-angel way. I cheer her insistence that literature depends on writers being allowed to go wherever their imaginations can take them; that strikes me as all but inarguable. Furthermore, as I’ve written before, I'm sympathetic to the notion that the expressive decorums increasingly deployed on college campuses these days rely on metaphors (trigger warnings, safe spaces, microaggressions) that should be treated skeptically – and cultural appropriation is one of them. How much or how far strictures against cultural appropriation have impeded any actual artist is not clear to me, however; and as Francine Prose notes, culling identity-politics absurdities from campus life is pretty easy sport (I know, having done it a few times). 

And then there’s the problem of tone. The good/bad angel question for “iconoclasts” like Shriver might be, Do you want to engage with people who disagree with you, or tweak their noses? And what if the people whose noses you’re tweaking belong to groups that have been systematically marginalized and shortchanged for a very long time? A friend of mine read Shriver’s speech and op-ed and offered this thought:

People who work home alone on novels rather than in a workplace among diverse colleagues never have to go through diversity training seminars and Title Nine tutorials that are often required. It sounds stupid, I know, but having gone through sessions and online tutorials many times, I can tell you the training is actually very thoughtful and instructive.

Even if Shriver is right about the freedom of the artist, she still could benefit from some sensitivity training, my friend said, and I don’t disagree. That, and maybe ditch the sombrero, too.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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