WaPo | “I am hopeful that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life,” Shriver said during her speech, a statement that reminds us “cultural appropriation” is just another way of saying “culture.” Except for the isolated tribes of the deserts and the rainforests cut off from outside contact, all human cultures borrow from other human cultures. Some traits are absorbed, others rejected. What remains is, simply, “culture.”
Unfortunately, the debate is likely here to stay, as evidenced by the outraged walkouts during Shriver’s speech and the Brisbane Writers Festival’s hasty efforts to arrange a new event: a “right of reply” designed to counter Shriver’s devastatingly hurtful opinions.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied seemed to speak for many of the aggrieved when she denounced Shriver on the Guardian’s website. Indeed, she was so flummoxed by Shriver’s opinions that she doesn’t quite seem to recognize the irony of this passage in an essay penned after the triggering episode:
The fact Shriver was given such a prominent platform from which to spew such vitriol shows that we as a society still value this type of rhetoric enough to deem it worthy of a keynote address. The opening of a city’s writers festival could have been graced by any of the brilliant writers and thinkers who challenge us to be more. To be uncomfortable. To progress. [emphasis added]
It seems clear that Abdel-Magied wasn’t looking for a challenge or to be made uncomfortable, but for someone willing to reinforce her preconceptions.
That the Brisbane Writers Festival was not a safe space for Magied is neither here nor there. Far more troubling is the mind-set behind her meltdown, the suggestion that writers should write only about their own experiences, that characters from different backgrounds should be treated with kid gloves. As Shriver noted in her remarks, authors currently face a Catch-22: They are required to include a smattering of non-white characters lest they face accusations of erasure or whitewashing, yet not delve into them too deeply or make them leads, lest they be accused of appropriation.