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Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival: She thinks writers should write whatever they want (©Daniel Seed/BWF)

Can there be a culturally appropriate art? There is no shortage of activists arguing for one, and they are arguing for something new and sinister, in free societies at least.

Let me be clear about the stakes. Artists reflect the ideas of their times, and nearly all Western novels and dramas now treat, say, gays and lesbians sympathetically. They are a world away from the thrillers of the 1970s in which the lisping homosexual was invariably the villain. Such stereotypes are not the issue today. Nor is the argument about whether a male novelist can create convincing female characters or vice versa or a white novelist create a convincing black character or vice versa. Readers have always been able to complain that a novelist has produced inauthentic work. Rather than an argument about what is said, we have an argument about what right artists have to speak at all.

As Lionel Shriver put it in a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, “Ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic underprivilege and disability are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.” 

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a “social advocate and writer”, walked out, her eyes blurred with tears. Her blog denouncing Shriver was a sensation. The Guardian reprinted it, the New York Times and Washington Post covered it, and she was quoted with approval across social media. Abdel-Magied complained that Shriver was a colonialist and racial supremacist. She alleged the message was, “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me”. To justify her insults, she advanced what I suppose you could call the “lump of literature fallacy”: because a white writer published on black Africans, black Africans could not get their works into print.

She offered a grotesque misrepresentation of what Shriver had said. But on one point Abdel-Magied was accurate. Shriver thinks writers should write what they want. Abdel-Magied thinks they shouldn’t. Unless you are a black African woman, you should not write about black African women unless you grant them copy approval.

The clarity of this position dissolves, however, as soon as a writer accepts it. 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.

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Observer of the Scene
November 19th, 2016
10:11 AM
Identity politics are inevitable if you allow mass immigration from regions where tribalism and clannishness are rife and where there is no tradition of liberal democracy (but very strong traditions of authoritarianism and corruption). Someone who supports both liberal democracy and mass immigration is like a turkey supporting Christmas: first the immigrants will practice identity politics, encouraged by the Marxists who wanted them here for their own ends, then the white majority will practice them too. Not good for liberal democracy. I hope Nick understands this one day and issues a mea culpa. But I don't expect it.

November 11th, 2016
11:11 AM
I'm sick of all these whinging whining self obsessed confessional fools. They all give the impression they are better than I simply by virtue of being trans, or a wimmin, or gay, or black. It is all crap, funded by tax payer money. The amount of high quality art or music or theory to come out of identity politics is practically nil. It is all pompous directionless sloppy small minded trivialities. It will be looked on in the future as period when art was virtually non existent. Does anyone really think some twat filming their crotch or painting with menstrual blood, or photographing faeces will really be considered great art. The incredible thing is that our politicians have become like magi to us, persuading us with money they have stolen in taxes. It is really not surprising that such people's art patronage would simply stink to high heaven.

Roger Hicks
October 1st, 2016
12:10 PM
Is it not time we faced up to the very real problems that come with DIVERSITY? Every "people" needs its own space, which in the past was achieved by the "nation state", until someone had the bright idea of turning them into multi-racial and multi-cultural melting pots. Jetzt haben wir den Salad. We can't turn back the clock, but equally, we can't just continue "celebrating DIVERSITY" as we have been expected to do up until now, under pain of being demonised a bigot, xenophobe or racist if you don't. This demonisation of opponents of DIVERSITY provides a clue as to its purpose, which I elaborate on in this short blog: Europeans like to make fun of things that many Muslims find deeply offensive. That wasn't a problem in the past, because we each had our own space. Now we don't, but instead share the common space of multicultural European society. We need to stop "celebrating DIVERSITY" and instead develop an understanding of why the state inflicted this madness on us, so that we can learn how to deal with it in as rational and civilised fashion as possible.

Brian O'Brien
September 28th, 2016
8:09 PM
I agree with Nick Cohen. This is why we must bomb Iran right now to stop the march of the evil militant Islamist social justice warriors and bring democracy and freedom of speech to the Middle East.

September 28th, 2016
7:09 PM
Funnily enough, "the self" seems to be "the only subject" for Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Her book is called "Yassmin's Story" and her TED talk was called "What does my headscarf mean to you?" Fascinating stuff, I'm sure.

Nicky Cohen
September 28th, 2016
6:09 PM
We should bomb Iran immediately for the sake of freedom of speech

September 28th, 2016
5:09 PM
Agreed on just about everything. If you read Abdel-Magied's screed in the Guardian, or Shriver's reasonable NY Times response, it's a mild breath of fresh air that the commentariat at these two (broadly left-leaning) sites were very clearly on the side of sanity overall. But while I welcome the anti-PC backlash that has been growing since around the time of Hebdo, the backlash to cultural rules Twitterati types are attempting to impose has taken a negative turn. Alt-right provocateurs have come to the conclusion that because Abdel-Magied is being ridiculous, it opens up the door for "counter-cultural" racism and anti-Semitic tropes. Even if their numbers are inflated vs. their coverage, this has sadly become the most visceral and visual manifestation of backlash. For most of these types, the answer to the rise of "identity politics" isn't a less identitarian viewpoint, but actually identity-politics-for-white-people. This further enables the SJWs, who can toss any criticism into this bucket - and so on, into a cycle. It's a culture war in which we can only hope the loudest sides lose.

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