And Shrive You of a Thousand Idle Books

Tom Horrell

“I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad.”

Wishful thinking, perhaps, on the part of novelist Lionel Shriver. Shriver, the author of 13 books, including the acclaimed We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005), was the keynote speaker at last week’s Brisbane Writers Festival. Her topic was “Fiction & Identity Politics.”

She should have known better.

Should have known better, that is, if she had wished to avoid the uproar that greeted her words. The Festival, of course, has since removed all links to Ms. Shriver’s address from their website – presumably because as their Facebook post declares, they endorse the “(exploration of) ideas, identity and imagination through conversation and debate.”

Approved ideas only, it seems.

“Let’s start,” Ms. Shriver began, “with a tempest-in-a-teacup at Bowdoin.” She then described the insane overreaction to a student’s tequila-themed birthday party earlier this year. “Some students wore (miniature) sombreros”, the Bowdoin Orient exclaimed, and the college immediately launched an investigation of the Miniature Sombreros and the Bad Thinking which led to such disgraceful, ethnic stereotyping. Presumably they had, by then, concluded their preceding investigation of those students who had dressed as Native Americans and Pilgrims at a 2014 Thanksgiving Party.

But Ms. Shriver did not simply bemoan the Tizzy in a Tequila or the silliness of the accompanying Ritual Humiliation Dance. She raised, instead, this point: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. … Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats?”

Sadly, of course, it is not just Bowdoin that finds “cross-cultural borrowing” sinful. Bowdoin, as NAS has noted, exemplifies a larger intolerance spreading through higher education. The University of Ottawa suspends a yoga class because yoga comes from India. Oberlin students protest dining hall sushi “whose inauthenticity is ‘insensitive’ to the Japanese.” We could easily continue.

“Offendedness,” Ms. Shriver tells us, is now “used as a weapon.”

She ended with this plea:

Both as writers and as people, 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, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen. The reading and writing of fiction is obviously driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience.

Shriver spoke about fiction, but what her speech illustrates is that the furies of academe are loosed into the broader culture. The Red Queens of the campuses, screaming “Off with their heads!” at the blaspheming cultural appropriator of the day—they are already inflicting damage beyond the ivory tower.

The entire project of the humanities assumed that we share a common humanity. As Terence said, I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me. That assumption is dying on the campuses, and now it sickens in the world of fiction.

What next?

Image Credit: لا روسا, cropped.

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