Lionel Shriver was right: Unpacking her speech at Brisbane Writers Festival 2016

"Lionel Shriver's full speech: "I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad"

Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival 2016, and the subsequent backlash, perfectly illustrate why we need to face difficult speeches. The society we live in is in danger of losing its capacity to deal with difficult subjects and, by extension, its ability to cope with meaningful commentary.

In what is perhaps a risky move, this essay posits that Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in 2016 was timely, necessary, and proven by others. I write it as an essayist who is driven to intervene, knowing fully that expressing online an opinion that does not conform with society’s groupthink is a dangerous act. I do so, because a collective hypersensitivity over some topics in Western society is dangerous to artists.

This was the core message of Lionel Shriver’s speech. It is a message with which this particular essayist agrees. It is a message that is critical to all artists in every culture.

What people saw at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in 2016 was a white, American woman in a sombrero. She used stories throughout her speech that were chosen because of their ability to get straight to your emotive core, perhaps even make you feel that they were ridiculous. What some people in the audience heard was, *white woman makes fun of cultural appropriation*.

Standing by, watching tweets fly out of the hands of those who were present, I sat in my loungeroom in Adelaide and imagined that the Shriver speech was an impassioned dig at every artist in the room. Reading through the live tweets that came out of the event, the Shriver I saw was a full-on racist, a bit silly, possibly deranged. She was worse than Pauline Hanson. She was a hater who spoke a speech that was so terrifically offensive to everybody present that people walked out left, right, and centre.

Such is the ability of social media to amplify the personal feelings of a small handful of people. Nobody tweeted live recordings. There was no Periscope stream. There was no transcript.

The world, now more than ever, needs people who will put their thumbs into your sorest places and force you to face the pain. Shriver is one of these people. For her courage and wisdom she is to be applauded, because when the art of important fiction is dead, unable to be traded as a result of containing elements that are not perfectly toeing society’s Line of Appropriateness, she will be kicking back with whiskey, shaking her head and laughing “I told you so”.

It’s for this reason, I am going to unpack her speech a bit. The reactions were unnecessary. The reactions proved, beyond a doubt, Shriver’s thesis of social hypersensitivity.

But before I do some of that, here is a video that you need to see. It’s of a prominent, well-respect black man telling us that we need to stop talking about racism. The reason for its inclusion will become self-evident.

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Opening her speech, Shriver acknowledged a few things for which she was later criticsed. Much of the criticism had a tone that suggested the critics were surprised. Those things were that she wasn’t going to give her submitted speech; an acknowledgement that she is someone who challenges the institutions, beliefs and frameworks cherished by society (that’s what an iconoclast is); she acknowledged the courage of the festival’s organisers, because they knew as well as she did that she would not just get up there and perform.

This opener was not this obvious, hidden as some of it was behind analogies. Shriver didn’t get up and state outright that she wasn’t going to perform like a monkey. What she actually said was that inviting her to give the keynote address was like “expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose”.

This was not said as some humorous by-the-bye, intended to get a giggle and a knowing mutual look out of the audience. It was Shriver being honest about the committee’s decision: She knows herself better than everybody else does, after all.

Some of the commentators expressed dismay about the speech being an embarrassment to the organising committee. Those commentators were not part of the organising committee, and therefore their claims about embarrassment are assumptions. The subtext of these claims is that the speech was not what they were expecting. And perhaps they took Shriver’s opening gambit too lightly.

One of the first propositions that Lionel Shriver made was that the idea of identities is something about which writers need to be careful. She proposed that the generic right to right fiction is in danger, because of the issues around which we must dance. She phrased it as ‘the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write’.

After the event, this proposition, which in fact forms the backbone of Shriver’s argument, appears to have been laid aside by those who painted the speech as an offensive waste of time, and in the subsequent claims by some that there need to be better rules about what is allowed.

What Shriver was saying, actually, is that this kind of thinking, which forces us to shape art in case we offend people, is in danger of undermining the artform. It is true that misunderstanding and misrepresenting any person, culture or thing is to be scorned. Shriver’s argument was that it is emerging as a hypersensitivity, where even those who represent cultures well as a result of careful research are being lambasted for it because they are not from within those cultures. Such a ‘norm’ is dangerous because it’s where the repression of artists begins. First, we disallow a white woman from writing about a black boy in another culture. But those politics are the same ones that forced leagues of female writers to write under male pseudonyms. It is the same politics that caused political writers to be jailed, beaten, and tortured. Shriver presented this idea to the 1% of the world: Literate, wealthy Westerners. If the reactions are anything to go by, many couldn’t see past their own shoes.

The first example Shriver gave was the by-now famous sombrero example. The example was of a private tequila party in which people wore sombreros. It wasn’t a problem until university admins found photos on social media and vilified the party-throwers for stereotyping Mexicans. Then, because of the public backlash, the student body got on board and started demanding ‘safe spaces’ for their students.

But how about the safety of being able to do your own thing in your own room, without fear of prejudice?

Only in America, I suggest, does something like that turn into such a wave of ridiculous hatred. Perhaps social media is to blame for it. If the students didn’t post photos online, nobody would have known, nobody would have chosen to be offended, and nothing further would have happened.

Shriver says, ‘I am at a loss to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero’. No doubt the audience was, by now, feeling uncomfortable; possibly that Shriver missed the point.

She goes on to explain how identity of any kind is now fenced off, untouchable, unreachable, not able to be explored because someone else is in possession of it. She gives us a range of authors whose works would not exist if they had not been allowed to proverbially try on the hats of others.

From here, Shriver talked about cultural appropriation. She defined it using an academic definition. The clause in that definition that frames appropriation as something that happens without someone else’s permission was the hook into her argument. She went on to explore what this means to writers specifically. She asked her audience whether you must get permission from someone in another culture before you employ their way of speaking for a character in your story. She gave the absurd example of running a public poll to find out whether it’s ok to use a character from another type of culture.

They are ridiculous examples. They are necessarily ridiculous. They are used by Shriver as a critical means of getting past your intellectual mind and into your emotive responses. That’s what great speakers do. But I suggest that it’s also why so many people started to react badly, and to suggest that Shriver was just being silly.

Considered logically, though, how else does an artist know that her work is appropriate? Creating believable characters, even in the culture you’re from, is extremely difficult. To do it for characters hailing from other cultures, research is required. Would you put that time and effort in, if you find out later that it’s not allowed? Of course you wouldn’t – you’d just avoid it. But how do you know whether or not you’re allowed to, until you ask people?

The one thing that people seemed to react to was Shriver’s expressed, personal hope that the idea of cultural appropriation is a ‘passing fad’. Remember, she’s a white, American woman. I do wonder whether, if she had stood there as a Vietnamese woman, or an Indigenous Australian, whether the reaction would have been the same. Or if she was a black, American woman. Or an islander. Or a Pakistani.

Or anyone who isn’t white, actually.

The video of Morgan Freeman at the top of this essay gives you one famous person’s perspective on race. In the video, Freeman told the white interviewer that the only way to stop racism is to stop talking about it. That the interviewer is Mike, that the interviewee is Morgan, and that’s all there is to it.

Does that idea offend you? That we are all just people? If you are someone who reacted to Shriver’s speech, then if you have a consistent argument, you ought to.

In Shriver’s talk, she went on to talk about a ‘larger climate of super-sensitivity’, and pulled some examples from popular culture. She did not apologise for it, as perhaps I have done by presenting Morgan Freeman’s view here (he’s not alone, by the way, in having such a view).  If you can’t see the culture of hypersensitivity, it is entirely possible that it’s normal for you, that you were brought up in it. That your view, as a result, is that it is normal – or even desirable – to live in a reactive state.

Since the talk, one person on twitter proposed that writers need to conform to rules of culture if they are going to be allowed to write. When I proposed to her that this is a dangerous precursor to censorship, another person jumped in and said that censorship is state-driven.

Well, no it’s not. Self-censorship is a very real phenomenon and has been the subject of innumerable works of fiction, including the most famous of them all, 1984.

But what those two comments demonstrate is Shriver’s actual point. She stated that this sensitivity gives ‘rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible’.

How is she not correct about that?

Any of these small little comments about ‘rules’ that need to be in place for people to ‘be allowed’ to do things serve ultimately to restrict creativity. It also supposes that white writers can’t be driven to write books with social justice themes, threads, or issues. For example, if I wanted to write a politically charged book narrated by a character from Palestine, the commentators on Twitter are telling me that I am not qualified, that there are rules (or should be) that my ability to contribute is no longer appropriate. Therefore, would I bother contributing at all, in public? No, of course not. But it makes me wonder whether these people would therefore blacklist Bryce Courtenay for his amazing work, The Power of One, given that the author is a white Australian male, his main character was English, the novel was set in Africa, characters were Zulu etc etc etc.

Shriver acknowledged the idea of disrespect, but she didn’t disregard it. She argued instead that the fiction writer is inherently disrespectful because they are ultimately peddling things that aren’t true. She argued, in fact, that fiction writers as a whole are thieves of culture.

‘Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation likea kid in a candy store, and sometimes takes notes the better to purloin whole worlds?’

This was a natural segue into authenticity. If you’re in the business world, authenticity is something that fills every nook and cranny. People are obsessed by the notion, there is an overripe obsession about it in society. This is perhaps because people exist in a largely digitized world. They interact through the medium of a screen, and the ultimate ‘authentic’ communication – in person – is becoming more and more rare. The ability for people to ‘re-form’ themselves in any way they like, even to create whole new lives for themselves, is entirely possible. Nobody knows whether you are really you.

Authenticity is something that people crave. But Shriver argued that ‘fiction is inherently inauthentic’. Fiction, as a product, is inherently inauthentic. It doesn’t mean that the art itself is not an authentic art. It means that what the art contains is not real. As she pointed out, ‘the name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality’.

That’s why you write fiction, right? If you are writing hyperrealistic fiction, perhaps you have a different goal and you would be right to take issue with this. But if you are writing hyperrealistic fiction then you are also on the grey line between fiction and creative non-fiction. But you can’t write about a man who finds a medallion in a cave and, with it, goes to Mars, if you are writing hyperrealistic fiction. You can’t write The BFG, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings. You can’t write The Buried Giant, The Alchemist. You might be able to write The Ipcress File, but your historical and cultural knowledge would have to be exact. Len Deighton is a historian; he’s not a Russian and he’s not German, so is his fiction appropriate? And if there need to be rules for writing about culture, but you discount Russian or German culture because they’re white, then boy are you missing the point and need to go back to school.

Shriver goes on to applaud Chris Cleve, a British man, for writing about a 14-year-old Nigerian girl. This essayist would like to suggest that perhaps she missed a key point. It’s not that there was courage in the writing; but courage in the publishing.

Cleve didn’t produce his work without his share of flack. Shriver included in her speech comments of critics, one of whom said that the writer has to be careful about using characters for his plot.

But why else would you have a character? Shriver expostulated that they are his characters, ‘to be manipulated at his whim’.

She went on: ‘Of course he’s exploiting her. It’s his book and he made her up’. Australia’s official dictionary is the Macquarie. In its 6th edition it defines ‘exploit’ as ‘to turn to practical account; to utilise for profit; to use selfishly for one’s own ends’.

Shriver was pointing out that we live in an age in which, even if you make something up, and even if you own that intellectual property, the story is not yours to tel. Your stories, the ones that you create, are not your own. They need to be mediated by society before they are allowed.

This is tricky territory! It’s tricky because in social groupthink, we are taught that cultures have particular stories. That they have been deprived of the right of telling those stories. This kind of cultural repression has been the case, absolutely. But groupthink is now telling us that if you use a character that is not from your culture, then you will probably do a poor job and introduce prejudices that disallow the actual voices to shine through. That those people have to tell those stories.

So, who is talking about the businesses who allow the disparity? The publishers? The marketers? The buyers? Nobody. The production of stories is not just down to the writers. Having them in public requires a mechanism of business, and if a writer can’t do that themselves, then they’re at the mercy of a business with a bottom line.

But it’s also tricky because it’s intensely personal. It’s personal and cultural.

And it’s hypocritical. It’s hypocritical because social groupthink will at once put Colin Thiele on a fiction writing throne, while simultaneously claiming that the Aboriginal voices in his stories are not his to write, all while frying Shriver in the political butter.

There’s a problem with the hypocrisy of the highly sensitive groupthink, and it’s this exact problem that Shriver was addressing. She hit nerves. The fact that she hit nerves says more for the truth of what she had to say than anything else.

But Shriver did piss about. She went out of her way to draw examples that were controversial. She purposely compared the cultural experience to the experience required for crime writing. She did it. It is what it is. But you can’t hate her for it, because also it might look ridiculous, it looks ridiculous because we have been conditioned not to question social cultural groupthink that disallows debate. In fact, if – as Shriver posits – writers of culture must be possessors of that culture, then writers of murder must be possessors of murderous experience.

You can’t claim one and then allow the other, if fiction has ‘rules’ about what is allowed in terms of possession of experience.

Then came the trump card (pun unintended and unfortunate) that ‘the ultimate end point of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction’.

No matter what you feel about her personally, this is the critical notion of her otherwise embellished narrative. The critical point is that if you can only write your own culture, your own experience, then “all that’s left is memoir”. Fiction will not be possible.

She goes on to talk about the other side of this problem. That, as artists in a Western culture you are at once expected to avoid appropriation, while also being inclusive. On the one hand, we as artists are not allowed to write about other people’s experiences if we don’t have those experiences. But we have to include a spread of cultures if we are going to be appropriate.

Can you see the problem? Can you see what this does?  What this does is create a culture of including things because we have to, because the rules say that we have to. Not because they’re realistic, or appropriate, or even beneficial for the story or the problem. But because we have to make a gesture towards inclusivity.

That’s what a token is. That’s why there’s one black kid in South Park whose name is Token. He is a token black character, who was created for exactly this reason, and they took the piss out of that.

This very idea of not writing other cultures, yet including tokens, tells writers that their own stories are not appropriate. Your stories are not your own, to sell them you have to comply to the rules. Your own creativity, sense of form, and even your authenticity, are not appropriate. What is appropriate is that you conform.

And so the cycle goes on.

Shriver went on to discuss the type of anxiety that this creates in an artist, peppered by illustrations from her own experience. She described the position she has found herself in, where as a result of criticism about the speech of her ethnic characters (whom she went to pains to research, subsequently worrying that her research is not good enough) that she now makes sure that they couldn’t be seen as anything other than perfectly lovely. She went on to comment about how she brands herself as an iconoclast, but knows that if she left herself open to public attack that she would self-censor out of fear.

‘There will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead,’ she said.

She is right. Nowhere except on social media are people so willing to attack others.

But then she went on to say that a nationality isn’t an identity.

Wow. Fighting words, to a community that prides itself on its separateness and separate identities, and clamours to be recognised as such. This caused serious uproar, from people tweeting furiously about how as they’re Asian they don’t have an identity, and so on.

People identify very strongly with their nationalities. We are trained to do this, from the very moment we start interacting with people. We ask people where they’re from, where their family is from, as though being born in the same country as someone else isn’t enough.

But is your nationality also how you identify yourself? I would hope not. If someone told me being Australian isn’t an identity, I wouldn’t give two shits. If they told me that I’m not an Australian because I’m not an Indigenous Australian, I’d think they are a bit odd. But that’s because my identity isn’t me. I am me.

Regrettably, few people think like this. It’s a shame because it’s a risk to you personally. Shriver went on to point out that when you cling to an external identity, you become a type; when you are a type you are asking people not to see You.

You. Yes, you. You as you are. You as a human, separate from your Australianness, or your Greekness, or your Englishness, or your Aboriginalness, or your Asianness. You are you. You are not your gender. You are not your deformity. You are not your size, your pain, your education, your suburb, your parents.

You can be proud of your lineage, and write about it, and have that celebrated. It informs how you see the world, but it is not you and does not define you. You can choose to learn from your cultural framework, but when you use something external with which to define yourself then you can be easily shaken.

And easily shaken the Brisbane Writers Festival audience appeared to be. Perhaps it was too philosophically deep for them.

If you had to choose between no identity and being typed, which would you choose? You see, it’s not just semantics, is it. But the reaction is completely predictable: When you challenge people’s most deeply held beliefs, when people feel like their deepest views of themselves are challenged, they react. That’s a demonstrable fact; try to tell any dedicated Christian that God doesn’t exist. It’s the same kind of reaction, because deeply held beliefs just cannot be changed by persuasive rhetoric. There’s no point arguing reasonably with someone whose beliefs have been challenged, because there’s no benefit for people on either side.

So, where did the speech end, then? Shriver wound up her speech by talking about how most writing sucks, but it dosn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. That as writers we can’t afford to have restrictions placed on us. That as writers we often try to assume the metier of other people and fail: We fail hard, but we have to keep doing it.

Shriver’s speech was an argument against placing restrictions on people whose trade is to slice up and rework the fabric of the cultures in which they see themselves. That’s what they do. If they aren’t allowed to do that as part of their work within fiction, they’ll just end up writing themselves, and that isn’t fiction: It’s memoir.

It is a highly political speech. It was one (white) woman, standing on a stage, challenging notions of self and other. The speech asked people to recognise the hidden tides of power and power play, and shone a light on the ideas that audience members have about themselves as people and as artists.

But did she say anything derogatory? No. Did she say things that are challenging? Absolutely. Did she tell us to stop acknowledging other cultures? No. Did she tell us that other cultures are not valid? No.
What she did do is ask us to consider our own boundaries and frameworks, and to challenge them. She did that in order to get people to try and see that this hypersensitivity is a real thing, and to acknowledge that if it persists, it will stop people from engaging in meaningful writing.

The challenge that we as artists face – and that we as humans face- is that we are becoming part of a society that does not allow people to shine light in sensitive areas, to highlight, discuss, or challenge ideas about potentially sensitive topics. Anyone who does faces their own wall of wailing voices that are striving to drown whoever the speaker is.

Those who are courageous enough to stand up and say, hey you know what I totally sympathise with you, but you are going to hate me for it, need to be celebrated. It doesn’t mean that you need to agree with them. Or with me. Or with anybody. But to talk back to it requires an openness that few now possess.

What artists need to do is to talk to each other, to share the stories, to allow those who are good at representation to do it regardless of who (or what) they are. If you separate yourself from that, you are no better than those who say you shouldn’t do it in the first place. Shutting it down because of an idea that it’s inappropriate for someone to represent your culture (even if they do it well) because they are not embedded in your culture is dangerous to all artists everywhere.

Before you react and tell me that I’m also a racist, bigoted cunt, consider that the official definition of racism in Australia is “the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others”. It strikes me, from reading Shriver’s speech, that she isn’t a proponent of racism. Rather, that she knows how to press the right buttons, to get the right kind of backlash to prove her own most important point: That any kind of hypersensitivity is a danger to all artists. And yes, that includes you.

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