Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

Language Tricks on the Quad

What is “symbolic violence”? A popular PC language maneuver, taking something non-violent and associating it with danger and crime. A rhetorical trick that creates and magnifies a sense of crisis among campus activists. Here is a guide to proper usage. You too can translate from PC to English.

Visual Rape. Peeping or ogling. Checking a woman out without getting her written permission.

Cultural appropriation. Sartorial theft. Wearing hoop earrings or any garment invented by someone in another culture.

Intellectual harassment. Criticism, disagreement. The gravest version is “anti-feminist harassment. Prof. Annette Kolodney at the University of Arizona says “This serious threat to academic freedom” occurs when any statement or behavior has the intent or effect of devaluing (feminist) ideas about women.

Non-traditional violence. Criticism, disagreement (see intellectual harassment). Lani Guinier says she became a victim of non-traditional violence when the media attacked her novel plans for proportional racial voting in 1993. Husbands who argue with their wives are behaving in a non-traditionally domestically violent manner.

Mental Rape, emotional rape. Paula Jones said Bill Clinton’s unzipped behavior was “almost like a mental rape.” Monica Lewinsky said she felt emotionally raped by Kenneth Starr.

Symbolic and low-tech gang rape. Feminist Catherine Stimpson’s term for Anita Hill’s treatment by the Senate Judiciary Committee. A rebuttal to Clarence Thomas’s ‘high-tech lynching” (a nontechnical non-lynching.).

Economic violence. Jesse Jackson’s term for abrupt plant closings, home foreclosures and other economic dislocations.

Economic censorship. Any boycott against any product or person associated with your side of a political issue. Also a familiar complaint by artists, meaning “Nobody is buying my work,” closely related to censorship by omission, which means ‘Why am I never on TV? “Why don’t I get invited to big parties?”

Retinal chauvinism. Flashy internet graphics that totally disregard the visually impaired.”  Web design is primarily driven by retinal chauvinists,” said Jerry Kuns, a technology specialist for the California School for the Blind. “Pictures are great, but they are stumbling blocks to me.”

Emotional intelligence, bodily intelligence. Harvard’s Howard Gardner, who concocted the theory of multiple intelligences, was once asked, ‘why?’.” If I had called them talents, no one would have paid any attention,” he said. So now, everybody is smart in some way, even if they can’t read or write. And thanks to Gardner no athlete can ever be called a dumb jock. If they are athletic, they can’t be dumb—they have bodily intelligence.

Semantic violence. Northwestern University professor Regina Schwartz says the biblical covenant between God and the Israelites committed semantic violence by cutting the Israelites off from any sense of common humanity with other peoples. She has said that religions with only one god induce violence behaviors.

Cultural genocide. Intellectual genocide. Complete destruction of one culture by another. Or an easy but vague way of complaining about American public schools. “Public school students (in Washington) are being subjected to a particularly insidious brand of intellectual genocide—Columnist Courtland Milloy.

Environmental racism. A racialized version of NIMBY. No dumps or incinerators in my backyard, please.

Symbolic hate crimes. Noncriminal incidents with doubtful connections to hate or bias. At Swarthmore College years ago, feces was discovered at a table in the Intercultural center. Outraged critics didn’t miss a beat when the offending substance turned out to be chocolate cake because the cake “had the symbolic effect of a hate crime.” This proves that baked goods can be hate speech if you think about them hard enough.

Halloween Is Now a Beat for the Bias Police

On campus, the holiday is at least as much fun as a 4-hour trip to the dentist. Students involved in fraternities and sororities at Tufts University, where the First Amendment is apparently not widely known, were told to not wear anything that could offend or annoy others during Halloween celebrations – or risk getting investigated by campus police and being hit with “serious disciplinary sanctions.”

The University of Florida considered the possibility of mental and emotional impairment by costume and offered to counsel students “troubled” by incidents involving Halloween costumes. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Bias Incident Team made sure that three women dressed as “Three Blind Mice” costumes that mocked the disabled last year did not do so again.

three-blind-mice

The University of Texas-Austin issued a grim 29-point guide to terrible mistakes in costuming, including unique or exotic themes. “A theme connected to our own communities are more likely to be respectful and fun for everyone (e.g. rather than a “jungle” theme, try a ‘Texas beach’ theme).

(More fun if the motif at a Texas party is just plain old Texas.)

Costumes Coded for Threat Levels

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, several signs around campus instructed students to avoid cultural appropriation when planning their Halloween costumes. The signs were posted in residence halls as part of an initiative led by the university’s diversity office, its Center for Women and Community, and its Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success.

One poster features a meter similar to the terrorism alert meter used by the federal government. Called the Simple Costume Racism Evaluation and Assessment Meter (or SCREAM), the poster displays five threat levels, all assigned a different color. Students worried about the possible threat level of their costumes were told to check with SCREAM in advance.

At Yale, where last Halloween’s great upheaval took place (Erica Christakis and her husband were shrieked at, threatened, cursed by a mob of students and in effect driven from the university because she had suggested that Yale men and women could make costume decisions with Administration guidance) the new head of Silliman, where the Christakis’s once were, held a Halloween party with a “spook team” and commemorated a fictional girl who supposedly had burned to death in the house.

Kishore Chundi ’20 said he appreciated the respect and sensitivity of the costumed actors. Organizers took precautions to ensure that attendees were comfortable. Santos stood at the entryway to the haunted house to warn attendees about the strobe lights inside and explain to students that they could leave at any point. “They made sure you could tap out at any time if it was too much to handle,” Chundi said.

Wear that Batik Dress and You’re a Cultural Appropriator

 What follows are excerpts from the keynote speech on “Fiction and Identity Politics” delivered September 8 at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia by Lionel Shriver.

Let’s start with a tempest-in-a-teacup at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Earlier this year, two students, both members of student government, threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend. The hosts provided attendees with miniature sombreros, which—the horror— numerous partygoers wore.

When photos of the party circulated on social media, campus-wide outrage ensued. Administrators sent multiple emails to the “culprits” threatening an investigation into an “act of ethnic stereotyping.” Partygoers were placed on “social probation,” while the two hosts were ejected from their dorm and later impeached. Bowdoin’s student newspaper decried the attendees’ lack of “basic empathy.”

The student government issued a “statement of solidarity” with “all the students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and demanded that administrators “create a safe space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.” The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that “creates an environment where students of color, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” In sum, the party-favor hats constituted – wait for it – “cultural appropriation.”

Curiously, across my country Mexican restaurants, often owned and run by Mexicans, are festooned with sombreros – if perhaps not for long.

But what does this have to do with writing fiction? 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.

Yet were their authors honoring the new rules against helping yourself to what doesn’t belong to you, we would not have Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. We wouldn’t have most of Graham Greene’s novels, many of which are set in what for the author were foreign countries, and which therefore have Real Foreigners in them, who speak and act like foreigners, too.

In his masterwork English Passengers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained himself from including chapters written in an Aboriginal’s voice – though these are some of the richest, most compelling passages in that novel. If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled – because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to “appropriate” the isolation of a paraplegic – we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun.

Though the book is nonfiction, it’s worth noting that we also wouldn’t have 1961’s Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of “blackface.” Having his skin darkened – Michael Jackson in reverse – Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. He’d be excoriated today, yet that book made a powerful social impact at the time.

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. How are we fiction writers to seek “permission,” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

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.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

So far, the majority of these farcical cases of “appropriation” have concentrated on fashion, dance, and music: At the American Music Awards 2013, Katy Perry got it in the neck for dressing like a geisha. According to the Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar, for someone like me to practice belly dancing is “white appropriation of Eastern dance,” while according to the Daily Beast Iggy Azalea committed “cultural crimes” by imitating African rap and speaking in a “blaccent.”

The felony of cultural sticky fingers even extends to exercise: at the University of Ottawa in Canada, a yoga teacher was shamed into suspending her class, “because yoga originally comes from India.” She offered to re-title the course, “Mindful Stretching.”

Seriously, we have people questioning whether it’s appropriate for white people to eat pad Thai. Turnabout, then: I guess that means that as a native of North Carolina, I can ban the Thais from eating barbecue. (I bet they’d swap.)

Writing fiction is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.

As for the culture police’s obsession with “authenticity,” fiction is inherently inauthentic. It’s fake. It’s self-confessedly fake; that is the nature of the form, which is about people who don’t exist and events that didn’t happen. The name of the game is not whether your novel honors reality; it’s all about what you can get away with.

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!

We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

Besides: which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

For it can be dangerous these days to go the diversity route. Especially since there seems to be a consensus on the notion that San Francisco reviewer put forward that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.”

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralyzing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

Why, it’s largely in order to keep from losing my fictional mojo that I stay off Facebook and Twitter, which could surely install an instinctive self-censorship out of fear of attack. Ten years ago, I gave the opening address of this same festival, in which I maintained that fiction writers have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s right to offend others – because if hurting someone else’s feelings even inadvertently is sufficient justification for muzzling, there will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead. With the rise of identity politics, which privileges a subjective sense of injury as actionable basis for prosecution, that is a battle that in the decade since I last spoke in Brisbane we’ve been losing.

Worse: the left’s embrace of gotcha hypersensitivity inevitably invites backlash. Donald Trump appeals to people who have had it up to their eyeballs with being told what they can and cannot say. Pushing back against a mainstream culture of speak-no-evil suppression, they lash out in defiance, and then what they say is pretty appalling.

We should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth.

Writing during the day and reading when I go to bed at night, I find it an enormous relief to escape the confines of my own head. Even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people. We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.

Lionel Shriver is an American journalist and author who is resident in the United Kingdom. Her novels include We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Mandibles.

A Targeted Teacher at Yale Quits

The problem of political correctness at Yale has comes up again because it let a good scholar quit teaching under heavy pressure from students over a very mild email she wrote about Halloween costumes at Yale.

The email said she thought that an official campus group really shouldn’t be telling students what costumes to avoid. PC people have been labeling the wearing of various costumes as “cultural appropriation”– for instance, only a pirate should be wearing a pirate’s costume. Nicholas Christakis and his wife, Erika Christakis, a lecturer in psychology and early childhood development at Yale’s Child Study Center, emerged as targets of black students and other “marginalized” students and their allies. Her message lamented what she called an increasingly censorial and prohibitory climate at American universities.”

A group of angry students confronted Nicholas Christakis, master of Silliman College, one of the residential Yale houses. A few of the students cursed him out and seemed to threaten him (“We know where you live”) because he and his wife, the associate master of Silliman, had failed to provide them proper comfort and a safe space.

Peter Salovey, president of Yale, and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, the highest-ranking black official at Yale, both issued notably cold and feeble responses to Christakis’ decision to quit teaching at the university.

The Yale Daily News reported:

Among the demands made by Next Yale, a fledgling campus activist group that addresses issues of race on campus was the removal of Nicholas and Erika Christakis from the positions of master and associate master of Silliman College, respectively. The demands, presented to University President Peter Salovey at his home at around midnight on Nov. 12, do not mention the Christakies’ roles as Yale educators.

On Nov. 17, Salovey and Holloway wrote that they “fully support” the Christakises’ mastership in a joint email to Silliman students.

Two open letters published last months by various professors — one supporting student concerns about racism and marginalization, and another standing in solidarity with the Christakises — gave voice to multiple sides of a heated debate over free speech, sensitivity and racism on Yale’s campus. The first letter was signed by several hundred faculty members, including the Christakises. The second, authored by physics professor Douglas Stone and signed by 69 faculty members, said those who have mounted a campaign against Erika Christakis have reduced the “educational variety” for all Yale undergraduates.

“As faculty colleagues we wish to express our strong support of the right of Erika and Nicholas Christakis to free speech and freedom of intellectual expression,” the letter stated.

In past years, hundreds of students shopped each of Erika Christakis’ classes, Stone said, adding that she planned to teach additional seminar sections this year to handle the demand. He added that attacks, not just on Christakis’ email, but on her character and integrity as well, have led to her decision not to teach. Stone said he encouraged Christakis to reconsider her decision to stop teaching after a “cooling off period.”

Although Stone said he welcomes criticism by students and faculty as part of a respectful dialogue, he said he thought the response to Christakis’ letter unfairly characterized her words as racist.

“It goes without saying that faculty using racial epithets or harassing speech … should not be tolerated or defended in any way,” Stone said. “I don’t think that is at issue in the current situation.”