Some of the greatest works of literature were produced in times of great social oppression. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was prevented from publishing his works on life in the Soviet gulags well into the 1960s, and many more of his works were suppressed until perestroika. Such suppression isn’t unique to the Soviet Union. Many social movements throughout history have done the same. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned throughout the Confederate South because it portrayed racial equality as having merit.
These days, arguments for censorship are masked under layers of political correctness. Recently, Orange Prize-winning author Lionel Shriver upset social justice ideologues with her keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Her crime was to decry the rise of identity politics in fiction and its chilling effect on creative freedom.
During the event, Shriver presented a talk called Fiction and Identity Politics where she mocked the concept of cultural appropriation, calling it “part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity” that encouraged the rise of new prohibitions on speech “supposedly in the interest of social justice.” Cultural appropriation is the nebulous concept that suggests it’s possible to “steal” from other cultures. If you’re white and you prepare sushi, you’re stealing from the Japanese—or so the argument goes.
The author, who released her 13th novel earlier this year, says that if these arguments are taken to their logical conclusion, then writers will be unable to write fiction at all because they will be constrained by allegations of stereotyping, not staying in their lane, and other imaginary sins.
Arguing against cultural appropriation, Shriver cited instances in which student unions banned Mexican restaurants from giving out sombreros and shut down Mexican-themed parties. To drive her point home, Shriver wore a sombrero on stage. While most of her audience openly supported her arguments and donned mini-sombreros themselves, one brave soul, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, decided to walk out and made a huge show of it. Of course, she wrote about her brave deed in the The Guardian afterward.
Shriver cited how another author, Chris Cleave, was singled out by what she calls the “culture police” for writing a book from the point of view of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl. It shouldn’t matter, she argued — the stories belong to the authors. Setting boundaries that prevent writers from including characters not of their own identity basically encourages writers to censor themselves.
She also pointed out that whenever writers fail to sufficiently include in their fiction a more diverse cast, they’re always condemned for it—a Catch-22. This isn’t too different from how games critic Tauriq Moosa condemned The Witcher 3 for having too few non-white characters in its medieval Poland-inspired fantasy setting, calling it “gaming’s race problem.” He argued that the lack of non-white representation in the title “plays into some racist mindsets.”
This demand for forced diversity certainly isn’t limited to literature and video games—it’s indiscriminate and reaches into all corners of society. But as Shriver states, it’s not a game you can win.
Echoing Abdel-Magied’s piece, Vox’s Constance Grady attempted to justify the argument over cultural appropriation and said the question of whether writers should even try to write about cultures they don’t belong to “deserves some serious discussion.”
This sounds an awful lot like censorship.
Why do limits on fiction, the very definition of “made up,” deserve serious discussion? Or any kind of discussion at all, really? There should be no limits to what topics a writer can write about, nor should there be limits on what songs a musician can compose, or illustrations an artist can paint.
Nothing should ever get in the way of any creator’s freedom of expression. If we declare some topics to be out-of-bounds, it won’t be long before we start building large bonfires out of all the problematic books and works of art (video games included, of course) of all the things society takes offense to.
A lot of art only exists to entertain, but some art challenges us to take a better look at the world around us, or even within ourselves. Neither of these things will be allowed to exist if perpetually offended social justice warriors have their way.