Sunday, May 14, 2017

Dubious Canadian Initiative

The editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine has resigned after complaints over an article he wrote in which he said he doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation.

Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write — a publication for the union’s members — published an opinion piece in the spring 2017 issue titled “Writer’s Prompt.” In the article, in an issue dedicated to indigenous writing, Niedzviecki wrote: “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.

“I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He went on to argue that Canadian literature remains “exhaustingly white and middle class” because writers are discouraged from writing about people and places they don’t know.
I am not sure what I will have to resign from, but before I go on I had better mention that I don't believe in cultural appropriation, either.  But wait, it gets worse.
“The Writer’s Prompt piece offended and hurt readers, contributors to the magazine and members of the editorial board,” said the statement. “We apologize unequivocally. We are in the process of contacting all contributors individually.

“The intention behind the magazine is to offer space for honest and challenging discussion and to be sincerely encouraging to all voices. The Union recognizes that intention is not enough, and that we failed in execution in this instance.

“We offer the magazine itself as a space to examine the pain this article has caused, and to take this conversation forward with honesty and respect,” the statement concluded.
They offer space for all voices except, apparently, the voice of reason.

I find the notion that we should not borrow practices, ideas or from other cultures absolutely and completely ludicrous. Consider a short list of things people of European descent who believe cultural appropriation is wrong should give up:
drinking coffee
drinking tea
smoking (anything)
eating corn, tomatoes, or hot peppers
Meanwhile, the first thing Native Canadians are going to have to give up is publishing essays and short stories in literary magazines.

It seems to me that the real flash point in some of these conflicts is money. The National Post story quotes a First Nations writer as saying that “white writers' voices are lifted up, while the people who are from those cultures are pushed down and kept outside the industry.” So it seems that she wants Native writers to have a commercial monopoly on telling native stories, as a sort of affirmative action. Which might or might not be a sensible policy – I am certainly not going to defend the North American publishing industry as a rational or merit-based entity – but has nothing to do with cultural appropriation. Come to think of it, the complaint I have read about white musicians taking over rock-and-roll is also partly about money, that is, black critics don't object to whites getting into black music, just that they then took it over and made most of the profit. Some, I think, are also bothered that we have forgotten where rock came from and imagine it as a white form, but 1) that certainly doesn't apply to anyone who knows 20th-century music, and 2) by this time the music has evolved in ways that bring in contributions from all over, so where is the "origin" of the music they play on rock radio now?

But to me that is beside the point. The real point is that borrowing things from other cultures is a good thing, in fact one of the best things. We should not be close minded. We should not refuse to engage with people, ideas, or practices from other cultures; we should embrace that engagement. We should make our own lives out of pieces from everywhere in the world, taking from every culture what we like best, choosing our friends with no regard to what they look like or where they come from. As far as I am concerned, the opposite of cultural appropriation is ethno-nationalism. Is that what the Writers' Union of Canada wants to promote? Do they seriously want white people to refuse to have anything to do with black, Asian, or Native culture?

If some bold person does set up a prize for the best writing about people in a completely different culture, please let me know so I can contribute to their prize fund.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

My stance is still the same since your last post on this subject, so I'll briefly sum up.

Cultural appropriation certainly exists. I don't see how that can be debated.

That said, most of the time it is perfectly fine, producing either harmless or actually beneficial results, and it's something all cultures engage in naturally. I don't see how anyone could object to respectful appropriation.

But that said, there are still lots of ways to be insulting, offensive, disrespectful, and even outright damaging in the way you choose to appropriate something, and for what purposes. And when you hear or read about someone complaining about "cultural appropriation", typically what they're actually complaining about is the kind of appropriation that is done in such a toxic manner. We're talking cigar store Indians, frat boys throwing racist Cinco de Mayo parties, et cetera. Basically anything where you take someone else's culture and spit on it for your own amusement or profit.

Now, yes - there are some people who are confused and who do argue that all cultural appropriation is evil, which is clearly nonsense. Only some of it is problematic. But likewise, to be on the other side and argue that no cultural appropriation whatsoever is evil, or that it doesn't even really exist, is just as ludicruous.

Some of this confusion might be attributeable to language, of course. We're using a nonspecific blanket term to refer to an entire spectrum of activity, some of it good, some of it bad. Is it any wonder many people end up conflating it all together, when it all technically falls under the awkward term of "Cultural Appropriation"? We need more precise language. But I digress.

The point is, we should not be afraid to engage in cultural appropriation, but we should also strive to be as respectful as possible.

As I said last time, we need to make sure we don't reduce "an entire history and culture - or even many distinct, different cultures - into a crudely simplified, mindless, often absurdly commercialized shorthand symbolism, whose only purpose is to amuse and profit off of the ignorant and shortsighted."