Cultural appropriation: Testing the limits of free speech

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Story highlights

  • Lionel Shriver, an American writer, stirred up controversy when she wore a sombrero at a literary festival in Australia
  • Jay Parini: Cultural appropriation requires a fine balance between regard for those marginalized and the traditions of free speech

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He recently published "New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Anyone familiar with the academic world has heard about the dangers of "cultural appropriation." It's a phrase used to denounce people who "steal" things from other cultures, sometimes with the aim to poke fun at that culture or -- worse -- belittle it. The debate on appropriation is one of the main fronts in the current culture war on campuses, and it's provoking heated, or overheated, conversations around the US and abroad.

Jay Parini
The latest outburst comes in the wake of an American writer's keynote speech at a literary festival in Australia. Her name is Lionel Shriver, and she was clearly out to provoke a reaction, wearing a sombrero throughout her talk (an allusion to a kerfuffle at Bowdoin College last year, where a couple of students were censored for wearing "mini-sombreros" to a tequila party).
    Shriver, as a novelist, makes several good points. As a writer, she wants to feel free to write about anything she wants. She's justifiably worried that "the kind of fiction we are 'allowed' to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we'd indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with."
    The speech brought the house down -- on her head. One novelist walked out in a fit of rage, and wrote about the incident in The Guardian, where she described Shriver's speech as "a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension."
    This is complex territory. To successfully navigate this terrain, one must have a deep sympathy for those who feel marginalized, while understanding that the traditions of free speech require us to allow many forms of speech that might be offensive. This is especially true in the area of fiction writing, where I would agree with Shriver completely that a writer needs wide latitude to go wherever he or she pleases. It's fiction, after all, and its main allegiance is to the truth of feeling conveyed by the work itself.
    The fact is, it's very hard to "appropriate" some material without seeming ignorant or tin-eared. A classic example of appropriation is the 1967 novel by William Styron, "The Confessions of Nat Turner," where a white Southern author takes on the voice of a black slave on a plantation. The first reviews were good, and Styron won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. But controversy followed rather swiftly. Ten black writers responded to the book in a harshly negative way, finding it inauthentic and dangerously misleading as a representation of the slave experience. Now, nearly half a century later, many critics -- including African-American writers -- take a more benign view of Styron's book, noting that at least it sparked interest in slave narratives while inspiring a number of truly great novels by Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Edward P. Jones and others.
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    In my view, a novelist must have absolute freedom to write anything -- as long as the writing is good, honest and deeply felt. Then culture will, in due course, separate the wheat from the chaff. Bad, inauthentic writing tends to disappear.
    But what about college students and "cultural appropriation," as when a white kid sings a rap song associated with black ghetto culture? Is it always wrong to use material from other cultures than one's own?
    I would give everyone a good deal of latitude here: culture is always produced by appropriation, as when we blend cuisines from other countries or enhance our styles of clothing with dashes of color or elegance from another country. I loved it when Paul Simon took on African rhythms in "Graceland." T.S. Eliot could not have written "The Waste Land" -- the most important poem of literary modernism -- without feeling free to "steal" lines from Hindu rituals, from dozens of other cultures. I doubt that the US Constitution could have been written without our Founding Fathers "stealing" from Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers. In the globalized world we occupy, we can and should expect all sorts of fascinating acts of appropriation that open up new veins of thought and feeling.
    Yet it's never appropriate to insult people. You may do so inadvertently, of course. And college kids as well as adults generally must be taught -- taught -- to consider the sensitivities of people who might take offense for good reason. Marginalized people, in particular -- immigrants, Muslims, people of color, gays or transgender people, those with physical disabilities -- should not be even further denigrated by crude behavior and stupid insults.
    Let's take a most obvious recent example: Donald Trump's mocking of a reporter with disabilities. The video went far and wide, and it's disgraceful.
    I suspect that anyone with a disability, including the man mocked by Trump, would have felt even further marginalized by his ridiculous behavior. And it's not a question of political correctness. PC means "plain civil." If you don't know how to behave, somebody should teach you.
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    American campuses are in the throes of coming to terms with this complicated reality, and the controversy will only lead to good things in the long run. That is, the conflicts themselves will cause intelligent, well-meaning people to debate what it means to behave in a civil manner. And there will be errors on all sides: that's in the nature of the dialectic.
    Eventually, people will (I hope) learn to behave in ways that show respect for those on the margins but still allow for a maximum of free speech. And novelists, no matter what anyone tells them, will write what compels them, saying the things they feel must be said, come hell or high water.