September 26, 2016
Still Other Things to Talk About When We Talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Author Talking About Racism
by Ryan Harrington
First we talked about novelist Lionel Shriver wearing a sombrero for part of her address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, wherein she espoused the unpopular opinion that arguments against cultural appropriation have gone too far. Then we talked about journalistic ethics, as at least one writer attending the festival thought her comments about Shriver’s point were off the record–only to find them printed in the New York Times a few days later.
Today we’ll talk about millennials, because that’s what Shriver wrote about in her op-ed in Friday’s New York Times titled “Will the Left Survive the Millennials?” She starts by explaining how she saw her now-controversial talk:
Briefly, my address maintained that fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction — thus should not let concerns about “cultural appropriation” constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own. I defended fiction as a vital vehicle for empathy. If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir. Honestly, my thesis seemed so self-evident that I’d worried the speech would be bland.
She then laments that, far from bland, today’s identity politics movement and the left-leaning millennials who march under that banner turned her topic into a controversy that never had to happen. Those millennials, she says, are seeking to “replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand.” She writes in disbelief of the fact that “weaponized sensitivity” and the urge to limit certain types of speech is, today, coming from the left. As she puts it, this is the type of tyrannical political correctness that pushes voters closer to Donald Trump. In her mind, some of the pet causes of today’s youth may bring about the end of the Left as we know it.
The op-ed comes to ask the question, “Do we really want every intellectual conversation to be scrupulously cleansed of any whiff of controversy?” It’s a fine question, and I think that Shriver underestimates the fact that most lefty millennials would swipe left on it. But I don’t think it is the question that follows most directly from the implicit question that started this mess: Should we take cultural appropriation seriously?
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.