Lionel Shriver and combating the selfishness of freedom of expression

By Adolfo Aranjuez
beyonce cultural appropriation
Beyonce's 'Formation'

Perhaps predictably, I’m chipping in to the debate surrounding Lionel Shriver’s dismissal of cultural appropriation at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival. I won’t write about the controversy itself; for that, read the pieces by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Yen-Rong Wong, Helen Razer and Nesrine Malik. What I’d like to discuss are the parallels between this topic, the push to repeal Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, and other issues that have recently made the rounds on social media, such as the “probbo” use of African-American Vernacular English among youth, an Anglo-Australian writer deeming the term “wog” no longer derogatory, and Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham publicly objectifying two black male celebrities. 

At the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival, I spoke on the “Media Justice” panel and suggested that we be critical even of “stupid” Hollywood films because they embody the politics we subscribe to. I’d argue this extends to all forms of communication: words and images distil our preoccupations and presumptions about the world. This is why literary analysis and media literacy are such priorities in schools – from a young age, we need to be equipped with the tools to decode the implicit messages when, say, a man calls a woman “hysterical” or a white cartoonist satirises Aboriginal fathers as incompetent.

It’s never “just words” or “just a sombrero” or “just a Hollywood film”; to dismiss cultural sensitivity’s seriousness is to disempower those it seeks to safeguard.

Language is, in fact, the perfect conduit for microaggression. These days, prejudice is less overt – more insidious – and the apparently small-scale impact of a word or image conveniently belies its deeper implications.

In a forthcoming piece for Screen Education, David Crewe cites the subtly patronising use of “articulate” as a compliment for African-Americans. Laurence Barber has identified the stealthy silencing of queerness when characters “just so happen” to be gay. In both cases, the seemingly throwaway comments are, at heart, normative judgments about minorities passing the standards of – or even passing as – members of the dominant group. Less “them”, more “us”.

When a figure like Shriver makes light of a concept that has catalysed discussion about ethical responsibility, it robs that idea of its political impetus. Cultural appropriation does have the potential to be oppressive because, as Abdel-Magied has pointed out, for the marginalised, identity is sometimes all we have. Our idiolects, our dance moves, our art and artefacts – these are means by which to make ourselves belong amid a system that has made us feel unwelcome. It’s never “just words” or “just a sombrero” or “just a Hollywood film”; to dismiss cultural sensitivity’s seriousness is to disempower those it seeks to safeguard, especially as Shriver and her ilk are speaking from positions of privilege.

At “Media Justice”, my fellow panellists and I also agreed that, to remedy inequality, change must come from all directions. Top–down instances of targeting inclusivity are the most potent, as they give the movement public validation. One such instance from April this year saw the Merriam-Webster Dictionary institutionalise the terms cisgender and genderqueer, following the Oxford’s lead. Facebook has allowed users to self-identify as one of fifty-six genders since 2014, and the New York City government now legally recognises at least thirty-one genders. The growing acceptance of the gender-neutral “singular they” by editors (see: my own tweet from 2015, despite my earlier – selfish – reservations about it) further exemplifies this. Beyond the acknowledgment of non-binary gender, examples include Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative and the Indigenous-centric Blak & Bright writers’ festival.

It’s not just up to those in prominent positions, however; change from the grassroots must happen as well. In “Formation”, Beyoncé reminds us that the “best revenge is your paper [money]”, alluding to how our actions as citizens and consumers are inevitably political – whether we want them to be or not. Every choice is loaded, betraying our conceptions of people, culture and society. This illustrates why cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is the prevailing method for psychological treatment: we need to unlearn the problematic ideas underpinning our behaviour before we can modify it. Power, therefore, stems from naming and reframing. 

Much like with CBT, of course, we need to want the change for the “therapy” to work. And central to all this kerfuffle is the belief that cultural sensitivity “robs” us of our freedom of expression. Yet, as philosopher Isaiah Berlin has posited, we can conceive of freedom in two ways: “negative liberty” (the pet notion of Western liberal democracies) espouses the absence of any obstacles to agency, whereas “positive liberty” focuses on enacting freedom within constructive restraints. Truly “free” expression, I’d argue, is about working within the constraints of transformative ethics and preventing harm.

Last column, I cautioned against militant identity-politicking, which can certainly stunt political discourse if left unchecked. At the same time, protection from being “called out” rests on us – as artists, as communicators, as consumers – taking responsibility for our actions. When faced with the choice between safeguarding others from potential hurt, or risking it just so each of us can “do what I want”, surely it’s better – even if it involves extra effort – to opt for avoiding harm? Words and ideas are weapons; we need to wield them, not just with skill, but with care.

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