Cultural Appropriation: Political Correctness gone bad – it is all about respect!

I grew up in sheltered and homogeneous Norway in the sixties and seventies. Immigrants in general, and of coloured origin in particular, were few and far between and seen more as curiosities than any threat to our way of life. Norway do have a less than glorious history of the treatment of its own indigenous people (“Samer” – descendants of the first inhabitants that migrated to northern Scandinavia some 12,000 years ago), and many would say could have done more to protect the Jews that were in Norway at the beginning of the second world war. But in general, racism was literary a foreign problem in the idyllic Norway of my youth.

I had never met a black person until I moved to Chicago on an MBA student internship in my early twenties. There I slowly started to understand the long term effects of oppression and what the cultural and economic divide really means. My naivety on such matters actually helped me make some good friends amongst my “non-white” colleagues. In particular a couple of really interesting and cool “dudes”.  I couldn’t understand what they said half the time (one was from Boston, which didn’t make it any easier), but I enjoyed their company and learnt a lot about what it was like to be black in America, albeit a black of the more privileged kind.

One night at a bar, trying to be equally cool, I jokingly referred to one of them as a nigger, having heard how that’s how they would often refer to each other. I am glad my friends Neal and Preston understood my ignorance, laughed it off, and that they were both ex college footballers (“linebackers”, too) ready to protect a skinny Norwegian from some less tolerant bystanders who had overheard my faux pas!

“Nigger” is about as ugly as it gets when it comes to derogatory terms, deeply steeped as it is in the long and dark history of oppression of blacks in America. And as a white man, I indirectly represented the oppressors, and for me to use the language of the oppressors was (and is) offensive.

Today, of course, it is called “political correctness”.

A Google search reveals the most used definition of political correctness as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalise, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

It is a definition that also alludes to how political correctness is so often being (mis-)used. Both by those opposing an argument by dismissing it as “political correctness”; and on the other hand by those dismissing it as hindering their rights to use discriminatory, racist or derogatory language, i.e. their right to free speech.

In a society where free speech is (mostly) a given, the latter assertion is disingenuous and ignorant, and the former equally so and intellectually flawed. But not a day goes by in the public (and private) discourse without “being PC” used in debate to demean or diminish an argument. The validity of the term has thus lost all meaning.

What has been lost is the notion of showing respect. Respect for those different to us. Respect for those from a different background. Respect for those that hold other values to us, whether it is on political, philosophical, religious or any other grounds. Respect for people whose background we may not know, whose history we have no understanding of, or whose entire life experience may be diametrically different to our own.

In that bar in Chicago I wasn’t politically incorrect, I was disrespectful of a people whose background I could hear about, read about, learn about and even begin to understand, but never experience first hand.

Doesn’t mean I couldn’t write about it, though. Although many would say that I should not.

The issue of Cultural Appropriation is an equally “hot” topic, especially since American author Llionel Shriver so eloquently addressed it with her “Sombrero Speech” at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016 where she derided those that shut down a party where some college students in the state of Maine, US, had partied wearing the rather ubiquitous wide brimmed hats preferred by some Mexicans.

According to the Wikipedia, Cultural Appropriation is a “concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. … Cultural elements which may have deep meaning to the original culture may be reduced to “exotic” fashion or toys by those from the dominant culture.”

So again, it is about showing respect. Respect for difference, respect for other cultures with values other than our own, respect for others and what they hold dear. That may even preclude the wearing of Sombreros, at least to the degree that it somehow perpetuates negative stereotypes about race, cultural groups, genders or minority groups. (Apparently no Mexcicans were particularly perturbed by the young Maine party-goers, though.)

Shriver’s point was that as a writers it is not just our right, but fundamental to our art, that we should be able to write from perspectives different to our own. I would add, if showing respect by taking the time to learn and appreciate what we write about. As Graham Greene did in many of his novels set far away from his home in Hertfordshire in East England. Today he may well have been accused of cultural appropriation, even though his villains and stereotypes were as much the characters from his own background as the natives of the “exotic” places where his novels were often set. Graham Greene had first hand knowledge of the places and people he wrote about. He showed respect.

In academic circles there is a strongly held view that cultural appropriation should be avoided at almost all cost. Much of it fuelled by a commendable desire to protect the culture of any and all minorities from being demeaned. Another strong voice against Shriver was {then} ABC journalist Yassmin Abdel-Magied who strenuously argued that Shriver celebrated the “unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others“, an argument that would, in my view, limit artistic expression to the sameness of a farmers fair in Wagga Wagga.

Art, including writing in general and fiction in particular, is one of the best connectors we have. Artists are observers and art can help us “understand the incomprehensible” as Helene Cixuous (“Three steps on the ladder of writing”) said: “This is what writing is: I one language, I another language, and between the two, the line that makes them vibrate; writing forms a passageway between two shores.

But the writing still has to be “good” – as in actually reaching an audience, otherwise it is pointless. There is also no doubt that “Taboo” author Kim Scott is better at writing from an aboriginal perspective than, say, Tim Winton, might be. But that is also no argument for the latter not to give it a go. As the lover of everything Australian that he is, I hope he will one day!

As for me, I have absolutely no intention of writing a novel from the perspective of a black college footballer from Boston. Not because I don’t believe I have the right to, but because I don’t know enough and because of that it would be a terrible book. A real “nigger in the woodpile” – definitely mis-appropriated, politically incorrect and above all a most disrespectful choice of words for which I apologise in the name of art and the freedom of speech. And Mark Twain.


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Why Democracy is Broken

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