Friday, September 23, 2016

An Era of Weaponized Sensitivity

Lionel Shriver is not backing down from the controversial speech about Cultural Appropriation she made a few weeks ago at the Brisbane Writers' Festival:
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.

Nope — not in the topsy-turvy universe of identity politics. The festival immediately disavowed the address, though the organizers had approved the thrust of the talk in advance. A “Right of Reply” session was hastily organized. When, days later, The Guardian ran the speech, social media went ballistic. Mainstream articles followed suit. I plan on printing out The New Republic’s “Lionel Shriver Shouldn’t Write About Minorities” and taping it above my desk as a chiding reminder.

Viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the identity-politics movement — in which behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs is par for the course — is an assertion of generational power. Among milliennials and those coming of age behind them, the race is on to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved — who can replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand. . . .

As a lifelong Democratic voter, I’m dismayed by the radical left’s ever-growing list of dos and don’ts — by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. . . .

Ironically, only fellow liberals will be cowed by terror of being branded a racist (a pejorative lobbed at me in recent days — one that, however groundless, tends to stick). But there’s still such a thing as a real bigot, and a real misogynist. In obsessing over micro-aggressions like the sin of uttering the commonplace Americanism “you guys” to mean “you all,” activists persecute fellow travelers who already care about equal rights.

Moreover, people who would hamper free speech always assume that they’re designing a world in which only their enemies will have to shut up. But free speech is fragile. Left-wing activists are just as dependent on permission to speak their minds as their detractors.

In an era of weaponized sensitivity, participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught out for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity, that many are apt to bow out. Perhaps intimidating their elders into silence is the intention of the identity-politics cabal — and maybe my generation should retreat to our living rooms and let the young people tear one another apart over who seemed to imply that Asians are good at math.


G. Verloren said...

"(we) should not let concerns about “cultural appropriation” constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own"

This opening statement sets me firmly against Shriver in an unpleasant way.

Why should we not let such concerns constrain us? How can one reject such concerns so utterly and out of hand? What drives a person to dismiss the notion that maybe they should be careful about what they write, and attempt to minimize or even potentially entirely avoid offending or harming others with one's words?

I'm reminded of the fictional "Sincerist" movement of Spike Trotman's Templar, Arizona: a sub-culture obsessively dedicated to only speaking their purest, undiluted emotions and reactions, regardless of whether they are offensive, selfish, hurtful, or even insane. Members have no societal filters whatsoever - they say whatever pops into their brain at a given moment, no matter how dysfunctional or toxic, and damn the consequences. Unsurprisingly, they're pretty universally reviled, even among the story's screwball setting populated by dozens, if not hundreds, of equally obsessive sub-cultures, each with their own different absurdly dysfunctional quirk or philosophy.

Authors, like all other artists and creators, must always strive to be aware of the impact their works can have on other people - both intentionally and not. If you create a work that outrages people, or which promotes negative emotions and sentiments, you need to have a damn good reason for doing so, and you need to not take umbrage at individuals who fail to understand your message the way you intend, or who are offended or otherwise hurt by your words.

It isn't the responsibility of society to blindly support or accept an artist's work regardless of form or content. It is the artist's responsibility to create a work that speaks to others in a meaningful, constructive way, even if that requires tempering one's self expression to a less pure form. A work that is created without concern for how it will impact others, and without the goal of contributing positively to the lives of others, isn't art - it's megalomaniacal egotism.

If you don't care about the impact your self expression has on other people, and the possible harm or pain it can result in, then you have absolutely no business being an artist.

To be so outraged that society censures your work because it offends or harms others, is to be absurdly, almost impossibly myopic and self entitled, and seems to me to suggest some form of sociopathy or worse. The fact that Shriver goes on to frame herself as a victim of "weaponized" sensitivity without a scrap of self awareness of the victims of her own "weaponized" writing only seems to confirm the suspicion.

pootrsox said...

I disagree, G. V.

Shriver is not advocating for being "offensive, selfish, hurtful, or even insane."

She's advocating for the freedom to create fictional characters that are not identical to the author.

G. Verloren said...

She doesn't need to advocate that freedom - she already has it.

Everyone has the freedom to create fictional characters that are not identical to themselves. But if you use that freedom in negative ways, and then people take you to task for it, you don't get to call yourself a victim.

No one stopped her from writing what she wanted to write. She's already written it. Her complaint is that people found what she wrote to be offensive. How dare they criticize her work! Clearly they're trying to kill literature and steal away her freedom to write fiction, because they're militant anti-freedom crazies using weaponized sensitivity! How dare they be sensitive to her work! Help, help, she's being repressed!

Shriver is being an utter asshole. Sure, she has the right and freedom to be an utter asshole, if she really wants to be. But to then turn around and be shocked and offended that other people take her to task for acting like an asshole is mind boggling to me.

Her work is positively dripping with transparent racism. It is contrived and calculated to be deprecating of minorities and moralizing in support of white supremacist values. The characters she creates which are not identical to herself are uniquely and universally portrayed as flawed, inferior, wicked, hateful, and even downright evil.

She uses these character constructs not to speak honestly or fairly about people not identical to herself, but to revile and demonize them - to turn them into strawmen which she can attack and lambast in order to elevate her own position and interests. They are not honest, believeable representations of human beings and reality that exist to create a rich fictional narrative - they are crude caricatures purpose built to villainize The Other and lionize The Self in a disgusting display of self delusion and unhinged rationalization of intolerance and hatred.

And yes, she has the freedom and the right to write in this terrible, awful way. But she doesn't have the freedom to be excluded from the natural consequences of doing so, and she doesn't have the right to demand people not criticize her or her work. No one is robbing her of her freedoms, and no one has any responsibility to tolerate her words despite whatever harmful effects they may have on them.

Unknown said...

C.V. - you completely shifted your argument from stating that Shriver has no business being an artist if she offends others (your first post) to arguing that Shriver herself was being overly sensitive to criticism and to imply that it is Shriver who was demanding censorship.

Those two arguments of yours are mutually inconsistent and incompatible, which leads me to believe that you are a demagogue of the worst kind.

G. Miller