Jonathan Kay: Cultural appropriation should be debated. Too bad Canada’s Writers Union instead chose to debase itself 

Along with Liz Renzetti, one of the best commentaries and sad that he felt compelled to resign:

What I (and other Canadian writers and editors) am angry about is the effort by TWUC and its Equity Task Force (which released its own statement) to shame Niedzviecki, and to suggest that his liberal approach to speech is somehow outside the bounds of respectable discourse. TWUC’s over-the-top apology describes the “pain” that the article allegedly caused. It’s part of what may be described as the medicalization of the marketplace of ideas: It is no longer enough to say that you merely disagree with something. Rather, the author must be stigmatized as a sort of dangerous thought criminal. Indeed, the Equity Task Force situates Niedzviecki as an apologist for “cultural genocide,” and accuses him of peddling “a long-debunked false universalism.” The Task Force also claims that the publication of his article is a symptom of “structural racism,” or possibly even “brazen malice.”

This is extraordinary language coming from an organization that represents the interests of “professionally published book authors.” Their mandate should be to seek the broadest possible range of opportunities for their constituents—not act as a chorus for the most restrictive views on acceptable speech.

Unfortunately, this controversy seems to have propelled TWUC in the opposite direction. Its Equity Task Force has released a list of demands aimed at changing TWUC policies, which reads like something out of an undergraduate protest group—including affirmative action hires at TWUC, more humiliating acts of retraction and apology, and sensitivity training sessions. As with all such manifestos, the stiff, dogmatic language carries the creepy whiff of party-line orthodoxy—which is all the more unsettling when you realize that the individuals making these demands are supposed to be professional writers.

Interestingly, the critiques of cultural appropriation offered by Indigenous writers are far more nuanced (and, to my mind, persuasive) than any you will find offered by TWUC. “Do I care if you have a native character in your stupid book about wandering pants or whatever?” writes First Nations writer Robert Jago, for instance. “No. Write away. It doesn’t affect me. But if you’re writing about Native politics, or if you’re writing about crime or drug use, or abuse—that stuff affects us. By writing us one way, and not understanding us properly, you are misrepresenting us and reinforcing harmful stereotypes. You might not think stereotypes matter, but they do when you’re Native and stereotypes prevent you from getting painkillers for an injury.”

“Wandering pants” is a particularly nice touch. But what I really appreciated here was that Jago didn’t go in for jargon: He writes about examples of the real harm—people not getting needed medical attention—that can result when writers get Indigenous culture wrong.

There’s a debate to be had about cultural appropriation: What takes priority—the right of artists to extend their imagination to the entire human experience, or the right of historically marginalized communities to protect themselves from possible misrepresentation. Personally, I land on the side of free speech: I’m fearful that, as at many points in history, small acts of well-intentioned censorship will expand into a full-fledged speech code that prohibits whole categories of art and discourse. But I appreciate why others take the opposite view, especially after I’ve read the critiques of my own views on Twitter.

What I don’t find helpful is the reflexive instinct to shame those with whom we disagree—the kind on display at TWUC this week. Indeed, it is these mobbings that encourage the idea that free speech is under siege from a systematic program of left wing censorship. On both sides, it is fear and suspicion that is driving the social media rage. And as of this writing, there’s no sign it will dissipate soon.

Source: Jonathan Kay: Cultural appropriation should be debated. Too bad Canada’s Writers Union instead chose to debase itself | National Post

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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