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Lionel Shriver: We need to not talk about cultural appropriation

On the heels of the Today programme’s invitation to discuss ‘cultural appropriation’ (again), the New York Times reported the disheartening fate of a Canadian magazine editor, Hal Niedzviecki. ‘Anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,’ he wrote, gamely proposing an Appropriation Prize for the ‘best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.’ After the usual social media shitstorm, Niedzviecki had to resign. The Times correctly quoted me asserting that this cockamamie concept threatens ‘our right to write fiction at all’. You can’t claim exclusive title to a culture as to real estate, territorial incursions into which amount to trespass. You don’t own your culture. Cultures blend and overlap and can’t be fenced.

The problem for free speech advocates is that this whole notion is barking, yet we dignify the argument as worth having by having it. The harder we try to invalidate the construct, the more deeply we embed ‘cultural appropriation’ in contemporary discourse. To refute is to perpetuate. To be enticed into debating ‘what is two plus two’ is to embarrass yourself, even if you’re on the side that plumps for ‘four’. To conduct the argument in the first place is to lose it.

I declined the Today programme.

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