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

Cultural appropriation: Why can’t we debate it? – Liz Renzetti

I find this one of the best commentaries I have read yet on the issue of cultural appropriation and writers. Renzetti quotes extensively from the article in question, showing the depth and nuance in Hal Niedzviecki’s article.

More sophisticated than Christie Blatchford: Magazine editor the latest to be silenced for the sin of free speech but with the same underlying message: have the debate and discussion, don’t just try to shut it down and shun:

Yet the great works of literature are great leaps of imagination, sometimes so much so that they seem impossible, from a distance. When it was revealed that Mary Shelley was the author of Frankenstein, long after the novel was published, readers were aghast – how could a woman have conceived something so abominable!

That was 200 years ago. Should modern artists try to inhabit the fictional lives of people whose history and cultural experiences are completely different from their own? It’s fraught territory: Academics and writers have grappled with the concept of cultural appropriation, its proper definition, limits and boundaries, for years. It’s a subject discussed at length in books and conferences. It should at least be something we can discuss, without fear of censure.

That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. This week, Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write Magazine (the publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada) resigned from his post after his short essay about Indigenous writing prompted heated criticism.

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” Mr. Niedzviecki wrote. “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He goes on to counter the old teaching chestnut “write what you know”: “Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you, who you didn’t grow up with, who don’t share your background, bank balance and expectations. Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize.”

Some people found this an ill-conceived way to preface an issue dedicated to Indigenous writing, and Mr. Niedzviecki acknowledges in his subsequent apology that he wrote “glibly.” But do glibness and even insensitivity require that he lose his job? Would it not be better if he stayed at the helm of the magazine and commissioned pieces that provided robust counter-arguments?

Mr. Niedzviecki’s essay goes on to say: “Indigenous writing is the most vital and compelling force in writing and publishing in Canada today. And this is because, in large part, Indigenous writers, buffeted by history and circumstance, so often must write from what they don’t know. What at first seems like a disadvantage also pushes many Indigenous writers into the spotlight. They are on the vanguard, taking risks, bravely forging ahead into the unknown, seeking just the right formula to reclaim the other as their own.”

The entire spring issue of the magazine is worth reading for its exploration of Indigenous writing and publishing, from shaping queer narratives to questioning the limits of fictional empathy. Mr. Niedzviecki’s interview with publisher Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm of Kegedonce Press illuminates the challenges facing writers who have traditionally not been seated at the CanLit table: “We still see many beautifully written books by Indigenous writers struggling to fully achieve the sales and wide acceptance that they deserve.” Maybe this issue of Write will cause people to think about how widely they cast their nets when they choose what to read.

Instead of the focus falling on the important content of the magazine, it is now all on one essay written by Mr. Niedzviecki, who has long been a supporter of independent voices in Canadian publishing (he also runs Broken Pencil magazine.) The Writers’ Union of Canada, which you would think would be interested in the free and frank exchange of opinions about the content and quality of writing in this country, has failed to support him.

Even if you think Mr. Niedzviecki is wrong, and his opinions misguided and hurtful – and many people do, and have argued this case strongly – it’s alarming to say that he shouldn’t hold them. Ideas that incite violence or hatred deserve condemnation. But what about ideas that are uncomfortable or provocative or even (to some readers) ignorant? We have lost the appetite for confronting those ideas, for sharpening different, resonant arguments to counter them.

In a statement, the Equity Task Force of the Writers’ Union argues that there are “racist systemic barriers faced by indigenous writers and other racialized writers.” I think this is largely true. The task force writes that Mr. Niedzviecki “dismisses” those barriers. I don’t think that is true, based on the content of his essay. It also calls for the retraction of the essay, among other demands. That would be a mistake: to ask for an unpopular idea to be dismissed from the record is a dangerous precedent.

What I’ve written here is likely to be contentious, which is fine. There will be other arguments (different, more resonant), and I hope we’ll listen to them all. Those are the benefits of writing, and reading.

Source: Cultural appropriation: Why can’t we debate it? – The Globe and Mail

Tristin Hopper: This is what actual, real-life cultural appropriation looks like

Tristan Hopper provides some guidance on what is and what is not cultural appropriation:

In a world littered with iffy accusations of culture-theft, this is the real deal. A white-guy equivalent would be the Ontario descendant of a United Empire Loyalist waking up to discover their family crest had been slapped on the crotch of a new line of designer panties. Or the son of a war casualty finding that Dad’s service portrait was being used in a Chinese ad for shampoo.

The Inuit generally have no problem with people paddling kayaks or wearing parkas, both of which they invented.

And when an Inukshuk was picked as the symbol for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, the choice got the endorsement of both the government of Nunavut and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the body representing Canada’s 55,000 Inuit.

But Kokon To Zai didn’t design a sweater that took a few Inuit design cues or made a subtle reference to Arctic culture; all scenarios that, in other circumstance, might have spurred more dubious accusations of “cultural appropriation.”

“This is a stolen piece … there is no way that this fashion designer could have thought of this exact duplicate by himself,” Awa told CBC.

Tellingly, KTZ fessed up to the deed almost immediately. It pulled the item from its catalogue, issued a public apology and delivered the requisite lines arguing they were just trying to “celebrate multiculturalism” and that they have all kinds of “ethnic backgrounds” on their staff.

But the lesson of the KTZ fiasco is that before sounding the trumpets of cultural appropriation, consider the following:

Is it a blatant and verifiable copy of something exclusive to that culture? A feathered headdress is obviously a Plains First Nations thing, but dying your hair blonde and braiding it doesn’t mean you’re ripping off the Scandinavians.

Does it have sacred or religious meaning? Recreationally wearing a yarmulke, for instance, is a bit different than eating a latke.

And is the person raising the complaint part of a group that is directly affected by the alleged culture crime?

If the answer to any or all of the above is yes, you may be looking at a bona fide case of insensitivity to an important element in a recognized culture. If the answer is “no,” then think twice before crying wolf about cultural appropriation.

Source: Tristin Hopper: This is what actual, real-life cultural appropriation looks like

Why talk about cultural appropriation goes against multiculturalism | CanIndia NEWS

More commentary on cultural appropriation:

In a globalized world cultural appropriation is to be expected

In a global and multicultural world, we are urged to appreciate and sample cultures and cuisines from around the world. It is a matter of national pride in India that butter chicken, tandoori and Indian cuisine has become the go-to mainstream cuisine across Britain. There are more Indian restaurants in London, England than there are in Mumbai and Delhi. Thanks to the popularity of Indian cuisine, there is a shortage of Indian chefs and so more English chefs are learning the finer points of Indian cuisine. Is that cultural appropriation? Will an English chef be condemned for daring to cook butter chicken? Is he or she colonizing Indian cuisine? Is it okay for a chef from another ‘marginalized’ culture to cook ‘our’ butter chicken since his was a one-time oppressed culture?

The bindi was once a religious symbol

There was a time when the bindi was a highly religious symbol in India and if a non-Hindu chose to wear the bindi as a fashion statement, it would have deeply offended Hindus. Not anymore, it has more or less lost its religious significance and today it has become a fashion accessory for Indian and Western fashionistas. So would it be inappropriate for a Canadian of Caucasian descent to slap it on her forehead?

Needless controversy at a time when so much else is happening

This whole thing about cultural appropriation is utterly ridiculous and a waste of time, unfortunately it can have some serious consequences. Where does it end? If this continues, any minority could shut down or protest about any program or practice that has been adopted by a White westerner. Instead of being flattered that other races find parts or most of a culture originating in the third or fourth world country appealing enough to be adopted, we have people fretting over this and claiming to be offended.
Imagine if the Palestinians take offense because Israelis who have been deeply influenced by Arab culture, claim Hummus and Falafel as part of their food territory. I am quite convinced that some radicals in the West will see it as another form of cultural oppression of the Palestinians by the powerful Israelis.
There are countless Whites especially in America’s southern states that cook and enjoy African Soul food. Now soul food was introduced to the Americas around the time of the slave trade. It has its roots in west Africa and quickly became a dietary staple for slaves. Many soul food restaurants are black owned and operated but what if a White or Desi chef decided to open one, would he or she be guilty of cultural oppression sometime in the near future?
Or what about Whites who sport dreadlocks or start dressing in Indian cultural attire? Once we start taking offence to stuff like this, we are going down a very slippery slope. Westerners who are loathe to be perceived as racist or culturally insensitive will steer clear of anything ‘foreign’ and what we will all soon be living in socio-cultural silos. So many immigrant groups are doing just that much to their detriment. The message we will be giving Caucasians is this- appreciate our culture, visit our countries but just don’t adopt anything as your own. Doing so would be treated as an act of cultural thievery. On the other hand it is quite okay for Bollywood movies to adapt and be inspired by Hollywood. It is reasonable to lift scripts, re-make songs, beats, western fashion and lifestyle in India. Why? Because Indians were once colonized and ‘oppressed’. So its justifiable to flagrantly violate copyrights and patents and rip off western artistes, inventors et al because they were once racist colonizers and oppressors. Ꮠ

Source: Why talk about cultural appropriation goes against multiculturalism | CanIndia NEWS

How a cancelled yoga class stretches the point on cultural appropriation

Good piece by Jonathan Gatehouse who puts the yoga and other political correctness stories into context:

But the hyper-sensitivity of a few undergraduate activists shouldn’t be mistaken for a mass movement. Debates over cultural appropriation remain mostly the stuff of little-followed Tumblr accounts and right-wing websites that are in perpetual need of examples of encroaching political correctness. (They are sometimes enabled and abetted by mainstream media inquiries into burning questions like the appropriateness of Valentino’s African-inspired collection for spring/summer 2016.)

When they do get traction, it’s often for good reason. Society evolves and standards change. Calling your football team “the Redskins” might well be a tradition, but it’s a racist one. Blackface went out with Al Jolson. Getting really drunk and dancing around in a feathered native headdress at a music festival is a tribute only to your own stupidity.

Culture is elastic and acquisitive. We adopt all sorts of stuff from all sorts of people. Pasta came from China. (Long before Marco Polo.) Waffles were once Belgian. Jazz, rock and hip-hop were originally African-American art forms and have endured in spite of Kenny G, The Carpenters and Vanilla Ice.

Mostly that process happens without much thought or trouble. Everyone in university residence buys a futon. Thai restaurants and sushi bars edge out the delis and pizza parlours on Main Street. White actors stop getting cast as Othello.

However, that all shouldn’t obscure the fact that our collective thirst for the new and different isn’t always benign. Symbols do get misappropriated. Meanings are lost. And even long-accepted practices can be offensive.

On the odd occasion when concerns and objections are raised, we lose nothing in listening—even if it’s just some student government busybody, stretching the point.

Yoga practitioners aren’t debasing anyone’s culture. But neither are the lunatics now running the asylum.

Now, everybody take a deep breath, and relax.

Source: How a cancelled yoga class stretches the point on cultural appropriation –