Lionel Shriver Contra PC: Full Comments From The Brisbane Writer's Festival
I keep expecting liberalism to reassert itself against the illiberal left...but maybe not. Maybe we're seeing the last days of intellectual freedom in the English-speaking world, and the center of intellectual gravity will move elsewhere. When PC ravaged universities in the late '80s and early '90s, academia seemed to recover pretty rapidly, shredding their speech codes and so forth...but much of the damage stuck. Twenty-or-so years later, there's been another outbreak, and it's an even more virulent strain, and the internet is a new vector.
Who knows? Hard to believe that a bunch of scrawny sophomores with an incoherent theory could bring down the intellectual tradition of the West... But, then, they have allies in the faculty--radical, passionate, ruthless allies... Also, as PC encroaches more and more on the sciences, there'll be more pushback. The humanities and social sciences are pretty flabby, hence malleable. Philosophy should be pushing back, but it isn't. Philosophers are cowardly, but I think that it's more consequential that so many of them are now careerists, and they fear what the discipline's vocal PC left will do to their careers. Well, that's really just a particularly cowardly kind of cowardice, when you think about it...
Anyway, here's Lionel Shriver, and she's not having it:
In his 2009 novel Little Bee, Chris Cleave, who as it happens is participating in this festival, dared to write from the point of view of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl, though he is male, white, and British. I’ll remain neutral on whether he “got away with it” in literary terms, because I haven’t read the book yet.
But in principle, I admire his courage – if only because he invited this kind of ethical forensics in a review out of San Francisco: “When a white male author writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity theft?” the reviewer asked. “When an author pretends to be someone he is not, he does it to tell a story outside of his own experiential range. But he has to in turn be careful that he is representing his characters, not using them for his plot.”
Hold it. OK, he’s necessarily “representing” his characters, by portraying them on the page. But of course he’s using them for his plot! How could he not? They are his characters, to be manipulated at his whim, to fulfill whatever purpose he cares to put them to.
This same reviewer recapitulated Cleave’s obligation “to show that he’s representing [the girl], rather than exploiting her.” Again, a false dichotomy.
Of course he’s exploiting her. It’s his book, and he made her up. The character is his creature, to be exploited up a storm. Yet the reviewer chides that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell” and worries that “Cleave pushes his own boundaries maybe further than they were meant to go.”
What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you canmake yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.
Worse: the left’s embrace of gotcha hypersensitivity inevitably invites backlash. Donald Trump appeals to people who have had it up to their eyeballs with being told what they can and cannot say. Pushing back against a mainstream culture of speak-no-evil suppression, they lash out in defiance, and then what they say is pretty appalling.