Is There an Answer to Cultural Appropriation?

By John Harris | December 1, 2019

Cultural Appropriation and Misappropriation: An Impolite Enquiry, by Brian Fawcett. Published by David Mason and Time-Sensitive Publications, 366 Adelaide St West, Suite LL05, Toronto, On. M5V 1R9, 2019. 36 pages, $15.


Fawcett’s “enquiry” is “impolite” in the sense that it attempts objectivity in a context that isn’t currently welcoming it. As he says, cultural appropriation and misappropriation is “a hot-button question.” However, it’s “a sub-issue of the cultural self-determination that every minority in a multicultural society has the right to pursue” and, as a sub-issue, “it isn’t very important. It isn’t trivial, but right now it is so poorly conceptualized that its avid pursuit is making a bigger mess than we’ve already got.”

Those concerned to further a cause politically, especially causes of minority, class, ethnic or sexual identity, are not interested in accurate conceptualization.  The standard pursuit of these causes currently requires only self-evident (i.e. conscience-based) slogans and solutions. Fawcett refers to people who think like this as “fundamentalists.”

Fundamentalists, whether among religious, political, feminist, LGBTQ, ethnic minority, disabled or aboriginal groups, as well as among the academics who try to do the talking for the disadvantaged, consider it self-evident that the majority must accept and approve social justice and affirmative-action solutions to minority problems and complaints. Or in Fawcett’s words, “social justice has come to mean the adoption of a set of rules that provides the formerly oppressed with compensatory social, political, economic and cultural advantages that, as a means of securing reparations for past oppression, supersede the democratic goals of equality of opportunity, and the deeper principle of equality before the law.”

This means (and I’m extrapolating on Fawcett’s argument here) that governments and political parties should ensure that minority ethnicities and sexualities have full representation on candidate rosters and in executive boards and political cabinets no matter what proportion of the population they represent or how narrow the pool of experienced individuals to draw from might be. School curricula should be rewritten to provide the same reparative compensations, and any elements of the curriculum (whether historical record or literary canon) considered sexist, racist or otherwise discriminatory should be eliminated without reference to literary or historical contexts. Reparations should be paid to minorities subject to past racist or sexist persecution or lack of full opportunity. In Canada, this applies mainly to aboriginal peoples who have special status within law: “People of European descent are expected to pay a complex and often shifting array of compensatory reparations to those who were harmed by their supposed ‘colonialist’ ancestors — and there are no other kinds of ancestors if you’re of European descent.”

If the prevailing rules of political (in this country democratic) engagement get in the way, these new fundamentalists ignore or demolish the rules. If fundamentalists hear or even think they hear objections, they shout them down. They banish those who have objections from their meetings and deliberations, and they disrupt, disallow, or boycott their opponents’ meetings. They even deny that there is such a thing as factuality and objectivity. In their universe, there is only ideological consciousness. In making their demands, fundamentalists assume, first and finally, a stance of unassailable and authenticating self-righteousness.

Fawcett calls these demands “retributive social programming.” He deals with assorted examples of such programming as applied to matters of cultural appropriation. In 2017, “a pop-up Saturday morning burrito stand in Portland, Oregon . . was ultimately closed on the grounds of cultural appropriation . . . . The reporter who covered this event noted that, “in the food industry, a ban on cultural appropriation would result in the closing or re-menuing of about 60 percent of North American restaurants.” Likewise, he cites sources that demonstrate that cultural appropriation has also “long been a part of the creative process in the design of residential habitats.”  And we all know, from the news, that everything from Hallowe’en costumes to the names of cars, helicopters, and professional hockey, baseball and football teams are policed to make sure the majority is not engaging in colonialist appropriation.

Fawcett understands that neither logic nor evidence work against this strain of fundamentalism. Only humour — irony, satire, sarcasm — does. As a result, the pamphlet’s impoliteness is a form of obstruction that is part of something much bigger and more important: “Smart-asses are the first people that every totalitarian dictatorship in human history has gone after . . . . The primary safeguard to most of Western civilization’s democratic institutions and individual rights really is the exercising of the right to make irreverent, smart-ass remarks. If and when that right is protected, then all the other rights we have — freedom of speech, of thought, of assembly — are in little danger. For the first time in my long life, that right is seriously under attack, and from both sides of the political spectrum.”

Fawcett isn’t being obtuse here. He knows that “Western civilization,” “free speech” and “democracy” are “trigger words” to those who most ardently pursue the politics of identity, and that by making this statement, he is “red-flagging” himself as a person of yet another faith, and a currently heretical one at that. But Fawcett’s faith happens to be the one affirmed in constitutional (charter) law and the protocols of democratic governance. It is a faith in the ongoing experiment of the enlightenment — in science (inductive logic) and liberal democracy.

His faith is that, beneath all cultural markers, humans are all essentially the same and therefore should be treated as equals; that this equality can be quantified in legislation (statements of rights and responsibilities), and that constitutionality and the rule of law are more important than either ethnicity or private identity. Fawcett’s starting premise in this pamphlet is that Canada (as a multi-cultural democracy) and some of the other democracies are the few places on earth where any more than one or two dominant identities have a voice, where nationalism is not the proclamation of the dominance of a single ethnic, sexual, ideological and / or cultural identity.

On this basis he can use a common and familiar “nomenclature of discourse,” and be impolite enough to speak what he feels is the truth to the “quasi-Marxist” academics and “social-justice activists.” He illustrates his argument primarily in terms of an area of appropriation that he knows well: literary writing, especially the writing of fiction. He illustrates it too in terms of an institution about the history and base values of which he is knowledgeable, having been involved with it, formally or informally, for 35 years. That institution is the Writers Union of Canada (TWUC), which has been dealing with the issue of appropriation almost since its inception, but never so exclusively as today.

Since the 1990’s, TWUC has concerned itself mostly with negotiating and sometimes administering library, photocopying and grant payments for writers. It still manages these practical matters, as well as providing legal advice on libel, publishing contracts, and trying to get dental coverage for writers without an employment-based co-contributor. But at the present time the Union seems mostly concerned with the question of who owns the stories of minority ethnicities and sexualities, and especially the stories of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

TWUC currently deals with ownership in terms of “equity.” This term is not used, Fawcett says, in the financial sense in which it is generally understood: “the difference between the value of the assets and the value of the liabilities of something owned.” It is meant in a retributive sense.

The application of retributive equity is illustrated by some recent events in the history of TWUC and of some magazines and publishers for whom writers work. The setting event for his essay was the 2017 resignation (or firing) of Hal Niedzviecki as the editor of TWUC’s Write Magazine, for an editorial in which he stated “In my opinion anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” He then proposed, probably tongue in cheek, an annual prize for the best appropriation. Fawcett doesn’t think Niedzviecki was wrong, just that he needed to explain himself better. His real crime, Fawcett says, was in not editing the eight “dispatches,” by aboriginal writers published in that issue, and Fawcett doesn’t mince his words. The pieces, he writes, “had a raggedness of expression that suggested they hadn’t been given much editorial work. Several were larded with rhetorical assumptions and self-aggrandizing postcolonialist jargon that any competent editor would have challenged the writers to clarify. One or two were little more than brow-beating self-advertisements, all of them were afflicted with immodest moral certitude, and not a single one showed the slightest trace of playfulness or an active sense of irony.”

This judgment illustrates Fawcett’s point that the whole retributive enterprise, and the vigilantism involved, reduces (among other things) the likelihood of good writing in Canada. Under the current rules, “settler” writers will be reduced to writing memoirs only (writing only about themselves or people exactly like them) while aboriginal writers, who can write about settlers as a matter of retributive justice, can’t be edited, except by members of their own nation.

Walrus editor Jonathan Kay followed Niedzviecki into editorial oblivion after objecting to the process of equity “shaming.” Fawcett further explains: “He may have had little choice about resigning . . . after known allies . . . over at the National Post’s frat house . . . offered their support for actually setting up a “Cultural Appropriation Prize.” Alan Twigg is mentioned, though Fawcett doesn’t provide the details. Apparently Twigg was thrown out of a TWUC meeting in Vancouver when he asked for a promised equity report rather than the familiar litany of aboriginal grievances. Almost immediately after this, Twigg handed BC Bookworld over to a new publisher, Beverly Cramp, who immediately pledged that, in the name of healing and reconciliation, the magazine would continue in its highlighting of books by aboriginal writers, and of aboriginal issues. She praises Twigg for his efforts on this, and Fawcett affirms that Twigg, along with Joseph Boyden, have done as much as any single non-aboriginal person “to bring aboriginal people and their concerns into the mainstream.”

(This mention of Boyden, who has become a symbol of the misappropriation of aboriginal stories and characters in literature, and of the tendency of whites or low-percentage Metis to claim aboriginal identity, is likely not accidental. Both Boyden and Twigg have learned that no “settler” is likely to be regarded as an ally, in the same sense that none of the allies of Nazi Germany, like the Ukrainians, Italians and Japanese, were acknowledged as allies except by being moved a bit further down the list of ethnicities marked for extermination or “repatriation” to Madagascar in the name of lebensraum and / or racial and cultural purity.)

Near the conclusion of his pamphlet, Fawcett offers a smart-ass solution to TWUC’s concerns over appropriation: a character bank. TWUC members would each stare at their navels and create (accurately and respectfully) defined characters, for the use of which TWUC would charge a nominal fee. The character bank, “given the ethnic, racial, and class profile of the Union membership [would offer] an overly large number of elderly white characters whose main preference was to spend the day sleeping.” But WASP characters would be in less demand than the more minority-identity sorts. Since the fees would go to those who created the characters, minority-identity writers would make the most money.

The character bank, Fawcett argues, even though it is as ridiculous as Jonathan Swift’s proposal that the English eat the children of the Irish (recipes provided) is the logical extension of the present reality in TWUC and would be a lot easier than enforcing the “de facto prohibition of cultural exchange that the Union’s finest minds seem intent on inflicting on its members.”

1966 words, December 1, 2019


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