Lionel Shriver, New York Times, September 23, 2016
Midway through my opening address for the Brisbane Writers Festival earlier this month, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese-born Australian engineer and 25-year-old memoirist, walked out. Her indignant comments about the event might have sunk into obscurity, along with my speech, had they not been republished by The Guardian. Twenty minutes in, this audience member apparently turned to her mother: “ ‘Mama, I can’t sit here,’ I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. ‘I cannot legitimize this.’ ” She continued: “The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonizing with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question. ‘How is this happening?’ ”
I’m asking the same thing.
Briefly, my address maintained that fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction–thus should not let concerns about “cultural appropriation” constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own. I defended fiction as a vital vehicle for empathy. If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir. Honestly, my thesis seemed so self-evident that I’d worried the speech would be bland.
Nope–not in the topsy-turvy universe of identity politics. The festival immediately disavowed the address, though the organizers had approved the thrust of the talk in advance. A “Right of Reply” session was hastily organized. When, days later, The Guardian ran the speech, social media went ballistic. Mainstream articles followed suit. I plan on printing out The New Republic’s “Lionel Shriver Shouldn’t Write About Minorities” and taping it above my desk as a chiding reminder.
As a lifelong Democratic voter, I’m dismayed by the radical left’s ever-growing list of dos and don’ts–by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. There are many people who see these frenzies about cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and safe spaces as overtly crazy. The shrill tyranny of the left helps to push them toward Donald Trump.
Ironically, only fellow liberals will be cowed by terror of being branded a racist (a pejorative lobbed at me in recent days–one that, however groundless, tends to stick). But there’s still such a thing as a real bigot, and a real misogynist. In obsessing over micro-aggressions like the sin of uttering the commonplace Americanism “you guys” to mean “you all,” activists persecute fellow travelers who already care about equal rights.