Notes on Political Correctness

In January 2018 the conservative National Review magazine published a piece The Most Ridiculous PC Moments of 2017 . The comedian and television personality Katherine Timpf commented on eleven nonsensical episodes of political correctness on campus and elsewhere.…

“Novelists are now employing ‘sensitivity readers’ in order to make sure that they don’t portray fictional characters from other communities in an inaccurate way. Note: No one actually knows how to portray a fictional person ‘accurately,’ because fictional people do not exist. In all seriousness, this trend is a terrifying one that threatens to ruin the art of fiction as we know it.”

I believe the comedian is right. Political correctness has gone too far. It threatens freedom of expression at universities and in publishing.

Thus, the PC people propose we stop studying Shakespeare and Mark Twain. They intimidate writers and publishers by setting off online outrage against books they deem offensive. But the definition of “offensive” is vague. It can be endlessly stretched. This is why hiring “sensitivity readers” will not always work. Someone who looks for cultural stereotypes will find them between the lines.

When in 2009 my book, Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography was being published, my editor insisted on removing the word “black” from the following paragraph: “A famous tragedian of the day, the black American actor Ira Aldridge, was on tour in Russia and his performance in Moscow was not to be missed.” Ira Aldridge was playing Othello, so I failed to understand how this could be offensive and did not budge. In the end, my editor, who threatened to delay my book’s publication, backed off.

Today there’s also much ado over the issue of cultural appropriation. I find this issue highly confusing and debatable. A few years ago at a writers’ conference an aspiring Canadian writer, a German immigrant married to an aboriginal man, asked whether she can write a fictional story about her neighbors on an Indian reserve. She said she attempted to publish her stories, but was always refused––not because her stories were bad, but because of the cultural appropriation issue. She argued that she did not write outside her immediate experience: she lived with an aboriginal man next to the reserve. “Does the Canadian government prohibit writers of non-aboriginal ancestry to explore aboriginal subjects?” she asked.

When it comes to cultural appropriation I also want to ask seemingly naïve questions. What does it mean to write outside one’s own cultural experience? Journalists, scholars, artists, and writers have always explored unchartered territories with success. (As in the Shakespearean play cited above.)

The best and most comprehensive nineteenth-century dictionary of the Russian language was compiled by Vladimir Dahl, neither an ethnic Russian nor a trained lexicographer. Dahl, whose father was Danish and whose mother was of mixed German and French ancestry, had served in the Russian Navy and was later trained as a military doctor. Yet, his dictionary of the Russian language informed generations of writers, including Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Some of the most influential books on Ukraine’s famine were written by Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum, also the author of the Gulag. Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine has just been named the 2018 world’s best non-fiction book in English on foreign affairs.

For centuries foreigners produced illuminating and astute travel accounts. George Kennan’s Tent Life in Siberia captures ethnographies and histories of Siberia’s native peoples. This book continues to inform audiences, and no one yet complained about cultural appropriation.

Are we traveling less in the age of globalization? Can we travel and can explore another culture but cannot write about it? Was Life of Pi, Yan Martel’s best-selling novel about India, cultural appropriation? The truth is––nobody cares.

Yet, a Canadian editor of Write magazine Hal Niedzviecki was forced to resign for urging white middle-class writers to explore “the lives of people who aren’t like you.” In 2017 a campaign of shaming was launched against him and his supporters.

Would these PC people shame the French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin for his Tahiti paintings?

This March I learned that the Cambridge Dictionary will include the term “cultural appropriation” and will define it as cultural theft.…

Actually, writers and artists do not steal from other cultures––they create their own work, which enriches us globally.

Cultural appropriation strikes me as a brainchild of a radical minority, empowered by social media.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, and the notion of enforced “political correctness” brings back the memory of political censorship.

Do we want censorship in the free world?

  1. Thank you for the most succinct and well reasoned analysis I have encountered on the fallacy and dangers of the movement against “cultural appropriation.”

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