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Academia’s attack on the imagination

  • ROBERT FULFORD

A year ago, the University of Ottawa suspended its free weekly yoga class out of a vague belief that people in the West teaching yoga are guilty of cultural appropriation. 


loyolaYoga, after all, was invented in India.  A representative of the student government said that the people responsible for creating yoga "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy."

Jennifer Scharf, a white woman, had been teaching the class since 2008.  When the class was restored, two months later, the teacher was Priya Shah, an Indian.

Bowdoin College in Maine erupted in controversy last March about non-Mexican students wearing sombreros at a tequila-themed party.  College administrators expressed disapproval of this "act of ethnic stereotyping."  Some students at Oberlin College complained that serving sushi in the dining hall was "appropriative and disrespectful."

White students wearing dreadlocks at the University of San Francisco were accused of appropriating a hairstyle that was an expression of black culture.

Several decades ago, someone invented the term "cultural appropriation" to describe what happens when an artist or designer borrows images and styles from another culture.  If a designer bases a new fabric on an image created by an unknown African sculptor of the 19th century, or a singer takes a folk tune from long ago and incorporates it in his own song, they are said to be unfairly appropriating what is not theirs.  If the appropriator lives in the West, and the original art was the product of a poor country with a marginalized culture, then the process can be labelled a version of colonialism, a favourite subject in the universities.

Academic art historians, always looking for new subjects to attack, elevated this subject to the level of a vogue.  But it was difficult to apply, and many regarded it as irredeemably silly.

So, as far as I know, it mostly faded away.  But lately the idea has leapt from the fringes of academe to the larger world.  It has taken such a firm hold on the minds of cause-hungry students that it now affects garments, haircuts and even menus.  Since the world has agreed that culture encompasses everything, there's no reason why cultural appropriation should not include yoga and sushi.  "Cultural," used loosely, can trick us into dangerous and self-limiting prejudice.

"Cultural expropriation" is in essence an accusation hurled by the narrow-minded at the always challenging human imagination.

Recently a law professor at Fordham University, Susan Scafidi, brought out the first book on this subject, Who Owns Culture?  Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.  It sounds as if she's on the way to turning a promising subject for dissertations into the basis for lawsuits.

"Who owns culture?" Scafidi's title asks.  The true answer is nobody.  Individuals own their work but the culture, as such, owns nothing.

Lionel Shriver, an American author who lives in Britain, brought the appropriations police down on herself by arguing, in a recent lecture, that everyone is entitled to write about anyone.  The best- known of Shriver's seven novels is a 2003 best-seller, We Need to Talk about Kevin.

Writing, she says, is a disrespectful vocation by its nature — "prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous."  That's when it's at its best.  "When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall.  But writing takes gall."

She admires the courage of Chris Cleave, a white male British writer who wrote from the point of view of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl in his novel Little Bee.  Cleave broke all the rules, as a reviewer pointed out: "When a white male author writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity theft?" The review argued that if you write a book like Little Bee, "special care should be taken with a story that's not implicitly yours to tell."  But if the story is worth telling, no one except the writer and the reader is entitled to say who owns the subject matter.  Those who try to limit a writer's scope are violating the spirit of literary inquiry.

Shriver believes that good fiction involves exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity and compassion.  "Even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people."

The appropriation gang, who use the word "cultural" in every second sentence, show no interest in the actual history of culture.  The truth is that every aspect of human expression, from architecture to jazz, expropriates as a matter of course.  Homer apparently drew on every passing bard and a filmmaker of 2016 brings to his art a lifetime of shared cinematic images.  "Cultural expropriation" is in essence an accusation hurled by the narrow-minded at the always challenging human imagination.

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Acknowledgement

fulfordRobert Fulford, "Academia's attack on the imagination." National Post, (Canada) November 26, 2016.

Reprinted with permission of Robert Fulford.

The Author

fulfordFulford2 Robert Fulford has been a journalist since the summer of 1950. He writes twice a week in the National Post and contributes a monthly column about the media to Toronto Life magazine and writes for Queen's Quarterly.  His most recent book is The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture. Robert Fulford is an officer of the Order of Canada and the holder of honorary degrees from six Canadian universities. 

Copyright © 2016 Robert Fulford
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