That ’90s show

I was at university in the early 1990s, a period that we can now refer to in hindsight as the crest of the first wave of political correctness. There were even arguments over appropriation of voice and cultural appropriation that were loudly debated at meetings of the Writers’ Union of Canada. For those of you with an interest in such historical matters, Philip Marchand covered the moment in an essay later reprinted in Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature (1998). Then things died down. When Russell Smith sent up the whole matter of identity politics in his novel Muriella Pent in 2004 he was very much looking back on matters that no longer seemed that relevant. Here is the first paragraph from my review of Muriella Pent, which I wrote 13 years ago:

Muriella Pent is a curious novel that could be easily mistaken as prematurely dated. It has, for example, a lot to say about fashions in the arts, about what’s in and what’s out, and it directs its satire toward subjects (like the debates over political correctness and appropriation of voice) that are now very out.

Ouch. In my defence, I did end the review by saying it would be wrong to write Muriella Pent off as “a blast from the past,” and closed with these now prophetic words: “I have a hunch it might be ahead of its time.”

Well, it’s been a while but the once “very out” topics of political correctness and appropriation of voice are now very much back in. For good and ill. Who would have thought in 2004 that in 2016 someone would come along and ride a crusade against the forces of political correctness all the way into the White House? That would have seemed even more preposterous than a President Trump.

Whatever you think of all this, it’s clear we’re now experiencing a second wave. Looking at the dates it’s hard to miss the generational ebb and flow. That may be one explanation anyway for the curious rise and fall and rise again of the same arguments, expressed with the same rhetoric, pro and con (roughly, freedom of speech vs. exploitation and oppression). We even have, in place of Smith’s Muriella Pent, Stephen Henighan’s Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives, a new satire on identity politics in Canadian cultural circles.

It’s déjà vu, but is it progress?

I’ll avoid entering into the arena here, mainly because I think there is a basic disagreement over the terms of the debate (or conversation, as it’s more gently styled). Well-meaning people seem to mean very different things when they use the term cultural appropriation. For some, every work of art necessarily involves cultural appropriation, while for others it is an act of genocide. Both sides have a point to make, but obviously, expressed in these terms, they have no common ground.

But why are these matters becoming so prominent now? Is it because of the generational ebb and flow I mentioned? Or the effect of so many highly publicized examples of the phenomenon in recent years, like the cases of Rachel Dolezal (the former head of the NAACP who was outed by her parents as being white), Joseph Boyden (whose Indigenous heritage has been called into question), and Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner commercial (co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement to sell cola)?

I’m sure that cases like these all provided fuel to the fire, but I don’t think they were the real drivers. For that, I’d point the finger elsewhere.

(1) The media. You can’t exaggerate how much the media plays this stuff up, and the effect that has. After the story broke about Hal Niedzviecki quitting his post as editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine due to an editorial he wrote (that began “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation”) there was a barrage of high-profile, mainstream commentary. The CBC ran op-ed pieces, as well as broadcasting interviews and hosting discussions online and on their flagship news programs. I think the National Post had two columns a day for nearly a week talking about it, and other newspapers followed suit. When was the last time, if ever, that anything having to do with writers in Canada received half as much media attention?

(2) Universities. I’ve previously pointed out that matters of identity are now the only subject of interest in English departments. Identity politics now constitute the foundation of any English program, and are of far more importance than the practice of textual analysis or making judgments of aesthetic value. What this has led to is the current critical dispensation, where, for example, the only question we need to ask about Joseph Boyden is whether his voice can be established as authentic.

These were both drivers of the cultural appropriation debate twenty years ago, but they have since metastasized. The media, in transitioning online, is far more dependent on pushing people’s buttons in order to grab clicks and eyeballs, going after immediate responses and snap moral judgments. Meanwhile, universities have limited the accepted terms of critical discourse to include only such matters of identity as are now being re-argued. Working in tandem they have made this time around an amplified version of the same debate we had in the 1990s, but not one with much more to say. My guess is that the conversation will move away again after a while, but I don’t think we’ll be moving on.

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