On Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book programme on Radio 4 last week she interviewed Nell Dunn, the esteemed author of Up the Junction and Poor Cow. She mentioned that Dunn had been accused of ‘appropriation’ due to the fact that she wrote about working-class women and yet herself had come from an aristocratic home. I admit that I was shocked by this idea. Are none of us now allowed to write about people who are different to ourselves? How will any author who is not a murderer write a thriller? How will a male author include female characters and not be accused of ‘appropriation’? Surely this is total nonsense?
But similar trends of thought are being spread about judges and politicians with the suggestion that they cannot make professional decisions about others if they have not lived the kind of lives of the people they judge or govern. I am not sure exactly who is spreading this intolerance but it strikes me that it demonstrates ignorance of human imagination and is also potentially thoroughly dangerous, as it threatens free speech and creativity. Dictatorships have been formed by such edicts. Think of the Russian dissidents in Siberia. Cast your mind towards the countless writers and journalists thrown into prison by President Erdogan in the last year or so, those assassinated on Russian streets.
The kind of thinking that rules that you cannot write about someone unlike yourself denies both empathy and creativity. It seems in direct contradiction to the concept of integration and diversity. How could any author have written a masterpiece or best-seller unless they imagined characters unlike themselves? Khaled Hosseini’s book A Thousand Splendid Suns comes to my mind. It describes the lives of Afghan women with great poignance: was this ‘appropriating’ their experience? Men have written as women and women as men. Russians have written about the French and the English about Italians. The examples are endless.
More recently it was alleged that Sir Martin Moore-Bick was unsuitable to lead the judicial review on Grenfell Tower because he was white and has a double-barrel name. It may have been an insensitive choice in the eyes of the victims but at the same time the criticism of his role denies his ability to be both professional and empathetic. I don’t know him personally but this logic would surely result in only murderers of the same ethnicity judging other murderers? It disavows the professionalism of a judge to analyse a case objectively.
I am no supporter of Jacob Rees-Mogg but it has similarly been suggested that he is unsuitable for election to be the next Prime Minister because he comes from a background of privilege. I don’t wish him to be PM – but not because I don’t believe him capable of empathising with those who are different to himself. After all, Margaret Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter and yet was criticised for being the Iron Lady and out of touch. Churchill came from privilege and yet had the capacity to be a man of the people. Coming from a poor background does not necessarily make you any more capable of empathising with others, nor of understanding the needs and aspirations of a whole population.
In my experience people have the capacity to appreciate another person’s situation without having lived it themselves. It’s just that some people can do this better than others, and in my view this has more to do with their perception, imagination and personality than their background, gender, or the colour of their skin. People can also enhance the capacity of empathy through diversity training, which can enables them to notice any unconscious bias current in their beliefs or behaviours.
Last year Kate Moss’s daughter was under attack for ‘cultural appropriation’ because she had worn braids to her first modelling debut. This was regarded as disrespectful. Having white models sporting braids was described as appropriating black culture. I have always been brought up to understand that copying others is a form of flattery. After all there was a time when much of the world followed French fashion but I don’t remember that being described as cultural appropriation.
The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family were somewhat mocked for wearing Indian costume on a political tour of India earlier this year but I didn’t notice them being accused of cultural appropriation. Just of looking rather silly. The stores East and Monsoon have specialised in oriental fashion and one could say that it expands our style and thought. Surely it is part of everyday cultural exchange, which is ever-more prevalent in a world where people travel. Those from the East copy those from the West and vice-versa. From this we learn and expand our ideas. As we wear another’s clothes or, as the Chinese saying goes, walk in their shoes, we get a sense of them. Is the costume restrictive or freeing? As we write about others we gain understanding of their predicaments. Does it always have to be perceived as offensive?
I started to write a memoir, in the form of a children’s book, of a dear Jamaican friend of mine who came to the UK in the 1960s. However, I was warned by a well-meaning tutor that I could be criticised for being presumptive to write, as a white person, about someone from the Caribbean. How sad it is that the type of characters we can include in a book are being limited by over-sensitive political correctness. If we just write about our own experience it could equally be criticised for being too narrow, a criticism that even Jane Austen is sometimes accused of, so one can’t win!
Academics have lost their jobs for standing up for the right to dress up in Hallowe’en costumes or to have a student ball on the theme of Around the World in 80 Days. Apparently we are no longer allowed to dress up or copy others, or even write about them without causing perceived offence. Perhaps more needs to be done to ensure that those cultures one is borrowing from are acknowledged and then hopefully they would see it as celebration rather than dishonour.
But who exactly are the people making these ‘rules’ concerning what we can and can’t write about? They and the other no-platform illiberals are certainly not representing me. In my view these ideas stifle creativity, free speech and tolerance. It is a human talent to be able to stand in other people’s shoes and imagine what it is like to live their lives. There is a commonality of humanity that is worldwide. When we see others suffer or succeed we can feel it too. We empathise, whatever their background or provenance.
When Nell Dunn wrote her book Talking to Women she did exactly that – she talked to them, researched their lives, and empathised. She didn’t have to live their lives herself in order to gain insights. It was her humanity, curiosity and imagination that enabled her to write about other women and describe their experiences. Don’t let’s allow today’s thought-police to stifle creativity.