Essays

Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 4 of 4)

Part IV: …Judge them by their content (of their characters)

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that

I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to

win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though

not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.

-The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

People learn by saying wrong things— even offensive things—that can then be corrected!

-Garry Kasparov

I believe in the values of the Enlightenment and traditional education. Free Speech. Reasoned Debate Of Ideas. Scientific Method. The sorts of bedrock concepts where you capitalize all the words.

Yes, historically, that’s mostly a dead white man’s game. But isn’t the answer to that (and to the problem of not enough minority/marginalized authors) to bring diversity directly to those areas? Nothing about that needs to silence anyone’s voice—and certainly no such censoring should be based solely on the speaker’s skin color.

I also very much believe in and support social justice causes. I am against the way our country is careening into fascism. Things seem rather dire to me on that front. So, if I thought that seeking out, isolating, and punishing the creators of a certain class of art was an effective means of achieving social justice, I might even condone it (at least, in theory–and only as a short term, emergency tactic…a ban on nazi paraphernalia in the military and on police forces comes to mind)…

—that is, if it worked. But it doesn’t seem to. In fact, I believe our present situation has been largely fueled by this new, illiberal political correctness.

Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 3 of 4)

Part III: …Don’t judge authors by their skin-color…

I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t believe art should really be fully separated from the artist. But, I don’t think that’s what I’m arguing for now. What I am saying is that we should not use a work of art as a trojan horse proxy for our pre-judgments about the authors (or the social group they’re associated with).

Like Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery”, people use complaints of cultural appropriation, aided by social media, as a modern form of cultural stoning. Better to target and set upon a particular author or artist like the proverbial pitchfork-wielding mob than to put all of that energy into creating new institutions or movements that will actually affect the real structural change one claims to care about. Or, I don’t know, maybe go out and write and self-publish your own book?

My brush with this so far is only a few Twitter spats. I argued against some randos who had successfully gotten a white female’s book contract canceled by her publisher because they had read it and found out that her book had a main character of another race. I debated against their failed logic of trying to prevent someone from writing fiction solely because of the color of that author’s skin. (Sorry—I have to keep repeating it, just to try and get my head around the stupidity of it). The various Twitter trolls, in turn, said—just by me presenting an opposing view—that I was displaying my white privilege and even committing violence against them.

Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 2 of 4)

PART II: …I only ask one thing—

Culture has various definitions. Most agree that “culture” are the customs, institutions, and products of a common society, regarded collectively. Or, to put it more simply: “Culture” is the shared outputs of a particular group. NOTE: ideologies, or shared ways of thinking, are also part of culture; but, ideas inherently belong to no one. This is why, for example, you can’t copyright an idea, only a representation (like a book or a picture) of an idea. So, we’ll stay with “outputs”.

Next, what is appropriation? This is a more problematic concept. If you put a criminal overlay on it, as the verb itself suggests, you probably mean something like the legal definition. Roughly, separating out some elements in a useful way, appropriation is: (1) Taking, (2) without their permission, (3) someone else’s property, (4) with the intent to convert it to your own use? Most deeper discussions will add a fifth, underlying element: (5) And done in a way to further oppress or harm the people of that culture. We’ll come back to that.

As I mentioned yesterday, I deliberately (#1) “Took Culture” when the magic system of my novel was to be the underpinning to all (including Native Peoples’) religions. Mea Culpa.

Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)?

Chief Illiniwek?

PART I: In an Uncivilized Debate about Cultural Appropriation…

I grew up about ten miles from the University of Illinois (U of I). The U of I began in 1867, roughly fifty years after the state was formed. The official mascot of the U of I was the “Fighting Illini”, a representation of the Illinois Confederation of indigenous Peoples (about a dozen tribes) known as the “Illiniwek”. The Illiniwek, who numbered over ten thousand in the 17th century, were more or less gone by the early 19th century. The few hundred who remained reportedly joined the Peoria Tribe.

However, “Chief Illiniwek” to me was the name of the school mascot. The U of I had been the “Fighting Illini” since 1926 and “Chief Illiniwek” was the guy who—as far back as anyone could remember, and with a very rousing marching band tune behind him—would dance an authentic, “ceremonial Indian” dance at halftime.

It turns out, the dance was actually invented by the first few students to perform as “The Chief”, back when the tradition started. I just recently discovered that they learned it, indirectly, in the Boy Scouts, from that organization’s handbook, in the section drafted by Ralph “Doc” Hubbard.

NFTs: Assemblage for the 21st Century?

Once, when I was in my early adulthood, my girlfriend and I were in an artist’s gallery (that is to say, her dining room—she worked from home). And, in her gallery, what she displayed was something like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Hanging from her ceiling, at various heights, were mobiles of…well, let’s just say disparate objects. Okay, to describe it: For all the world, each of them looked roughly like the contents of someone’s kitchen junk drawer, super-glued together.

When we asked her how she got the idea for her ‘mobiles’, she corrected us. These weren’t “mobiles”, they were “Assemblage” (pronounced: ah-sem-BLAJ’).

Later, we, of course, had a lot of fun with that word. It became a shorthand for anything remotely pretentious. But, don’t get me wrong: as a former art major, I know that assemblage is a vital and important art form, with a lineage that goes back directly to Picasso.

Davey, Tell Us A Stooooory

Okay. These past few years, I’ve set out to become a dedicated storyteller. In doing that, I’ve started to look at prose books, comics, and movies/tv shows in a new way. Part audience/Part practitioner.

Just as background: my tastes run towards what you would call classical story-telling. Good ‘n Evil, Character Arcs, Subtexts, good conflict, high-concept metaphors where I can find them, and resolution. Like that.

So, what happens? Well, these days, like some sort of fiction-sniffing hound, I find myself looking for what the shows aren’t doing as much as I am for what they are; this is especially true if they aren’t landing for me. It almost always comes down to a lack of storytelling. When that happens, I ask: What crutch are they using, rather than just telling the story?

Just to kick things off, here are a couple of my most despised Storytelling Avoidance Mechanisms (StAMs).

StAM One – Grimdark.
Look, I saw Chernobyl Diaries at a hotel. I was super-excited by the trailer. The opening premise was good. The characters were introduced nicely— aaaand then?

Well, then the characters were all methodically slaughtered, one-by-one. Except for one, who was captured by unknown figures, and then killed, for reasons that are never explained. Roll credits.

Writers’ Politics

I’m a fan of Josiah Bancroft. You’ll notice I didn’t say I’m a fan of Josiah Bancroft’s work, which I am, but this isn’t about that. Here’s a Tweet from Mr. Bancroft, in response to the attempted coup last Wednesday.

“As someone with a broad audience whose livelihood depends upon a certain ambiguity when it comes to political matters, I respectfully suggest that the people who are carrying Confederate flags into the Capitol are dimwitted treason weasels who stan their mother’s panties.”

I mean, sure, I could write my own blog entry; but, I’m not going to top that, so why try?

I will say this—the topic of whether or not an artist has a duty to address politics (or to avoid it, for commercial sake), is an important one. As Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art: “…when art becomes a job or a matter of social status the potential for confusing one’s goals goes up considerably”.

2020

Would you buy a novel from this man?
Would you buy an epic fantasy novel from this man?

As we begin the 22nd decade of the 21st century (Math!), I want to pay a fitting tribute to the year we all love to hate. So, let’s talk about…

WRITING VILLAINS
First, it’s more effective when your villain doesn’t act villainous. Remember, sociopaths/psychopaths typically present as quite positive. This is no doubt why they tend to rise to positions of power. According to the study: ”They [psychopaths] display emotions only to manipulate individuals around them.”

It’s all learned camouflage so that people won’t realize that they are empty inside. That’s why sociopaths can act so hatefully, without remorse, when they want to. But to present them exhibiting evil without first presenting the glossy exterior will render your villain into just another mustache twirling cliché.