Dry goods

A writer named Suki Kim also wrote about her reactions to Lionel Shriver’s talk. She at least had the decency to hear the talk first. The most striking thing about her piece, to me, is her definition of cultural appropriation.

Shriver—a thin middle-aged woman with spectacles and brown hair—began her speech by describing herself as a “renowned iconoclast.” She declared that she would not, in fact, be exploring the theme of “community and belonging,” but would instead discuss the issue of “fiction and identity politics.” In a diatribe that has since become notorious, she proceeded to enumerate the various ways in which cultural appropriation—the idea that white artists and communities have stolen elements of minority cultures in ways that are oppressive—was harmful to people everywhere.

Cultural appropriation is the idea that white artists and communities have stolen elements of minority cultures in ways that are oppressive.


Here’s the thing: it’s not possible to steal elements of a culture except in the case of actual physical artifacts, like the Elgin Marbles. There certainly has been plenty of that kind of stealing, but Shriver was definitely not saying that invaders and imperialists should help themselves to other people’s statues and paintings without leave or payment. The kind of accusations of cultural appropriation she was talking about have to do with intangibles, and you can’t steal those. You can’t steal them, and you shouldn’t try to keep other people from sharing in them. You should credit them, certainly; you shouldn’t pretend they’re your invention when they’re not; but you should admire them, take an interest in them, tell others about them.

Updating to add for the benefit of Silentbob who missed the point: You can’t steal intangibles because they don’t go away when you share in them. You can do other kinds of things to intangibles – like degrade them, make them less valuable, make fun of them, spoil them for others, take the shine of them – but you can’t steal them. If I copy a dance or a way of cooking from India or Peru, the dance and way of cooking are still there.

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