Lionel Shriver on identity

Membership of a larger group is not an identity.

“Not identity politics again!” I hear you all moan.

Sadly, yes. But I won’t rant on about it this time. I merely wish to point any reader who may be interested in these matters towards certain things that have been said and written recently.

The quote above is from a talk given recently by American novelist Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. It’s not that identity does not matter, but, rather, it is not something that is conferred on one merely by membership of a larger group. The implications of this seem to me important: one’s identity describes who one is as an individual; it is something that one forges for oneself. It is not mere membership of a tribe.

The whole speech was intelligent and eloquent, and, I think, well worth reading. However, not everyone thought so. Yassmin Abdel-Magied is amongst those who took offence. She makes the devastating observation that “Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness”, and explains here why she therefore felt compelled to heroically walk out:

As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins

Frankly, I am not so convinced that walking out is always seen as a political statement. If I am at a lecture and see someone walking out, I usually assume they’re going for a pee. But now that I know this was indeed a heroic political gesture, I suppose I should take it a bit more seriously.

For Abdel-Magied was by no means the only one who took exception to Lionel Shriver’s speech. From the opening line of this article, it seems there were others who also heroically walked out. So serious was the fall-out, indeed, that, “as a result of the backlash, Brisbane Writers Festival organised a ‘right of reply’ event”. Which is fair enough. People must always have the right to reply. Especially if they feel, as Abdel-Magied does, that

The kind of disrespect for others infused in Lionel Shriver’s keynote [speech] is … the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.


Then, yesterday, an article by Nasrine Malik appeared on this matter in The Guardian. The headline (not written by Nasrine Malik) tells us that “identity politics doesn’t deserve Lionel Shriver’s contempt”. The article itself, however, is somewhat more nuanced than the headline would suggest, although Malik is quite vehement in distancing herself from Shriver, and insists, as Abdel-Magied had done, that “cultural appropriation” is very much “a thing”:

It is very much a thing. It is, in fact, one of the most frustrating and complicated things to explain and justify to those who have the luxury … of living a life that no one, in the present or historically, has plundered.

I’ll leave the reader to determine what Malik means by having one’s life “plundered”, either “in the present or historically”. I can’t really make much sense of it myself.

Having distanced herself from Shriver, Malik goes on to make many of the points that Shriver herself had made. Her only point of contention with Shriver, as far as I can see, is that Shriver is not very “respectful”. The question of why culture – one’s own, or others’ – should automatically be entitled to respect is one Malik does not address. I’m afraid repeated insistence on “respect” reminds me of nothing so much as The Godfather films.

So there it is. I won’t repeat my own thoughts on the matter: I have previously banged on at length about literature and identity politics, and about the concept of cultural appropriation; and, since I am not a paid columnist, there seems little point in recycling old material when I have no new thoughts to add. I have also, fairly recently, commented on this crazy idea that literature is about “telling one’s story”, or of “giving voice to one’s experience”, or that the story one tells, the experience one “gives one’s voice to”, is necessarily representative of one’s group. In any case, if Lionel Shriver’s eloquence doesn’t convince people, I doubt mine will.

But does any of this actually matter? Could not all this merely be a storm in a teacup? May one not, in these matters, take the imperious view of Edmund Burke?

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number, or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

Sadly, no, I don’t think so. Thoughts that are prevalent make an impact on the real world. If we believe that we are defined primarily or even solely by our race, our religion, our gender, our sexuality, and all those other things that seem so essential to proponents of  identity politics; if we believe that we cannot grow and develop, and move away, should we so want, from the various features allegedly pre-determined for us by the circumstances of our birth; if we feel it wrong to absorb other cultures, or for people from other cultures to absorb ours; then the walls we build around ourselves are more than merely walls of the mind.

Last year, I was troubled when a diversity officer (sic) at a students’ union in Britain organized an event which white people were told not to attend. Now, I read that California State University in Los Angeles is offering racially segregated accommodation to its students.

Racial segregation. In the name of liberalism.

I fear we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.



POSTSCRIPT (added 14th September, 2016, 17:15 BST)

I just read a post on this matter on Kenan Malik’s blog Pandemonium. Amongst other things, he says:

The Festival organisers removed from their website links to Shriver’s talk, while also organising a ‘right to reply ‘session with, among others Abdel-Magied and the Korean-American author Suki Kim.  Lionel Shriver was not at this session because it was deliberately organised at the same time as Shriver was speaking, promoting her new novel The Mandibles. There is something more than a little ironic for a festival of writers to remove from their website the keynote speech at the festival because some objected to it, and to organise a ‘right to reply’ while both ensuring that the speaker being replied to cannot attend and removing the speech which is being replied to. The Festival seemed less concerned with opening up debate than with assuaging hurt feelings.

I had not known these details when I wrote my post above, and decided to add this postscript, as I felt these details are of interest. I’d like to add also that the whole of Mr Malik’s post is well worth reading.

POST-POSTSCRIPT (added 16th September, 2016, 15:35 BST)

The links to Lionel Shriver’s speech have now been restored, and the Festival Organisers blamed their temporary unavailability on a technical glitch. The New York Times have corrected their article to reflect this, so it is only right that I do the same.


17 responses to this post.

  1. So, am I supposed to be upset if – as Mark Haddon so brilliantly did… – someone “appropriates” my past life as an autistic child? And, if so, where do I draw the line: a disabled television role being played by a non-disabled person? Or even vice versa? It’s political correctness gone mad, I tell you. (Yours, a deaf, physically disabled, and neurologically atypical writer.)


    • Ach – the whole thing is a pile of nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. I only comment upon it because these ideas (if that’s the word I’m looking for) are so widespread.

      (Yours, an Indian-Bengali-Scottish-English “person of colour” who grew up in UK in 60s & 70s when racism was rife, and who thinks that identity politics is – to use a lovely Scots word – keech.)


      • An excellent word! I may just have to purloin it (alongside bawbag – which I have just discovered is now a men’s underwear range: how very disappointing). And, yes, you are of course right.

  2. It’s a knotty problem – presumably I should only write a book about a middle aged woman from a working class background living and working in a particular milieu. Whence sci fi, speculative fiction, et al? How about all these fictionalised biographies – should Michael Cunningham not have written about Virginia Woolf? Should I be upset if a male from South America, say, writes a book about European white women? I wouldn’t be – so it *is* a case of political correctness getting a bit out of control and really creativity should *not* be limited…


  3. Posted by Carl McLuhan on September 14, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    It is a knotty problem, indeed. It’s when people identify themselves with groups more than with their individual selves that problems of intolerance crop up. Identities are multi-faceted, especially in multi-cultural societies such as we have in the west. Some people are not ready to hear what Shriver has to say. For many, political voice, sexual identity voice, religious voice are strongly implanted in those who especially need that particularly identity.


    • Identity really is a hot topic in the world today, isn’t it? I know I have written a lot on the topic on this blog, but listing all the idiocies and imbecilities to which identity politics give rise really would be a full-time job. I find it really does depress me. And, while claiming to be liberal, it is about as illiberal as anything one can imagine. This whole rumpus over Lionel Shriver’s speech came to my notice just hours after I had seen that story I linked to about California State University offering racially segregated accommodation. I really do find it beyond depressing.


  4. Now I have a question. What does “knotty problem” mean? I thought it meant a “difficult problem.” But Himadri’s view is that it the problem is not “knotty” but rather “not a,” or perhaps “nutty,” just nonsense.

    So, kaggsy, Carl, when you say the problem is “knotty” are you agreeing or disagreeing?


    • Absolutely. My view, as you rightly say, is that there is no problem here at all, knotty or otherwise. At least, there shouldn’t be a problem. That this whole thing is an issue at all says much about current state of affairs.


  5. Posted by alan on September 14, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    Identity is important in the same way that class is important: it allows those with similar interests to organise as a group for the purposes of political action.
    A consequence of group affiliation for the pursuit of power is the need to identify groups outside the group and punish individuals who blur boundaries. Such individuals are considered to be ‘coconuts’ or ‘class traitors’.

    The consequence of this way of thinking is that minority group leaders are feted/appeased by the leaders of states, Individuals or mixed culture/race families are treated as somehow less important. Also, the institutions born out this group struggle often persist long after any battle has been won by that group and that groups ties have diminished.

    It is so obvious why some sections of the old state socialist left are so comfortable with this situation: it is the reinvention of the language and practice of class politics.


    • I used in my youth to take the view that identity is not so important. I think I have reconsidered that point: I now feel it is important for us to know who and what we are, what are values are, what kind of person we are … in short, what make me me, and not someone else. But within the political sphere, I think you’re right: identity, within this sphere, is viewed as, essentially, “group identity”, within which individual identities are subsumed. And it is not to be allowed that identity is something that is constantly in flux: it is something seen as fixed, constant. It is, in short, a view of identity that diminishes the individual in every imaginable way.

      On your point about the parallels between class politics and identity politics (the former is a subset of the latter, of course), it seems to me that, given the gross economic inequalities and very much reduced social mobility in our modern world, it’s a bit surprising that “the language and practice of class politics” need to be re-invented. But yes, the languages used are very similar. And, as you say, those who straddle boundaries, or cross over from one to the other, are considered traitors – albeit traitors to a cause they haven’t subscribed to.

      We may be fighting a cause already lost, but I do feel it important not to let this mode of thinking become dominant in discourse, and to challenge it when it does raise its head. In the field of literature, currently fashionable concepts of relativism have weakened the concept of literary excellence: a work is good if you think it’s good. Or if it “speaks to you”. Or if it “speaks to your identity”. Or something. It’s all a matter of opinion anyway. So, if we do not have literary quality to talk about – as it’s all a matter of opinion anyway – what does that leave us to talk about? Identity, obviously! What else is there?


  6. Himdari:
    You’re right, this identity thing is mad but also perfectly sure of itself and unwilling to be persuaded that identities are more permeable than they would allow. David Bromwich in the latest London Review of Books has a long free essay on the topic. Nevertheless there are good aspects to identity which are evinced by people who are delighted when others take up their particular quirky difference and do not feel mocked or threatened. Orientalism is a historical manifestation of identity restriction applied to vast populations containing many cultures. Many years ago my ‘ombhurbhuva’ tag (from Gayatri, and also a boy’s name) was objected to by a young Indian on an advaita list. I am interested in Indian philosophy and have studied the subject but as a Westerner I was encroaching in his view. I don’t recollect that he knew much about Advaita himself but that ignorance of their own tradition and that of others is a mark of the identarian.
    Perhaps you know of this experiment by Weingarten of the Washington Post which reveals how those who like to go to expensive concerts in frocks and monkey suits are as much interested in being the sort of people who like to go…. (add html)


    • “…ignorance of their own tradition and that of others is a mark of the identarian.”

      Absolutely. I doubt that identarians (splendid term, by the way – I’ll be using that myself now) know much or even care about culture. It is merely narcissism and self-absorption.

      As for the Indian who objected to your Indian screen-name, I hope you told him that it was no business of his what screen-name you choose to adopt.

      Of course, mockery of a people is reprehensible; but even here, one cannot legislate. One may criticise a writer if they deliberately mock an entire people, but one cannot insist they must not write in such a way. As for mockery of other cultures – that is, cultures rather than people – if there are aspects of those cultures that deserve mockery, then, as far as I am concerned, mock away! So some white Europeans want to mock the Hindu caste system? Good! I’ll join ‘em!

      As for those aspects of Indian-Bengali culture that I value – Tagore’s writings, Satyajit Ray films, Indian classical ragas, and so on – I actually feel delighted when people from other cultures take an interest in these matters, or even adopt them. There is a lovely clip on YouTube of a European in a Kolkata bar (apparently, he is French) singing, to everyone’s surprise, a Tagore song, in perfect Bengali. Far from objecting to his “appropriating” my culture, I think this is wonderful. (And so, it seems, do all the other Bengali people in the bar.)

      (I haven’t read the article yet that you link to – I’ll have a read of it over the weekend.)


  7. Posted by Jonathan on September 15, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    People like Yassmin Abdel-Magied come across to me as modern-day Mary Whitehouses, they can’t imagine, and can’t tolerate people who don’t agree with themselves. I can’t imagine what types of novels such people would produce—’politically correct’ novels? It makes one shudder! People would soon clamour for something a bit more ‘raw’ though.


    • Indeed, although I suppose Yassmin Abdiel-Magad may well argue that it is we who cannot tolerate her point of view. To which I’d argue that it is people on her side, not mine, who are objecting to people writing in a certain kind of way.

      I’m not sure what kind of novels proponents of identity politics will produce. The essence of fiction, after all, is individuals interacting with each other. (No doubt there are exceptions to this…) If individuals are seen primarily in terms of a handful of groups they belong to – race, gender, etc. – then I can’t really see that producing fiction of any quality.

      But then again, if literary quality no longer matters as it’s all a matter of personal opinion anyway, who cares?


      • Posted by Jonathan on September 16, 2016 at 12:50 pm

        I guess the type of literature would be similar to Soviet-approved or Nazi-approved literature, i.e. of little interest to anyone. The literature would have to show the group in a good light only and be extremely conformist. No sense of personal development outside the group will be tolerated.

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