Is Lionel Shriver missing the point on cultural appropriation?

As author Lionel Shiver voiced controversial support of cultural appropriation, with some listeners walking out on her speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival on 8 September,  she seemed to miss an important point by looking backwards on outdated laws and cultural mores.

The advent of online self-publishing caused an explosion in uncensored writing on matters of society, politics and culture, thanks to self-publishing platforms and social media. It removed the print publisher, an historic force censoring authors and a flunkie for authority.  Self-publishing pushed us into a bold new world with potential for democratic and cultural evolution.

In response many did post views that were very unpopular, and seeing this, a huge multinational movement of armchair activists in vulnerable groups started advocating self-censorship, which was of course confusing to everybody because there was nothing in law to enshrine such censorship.

But culture races forward. People in great numbers numbers are voting with their petitions to remove offensive content. Partly as a result, companies like Facebook and Twitter, which are acting to protect commercial profits, practice censorship extra-judically. This all goes to show that companies – and perhaps an element of  conscience in society – have replaced the legal system and publisher on media law matters.

In fact, US laws enshrine freedom of expression for any side  a debate, so long as it doesn’t threaten violence. Also, libel and hate speech are punishable, but rarely are punished in practice.

The problem is all these publishing and media laws look outdated to vulnerable groups, who observe the internet allowing a rise in dangerous hate speech.

It used to be that, referencing the outdated media law and first Amendment protection, you could end the debate just by saying,  “You see it this incredibly complex, multifaceted and nuanced topic of how we should express ourselves through dress, speech and creative words in one way and I see it in another way. The laws support us in saying whatever we want and wearing what we like. It’s unlikely that I’ll get published anyway.”

This reflects back on the idea conveyed by the constitution’s writers: that free expression and speech was not considered a threat to Democracy when the first Amendment was written. Clearly, lawmakers trusted people’s words to  cause neither riots nor revolutions, but who knows what they’d have done had more people been literate. Despite high literacy rates among white nothern males it must be said most black people were illiterate.

Extremist views were seen as unlikely to even enter the consciousness of many people.

You have only to look at the campaigns of Donald  Trumps and Bernie Sanders to concede the point that the popularity of extreme views is on the rise.

On the other hand, it may be argued, you have only to look to Saudi Arabia or China, to see that censorship is the sure way to create an intolerant society ignorant of much more than the opinions it is refusing expression.

Given the wholly new circumstances politically and within the media, perhaps it is necessary to write new laws or simply evolve as a culture, in which the common practice is to shun (but not censor) those who don’t express themselves respectfully, with nuance, and with reference to how the execution of their ideas would impact a free and egalitarian democracy.

Now it may be sensible to make it common practice to simply say, “You see this incredibly complex, multifaceted and nuanced topic of how we should express ourselves through dress, speech and creative words one way, I see it in another way, and the law accords us both a right to express our non-hate speech opinions, which I acknowledge is a cornerstone of democracy, but please do also consider my own feelings, and the rise of tolerated hate speech in the West that is having a real impact on culture and potentially on democracy itself.”

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