Who's 'we' kemosabe?
How Tonto complicates the debate over Lionel Shriver and cultural appropriation
A writer's festival censored a writer last week for telling other writers that they should feel free to write whatever they want. It sounds like something from a right-wing fantasy site, but it actually happened.
In her speech to the Brisbane Writers' Festival, Lionel Shriver took a strong stance against those who would censure, much less censor, writers and other creative people for the crime of "cultural appropriation." In response, one writer of Egyptian and Sudanese descent stood up and left the room, the festival organized a conference to disavow her remarks, and an audience member reportedly shouted, "How dare you come to my country and offend our minorities?"
But Shriver's major point in the speech really was inarguable. The primary task of the fiction writer is to think herself into other people's heads — indeed, that's the major reason to read fiction, to experience the inside of someone else's head, which is why novel-reading boosts empathy. If writers are forbidden to do that for fear of treading on the hoofs of sacred cows, then both they and their readership will be deprived of precisely the capacity for empathy across difference that, one would think, the advocates of diversity would favor.
One of the major criticisms against Shriver is that when white authors write from the perspective of minorities, they take away opportunities from minorities who should be telling their own stories. But the only solution to the problems of inadequate representation is more representation, and there is zero chance of getting that by muzzling the voices that are being heard. If there's a special place in hell for writers who silence other writers — and I believe there is — then the festival and at least one of its attendees have earned a toasty spot there.
Nonetheless, I have a question for Ms. Shriver. I agree that the whole point of writing fiction is trying on new hats, new masks.
But what if the mask you want to wear is... Batman's?
"Appropriation," according to my handy online dictionary, means "the action of taking something for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission." And Ms. Shriver does an excellent job of pointing out the absurdity of this requirement when it comes to culture:
However are we fiction writers to seek "permission" to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don't belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter 12, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?
But Batman does have an owner. If you want to wear his mask, you had better have permission from Warner Bros. Fortunately for fans, the studio has been relatively encouraging of different parties seeking to experiment with the character, certainly compared to some more controlling corporate masters (and even they have had to lighten up occasionally).
In the end, though, it doesn't matter whether Batman's owners are lenient or strict at enforcing their rights; the point is that they have the absolute right to do so, according to our conception of intellectual property. Moreover, they have the right to lobby to have that legal monopoly repeatedly extended, in flagrant contravention of the purpose of copyright laws, and to have enforcement of those rights deepened and extended internationally.
That's obviously in the interests of the largest producers of cultural "content" and their shareholders. But it's not at all obvious that it's good for the rank and file of writers, artists, musicians, or any of the other participants in culture — especially because it massively increases the returns to scale in cultural production, driving more and more capital to the same narrow set of cultural "products," giving them a greater and greater share of our collective minds. And, not incidentally, taking over the space in which more marginal or traditional cultures might thrive.
Meanwhile, to shift franchises for a moment — what rights do the Comanche nation have to enforce against Johnny Depp?
Now, as it happens, the people who made The Lone Ranger did get Comanche Chairman Wallace Coffey involved in the process of creating the character of Tonto. And the process was congenial enough that Depp was made an honorary member of the Comanche nation. Whatever you think of the product, they appear to have checked the politically correct boxes when it comes to process.
But again, that's not the point. The point is that while Tonto is intellectual property, Comanche-ness is not. It's a matter of courtesy (as well as good defensive marketing) to consult with the Comanche nation before representing one of their number on screen. Consulting Universal on representing Tonto is a matter of law. And so anybody who feels a kind of ownership of the Native American identity runs the risk of feeling: Something I own was used without permission.
That, I suspect, is what really rankles those who gnash their teeth when someone lectures them about how art is all about borrowing and exchanging freely. That's exactly what art is, but our whole edifice of intellectual property law is increasingly designed not to facilitate that borrowing and exchange, but to frustrate it, in the service of protecting the value of incumbent cultural products — the ones owned by corporations.
The solution, though, isn't to build more walls, so that everyone sticks to their cultural knitting. That will just exacerbate existing baleful trends. Rather, what's needed is to restore the artistic commons, before the only culture we know is one we'll have to pay a fee to join.