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E-Pluribus | April 25, 2022
Limiting a writer to "lived experience" is antithetical to creativity, the soft tyranny of pronouns, and cancel culture is a plague upon all of our houses.
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Pamela Paul: The Limits of ‘Lived Experience’
“Stay in your lane” has become a constant refrain in culture increasingly obsessed with identity, but the New York Times’ Pamela Paul finds the mantra’s limitations on writers to be particularly nonsensical. While experience has its value, creation of art is inherently creative and thus transcends .
So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.” But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.
Here’s the argument: The dominant culture (white, male, Western, straight) has been dictating the terms for decades, effectively silencing or “erasing” the authentic identities and voices of the people whose stories are being told. The time has come to “center” these other voices.
In practice and across the arts, this means that only those people who have directly experienced discrimination or oppression, for example, or who in some way embody that experience should be allowed to portray characters, create stories or drive programming about it. They’re the ones who can truly interpret those tales accurately. The goal is greater share of the narrative and greater stake in any profits.
[ . . . ]
Privileging only those voices with a stake in a story carries its own risks. Though you gain something through “lived experience,” you lose something as well. You may find it harder to maintain a critical distance, which can be just as useful as experiential proximity. You may become blinded to ideas that contradict your own or subconsciously de-emphasize them. You may have an agenda. A person who tells the story of her own family might, for example, glorify a flawed father and neglect to mention a delinquent brother-in-law.
Moreover, authenticity of voice is only one criterion by which to judge art. A creator may represent the identity of some characters, but unless a story’s cast is remarkably homogeneous, that person can’t authentically represent all of them. Furthermore, authenticity of voice in a novel, for example, doesn’t guarantee quality of prose, storytelling, pacing, dialogue or other literary merits. Good writing, a strong performance and a great story all are feats of the imagination.
Read it all.
Leor Sapir: Don’t Say “They”
Language provides us with the rules and means to engage in conversation and understand each other. Although our language has a certain fluidity (think of slang words or the adoptions of futuristic lingo brought on by the rapid innovation of technology), Leor Sapir argues that the growing lexicon of gender-neutral pronouns introduces a host of issues in how we communicate, especially when it becomes enshrined into law.
Queer theory, the intellectual home of non-binariness, maintains that gender is an oppressive social system that gains its force by duping us into believing that it arises from nature and that it can be known through objective science. If, however, we conceive of gender and its categories as “performances”—things that exist only because of culturally grounded and therefore arbitrary behaviors—then resistance to gender becomes possible. To be liberated, authentic, and free is to perform gender in ways that thwart social expectations and offend conventional sensibilities. It follows that most transgender people, if they are male-to-female or female-to-male, belong in the same contemptible conformist category as the rest of us: only the nonbinary vanguard see gender for what it truly is.
If using “they/them” seems jarring and even uncomfortable, that is the point. Queerness begins to resemble a consciously and deliberately antisocial posture. So when a teenage girl or young woman—the demographic that seems responsible for most nonbinary self-identification—declares that her pronouns are “they/them,” what she is really asking us to say is, “I recognize that you are a courageous nonconformist, and that I am too unenlightened or weak-willed to resist the gender system.” (Maia Kobabe, the nonbinary author of the controversial book Gender Queer, uses “e/em/eir” pronouns; in their coverage of the national controversy surrounding the book’s appearance in school libraries, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post bothered to use Kobabe’s “preferred pronouns” even once.)
The Biden administration is now pushing for Americans to be required—if not directly by government, then indirectly by employers, school districts, and organizations that are legally risk-averse or lured by federal grants—to make self-deprecating confessions of inauthenticity. The most important example of this is the administration’s intent to revive Obama-era guidelines under Title IX. Through convoluted legal reasoning, these instructed schools to avoid relying on the “stereotype” that sex is a biological binary. The Biden administration has an interest in maintaining strategic vagueness in regard to what exactly schools must do to comply with Title IX: instructed to maintain “safe and supportive” environments free from “discrimination” and “harassment,” risk-averse districts will err on the side of caution and adopt policies that well exceed what the Department of Education could ever hope to get away with. Perhaps in anticipation of the old-new regulations, school districts across the country are already implementing early-childhood training on non-binariness and “neo-pronouns.”
Read it all here.
Madeleine Kearns: Cancel Culture Harms Us All
At Pluribus, we have attempted to define cancel culture as the “disproportionate, punitive, coordinated, personal destruction and discrediting for a real or perceived offense with no offer of redemption.” At National Review, Madeleine Kearns describes it as “a form of soft totalitarianism: the persecution of one’s political opponents in the place of debate and the complete condemnation of those who make mistakes.”
Advocates of cancel culture conflate feeling offended with having their rights violated. Really, it is they who violate the rights of others through thuggish and totalitarian means.
Consider the illiberalism now rampant on university campuses. Kathleen Stock, a feminist philosopher and author, was subjected to a harassment campaign at the University of Sussex as students plastered the campus underpass with posters saying, “Stock is a transphobe” and “Fire Kathleen Stock.”
The former rector of the University of Edinburgh, Ann Henderson, likewise complained of “unsubstantiated public allegations of transphobia and abuse from a University of Edinburgh student organization, establishing a pattern of behavior that continued throughout my term of office.” All she had done to provoke such bullying was to propose a debate on sex and gender issues. Dr. Neil Thin, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, was similarly falsely accused. He was repeatedly and anonymously accused by students of being racist and a “rape apologist,” despite a two-month investigation which exonerated him of all charges.
What such tactics really come down to is: “I don’t like this person’s views, so I will shout and tell lies about them until they shut up.”
Read the whole thing.
Excerpts from an interesting internecine argument among some on the left about the extent of the left’s problems (or lack of them) with free speech:
A post mortem thread from Conor Friedersdorf on the Washington Post’s Libs of TikTok exposé (excerpts):
And finally, Glenn Greenwald with some advice for those concerned about Elon Musk’s pending acquisition of Twitter: