Humility In The Center of the Universe

Most of us believe ourselves to be normal, by which I mean that we believe our sensibilities to be reasonable and those that differ to be unreasonable, if not totally wrong. And most of us believe that the majority of people agree with us, because we’re, well, normal. For those who believe themselves to be exceptional, this isn’t about you.

Much has been said about cultural appropriation of late, here and elsewhere, largely because of its absurdity and untenability, and this has created a dilemma for those who passionately believe that it exists and is wrong, since they’re constrained to rationalize why they believe something so logically flawed while being smack in the middle of that reasonable majority.

This conflict of feelings and reason took hold at the Guardian, where the problem confronting novelists became a platform for the battle to be fought.

Clearly, if writers were barred from creating characters with attributes that we do not “own” (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on), fiction would be impossible. Stories would be peopled by clones of the author. Since trespassing into otherness is a foundation of the novelist’s work, should we restrict ourselves in some way, so as to avoid doing violence to those who identify with our characters? The injunction to refrain from “cultural appropriation” sounds like a call for censorship, or at best a warning to self-censor, an infringement of the creative liberty to which so many surprising people profess themselves attached.

We already know that white women can’t paint pictures of blacks, write academic papers about transracial or transgender issues or wear hoop earrings while playing basketball. Cooks can’t prepare bành mí or burritos, and don’t even think about wearing dreads. But if a novelist can only write about themselves, then no one will read their books because they would be total bores, not to mention un-inclusive and non-diverse. What to do?

It is true that the politics of offence are used to shut down dissident voices of all kinds, frequently in minority communities, and the understanding of culture as a type of property to which ownership can be definitively assigned is, at the very least, problematic. Should the artist go forth boldly, without fear? Of course, but he or she should also tread with humility. Note that I do not say, “with care”. I don’t believe any subject matter should a priori be off limits to anyone, or that harm necessarily flows from the kind of ventriloquism that all novelists perform. Quite the opposite. Attempting to think one’s way into other subjectivities, other experiences, is an act of ethical urgency.

The upshot is that writers are special, though the explanation for why, “an act of ethical urgency,” falls a bit shy of comprehensible meaning. So naturally, the thought is completed by the dive into the meaning of “normalcy.”

For those who have never experienced the luxury of normativity, the warm and fuzzy feeling of being the world’s default setting, humility in the face of otherness seems like a minimal demand. Yet it appears that for some, the call to listen before speaking, to refrain from asserting immediate authority, is so unfamiliar that it feels outrageous.

While offered as part of the gibberish of writer rationalization, this raises a huge question about cultural appropriation, and, indeed, the pop notion of erasing the experience of the marginalized. It’s that “warm and fuzzy feeling of being the world’s default setting,” yet having the humility to realize that other people don’t share that feeling.

Good writers transgress without transgressing, in part because they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them.

Writers research, ask questions, listen to answers. Most thoughtful people do. Most thoughtful people are “humble about what they do not know,” but that’s only a shallow grasp of the problem. The deeper part is the capacity to know what you do not know, to know that no matter who you become involved with, you still understand it in the context of your own experience, your own normalcy.

To confront this, the writer takes the dive down the rabbit hole:

The panicked tone of the accusations of censorship leads me to suspect that what is being asserted has little to do with artistic freedom per se, and everything to do with a bitter fight to retain normative status, and the privileges that flow from it. The solution is simple, my fearful friends. Give up. Accept that some things are not for you, and others are not about you.

There is no fight to retain normative status. It’s normative because it reflects the majority, because norms happen organically. The fight is to change norms from those of the “warm and fuzzy” majority to those of the minority, who want to inform the majority of what they’re allowed to do, be and say. But without norms, we would be paralyzed by being constrained to reinvent the wheel at every turn. We need defaults. And normative defaults would exist despite the cries that they shouldn’t.

As might already be obvious, this isn’t really about writers of fiction, who want a special pass from political correctness so they can ply their trade without feeling like horrible and exhausting cultural appropriators. Rather, this is about the losing battle to fight reality, to circumvent inherent conflicts by resorting to gibberish and jargon that can’t pass the smell test.

Yet, there is a point buried in here that not only makes complete sense, but would serve us well in the effort to eradicate the detriment that minorities struggle to overcome as well as get along with others: be humble about what you don’t know. This is more life lesson than novelist rationalization.

Normalcy will be whatever it is, no matter how we try to micromanage it, but the ability to recognize that others don’t share our normalcy will help all of us to live together with less rancor. It doesn’t mean normalcy must change as much as normalcy can better accommodate the reasonable variations in other people’s perspectives if we realize that we don’t know what goes on in other people’s world. Even if we’re the norm, that doesn’t mean others can be reasonable people as well.

11 thoughts on “Humility In The Center of the Universe

  1. Richard Kopf


    I am all in for humility. It is lunacy that makes me cranky.

    Regarding cultural appropriation, there is no such thing. But, if there is, I demand that no sauerkraut (literally sour herb) be prepared, served or consumed by anyone from Portland whose name cannot literally be translated into German.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      They’ve renamed it Equality Kraut, but have banned its use on Bratwurst as too triggering. That should make everybody happy.

      1. Jim Tyre

        Yikes, Scott. You’ve watched enough WWII movies to know that Kraut is a derogatory reference to Germans.

          1. LarryArnold

            August of 2005 our local Nimitz Museum (Chester was born here) held a 50-year celebration of Victory over Japan Day. American flags saluted, speeches given, military reenactments, Medal of Honor folks honored, all the traditional features. The celebration concluded with a parade down Main Street, including the local high school band. No one noticed, as the earnest young future citizens marched past the reviewing stand, that on each side of each bass drum, it said, “Yamaha.”

            1. SHG Post author

              Yamaha makes excellent drums. And they’re not at all German, so let’s nip that in the bud.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    If the rest of us are not allowed to culturally appropriate, the attempt to parse a fine distinction between us and novelists will fail miserably. Shortly after that, the fine distinction between novelists and journalists will fail, as well.

    1. SHG Post author

      Shortly after that, the fine distinction between novelists and journalists will fail, as well.

      You should not have blinked.

  3. RAFIV

    I knew it! Greek Pizza is truly an abomination before God and Man! Truly, it embodies the worst example of cultural appropriation since the Romans appropriated the Hellenistic Pantheon and their epics. If I had my way, I would purge the Aneid from the curriculum if it didn’t already labor under the dual disability of cis gendered authorship and Western Imperialist ideology and, as a result, is double plus ungood and banned already.

  4. Matthew S Wideman

    I always thought cultural appropriation was of Western Civilization’s virtues. The ability to take ideas, customs, and technology from others in order to solve problems. Western Civilization didn’t have the mysticism and orthadoxy of the east. Thinking like another person creates empathy and understanding, which tends to prevent Holocausts and Jim Crowe.

Comments are closed.