15 Days: Make Believe is Bad For You

The PC Police Outlaw Make-Believe

In our surreal age of identity politics, pretending is politically incorrect.

Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner pose at the Marc Jacobs Spring 2017 fashion show in New York, Sept. 15.
Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner pose at the Marc Jacobs Spring 2017 fashion show in New York, Sept. 15. Photo: Getty Images for Marc Jacobs

Last month the novelist Lionel Shriver delivered the ultimate macroaggression at a writers conference in Brisbane, Australia: She spoke the truth. And it triggered a leftwing meltdown.

What did she say that caused the festival organizers to disavow her talk? She made the argument that fiction writers should be permitted to write fiction. Her speech—and events that have followed—shows how the secular religion of identity politics is threatening imagination itself.

“Taken to their logical conclusion,” Ms. Shriver said in her address, “ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”

 

To write in the voice, say, of a black woman if you are a white male writer, is rapidly becoming taboo—a form of cultural appropriation, to use the proper jargon. But such theft is the job of fiction writers. The novelist, as Ms. Shriver put it, is “the premier pickpocket of the arts.”

I was told this on Facebook just this week, actually.

“If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled—because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to ‘appropriate’ the isolation of a paraplegic—we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, ‘Johnny Got His Gun,’ ” she said.

Ms. Shriver delivered her speech while wearing a sombrero—a literal representation of her deeper point, which is that the job of fiction writers is to embody characters unlike themselves. If identity politics reaches its absurd conclusion, Ms. Shriver said, “all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina.”

If that seems like an exaggeration, consider the past few weeks in the life of Kendall Jenner, the supermodel scion of Kris and Caitlyn Jenner, who has come under fire for the sin of playing dress-up.

Ms. Jenner’s first transgression took place at New York Fashion Week in September, where, in Marc Jacobs’s show, she walked the runway wearing purple peep-toe platforms and a pile of woolen “dreadlocks” in various shades of pink, lavender and turquoise.

It wasn’t the babydoll dress that made the digital dictators lose their minds, but the dreadlocks—an apparently egregious act of cultural appropriation. Never mind that some of the models doing the appropriating were black. Or that the locks in question were completely fantastical, like an anime cartoon come to life. Or that the inspiration for the look was the signature hairstyle of the transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski, one of the minds behind “The Matrix.”

Days later, Ms. Jenner had the gall to pose in pointe shoes for a Vogue España photoshoot. As one Twitter twit summed up the outrage: “The shoot was wrongfully appropriated. Dancers like Misty Copeland or Maddie Ziegler could have been way more powerful and graceful.”

In our surreal age, pretending is now politically incorrect. What’s the over-under on when Brad Pitt will only be permitted to play a celebrity going through a humiliating divorce? Give it a year.

  • “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” William Arthur Ward
Orwell created a form of English, post-ideological and pared down so much that it discouraged or outright abolished freedom of thought, creativity, and imagination. The author called it “Newspeak.” Importantly, this carries profound significance in at least two ways. First, the term itself means a language well beyond—or below—modern English, which has evolved almost without any direction or command over centuries and centuries. Perhaps more than any other institution, language has evolved naturally and without a command structure. It has grown spontaneously as the profound political philosopher, Friedrich August von Hayek observed, discovered rather than made. With Newspeak, however, the language evolution ends, and its devolution, limited by the seemingly endless bitterness of the tyrannical society, begins. Its devolutionary trajectory, importantly, will be even sharper than its evolutionary ascension.
1984: ‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well— better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning; or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words— in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?
Second, though, Newspeak serves the function of propaganda.

In the late 1930s, the American public intellectual Walter Lippman feared that nearly all of the western world had politicized and had taken language and art into the sewers of power and power alone. The Anglo-Welsh man of letters, Christopher Dawson, worried in 1946 that politics had subsumed all under its devouring maw. In his deeply moving short story, Leaf by Niggle, Tolkien beautifully juxtaposed the nature of art and the subhuman nature of propaganda. While art leavens the dignity of the human person, propaganda, by appealing to the lowest aspects of the human person, seeks conformity and domination.

Choice of vocabulary, Syme correctly realizes in 1984, leads one to independent thought. “In your heart,” he tells Orwell over some stale bread, “you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words.”

Narrow the vocabulary and you, by necessity, narrow thought. Further, by introducing conflicting ideas such as “crimestop, blackwhite, and doublethink,” a persons becomes “unwilling and unable to think too deeply on any subject whatever.” (Imaginative Conservative and Orwell, 1984, 52-53 & Orwell, 1984, 217.)

Like “Cultural Appropriation”.

 

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