American Dirt is the latest example of a big name work coming under fire for exploiting and appropriating the cultures it features. However, it’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. Each time, white storytellers are told that we need to stop using other cultures for our own ends. And just like any time privileged people are told they’re doing something wrong, justifications for bad behavior have been pouring over the internet.
Among the most frequently used is the notion that storytellers should be able to depict whatever they want because… art. Generally, this argument comes with a statement about how art is supposed to challenge audiences and mischaracterizes criticism as censorship. These notions are built on a foundation of privilege and entitlement, but once placed in this pretty package, they can be used to dismiss a wide array of criticism from marginalized groups.
Personally, I am fed up with people using their supposed veneration for my craft as an excuse to hurt others. We should not be shielding storytellers who spread harmful messages from the criticism they’ve earned. Not only because it’s wrong, but also because it’s an insult to all the storytellers who do better.
Criticism and Refusal Are Not Censorship
Sometimes reactionaries pretend social justice advocates want to clap them in irons, but this is merely straw-manning. In the United States, the First Amendment protects people from being sent to jail for what they write, and no significant group wants to change that. Nor do advocates wish to burn all copies and erase all records of any creative works.
Controversies don’t start because a creative work, even an extremely detestable one, merely exists. They start because the work is being promoted by a person or entity with the clout to spread it far and wide. A respected periodical accepted it and sent it to all their subscribers, or a publisher gave it a big ad campaign, or a studio spent millions producing it, or an influencer endorsed it. At that point, the work is impacting thousands or even millions of people: influencing our cultural mindset, motivating people to action, and inspiring other artists to create similar works.
Given that, the real battleground is whether potentially harmful works should be promoted to a wider public. Perhaps some should, but even so, saying that this discussion is about censorship is committing an obvious fallacy. No work is entitled to a million-dollar ad budget or celebrity tweets. A publisher is not censoring someone with every rejected manuscript. Critics who push back against harmful works are exercising their own freedom of speech, and as a natural result, others listen and exercise their right not to endorse something they don’t believe in. That’s what the First Amendment is for.
No One Really Thinks Art Shouldn’t Have Limits
Many people have said they are against telling writers what they’re allowed to write about. This is a common reaction to learning that others object to what you’ve always considered acceptable. But this absolute freedom argument is hypocritical, because everyone has something they judge too unethical to be depicted in popular works.
For instance, do you think it’s acceptable for a movie studio to spend millions of dollars promoting a movie where Hitler is unironically the hero and all the Jews he kills onscreen are villains? Would you feel good about paying to see it? If not, it can only mean you don’t believe Hollywood screenwriters should be creating screenplays like that for mass consumption. But don’t you care about an artist’s freedom to promote genocide?
Obviously, genocide is not the same as cultural appropriation. The point is that we all make subjective judgment calls about what artistic messages are too harmful to be socially acceptable. What we’re debating is not whether we want limits, but where those limits are, and more than that, who decides. Will white people be the ones to decide their depictions of other cultures are okay because they seem okay to white people? Or should the people of those cultures be making those decisions?
An artist who insists this debate is taking away their freedom is like that white friend who drops the n-word and then gets mad when others tell them what they “can and can’t say.” Look, no one can stop you from saying the n-word, but you shouldn’t say it because it’s racist, okay? And sure, some white people think they’re using the n-word respectfully, but Black people don’t see it that way, and that’s what matters. These artists are using fancier language than this n-bombing white friend, but they’re having the same knee-jerk reaction, for the same reason. They feel entitled to continue their previous behavior without scrutiny or objection.
Good Stories Have Skilled Messaging
Inherent to the argument of “but art!” is the notion that society could lose out on valuable works if they are judged based on the harmfulness of their content. This is the heritage of a literary culture that treats a work’s meaning as inherently ambiguous or subjective. Under this mindset, the messages in a work are something the reader is responsible for uncovering, not something the storyteller is responsible for communicating. That’s because traditional literary analysis is by readers, for readers. A reader can’t alter what’s in a beloved work; they can only choose to see it in a new light.
This may be a rewarding way of interpreting classic literature, but it doesn’t do the art of storytelling justice. Stories are inherently vehicles for teaching life lessons, and most storytellers want to deliver clear and specific messages in their work. What their book communicates to its readership is largely within their control, though making the intended statement can be very challenging. This means that in storytelling, it is delivering the right message clearly, not offering a menu of ambiguous hints, that signifies mastery of the craft.
This doesn’t mean ambiguity isn’t a valid goal or that beautiful accidents don’t happen; it simply means that messaging is one benchmark by which stories should be judged. In the case of American Dirt, author Jeanine Cummins set out to create a bridge between cultures and instead exploited one of those cultures for the benefit of the other. In this, she failed as a storyteller. In judging the artistic value of her work, it is as fair to throw American Dirt in the trash for its poor messaging as it is to throw it out for having shallow characters or clichéd description.
If Cummins had succeeded as a storyteller, there would be no controversy, regardless of her race. A great example is Pixar’s Coco. This film was helmed by a white man, Lee Unkrich, but Mexicans loved the film. That’s because he not only wanted to tell a story that was true to Mexican culture, but he also leveraged the resources of Pixar to do that.
Pixar succeeded by hiring numerous Mexican consultants and changing many details about the movie based on their feedback. In other words, it took the resources of a movie studio, and, in actuality, there were many Mexicans behind this film. Based on all the case studies we’ve examined at Mythcreants, a lone novelist depicting another culture has approximately nill chance of a success like that. As we aren’t interested in setting up writers to fail, we recommend they focus on diverse characters and avoid covering an entire culture that’s not their own.
Because our recommendations are based on getting results, we always mention that particularly qualified storytellers might be exempt. But in our experience, exactly no one cares about this distinction. Entitled white people are not satisfied with the knowledge that if they can depict other cultures as well as they say they can, no one will criticize them. They want to protect themselves from criticism regardless of what harm they do.
“Challenging” Audiences Is Cheap
If a friend ran over your dog, “I’m sorry you’re upset” would be a pathetic apology, whereas “I’m sorry I ran over your dog” would at least be a start. The former is insincere because your friend is blaming your feelings, not their actions, as the cause of your current problems. This demonstrates a refusal to understand what they did wrong and take responsibility for it. Similarly, privileged people often frame social justice criticism as a matter of “offense.” In this mindset, the issue at hand is not what a work is communicating but how people are reacting to it.
From there, reactionaries defend themselves by glorifying the act of challenging or provoking audiences. The result is a glut of storytellers who take the cheapest route to getting a reaction. Take Michael Chabon, a writer who had this to say in a 2011 video profile:
It is part of a writer’s job in some way or another to be no respecter of boundaries, to challenge people’s preconceptions about what’s literature and what’s not, or what’s appropriate or what’s not, what can be said or what can’t be said.
Michael Chabon later became the showrunner for Star Trek: Picard’s first season. While the overall response to the season was mixed, fans became angry at one event in particular: the killing of a beloved minor character, Icheb, in a pointlessly horrific way. The episode shows a predatory medical procedure in graphic detail, and Icheb isn’t sedated or even given pain killers. This is an obvious contrivance, because the villain’s job would be easier without Icheb thrashing around. The scene may have succeeded in provoking emotions, but it was cheap storytelling.
Like a small child who loves potty language because it gets disgust from adults, any storyteller can elicit a response by being asinine. Add a torture scene. Threaten female characters with rape. Have the main character say some slurs. If the audience gets mad, that means it’s working, right? In the end, privileged people are just promoting the artistic value of being crude.
This is especially ironic because no social justice advocate needs a lesson in how it’s okay to make others upset. Our criticism elicits anger constantly. The difference is that we don’t do it to make people angry; we do it because we believe in what we’re saying. Anger is the unavoidable consequence of saying it. Similarly, stories are capable of provoking audiences in meaningful ways, but storytellers won’t get there if all they want is to be edgy.
To steer storytellers back toward saying meaningful things, we must judge the specific messages stories convey. We may disagree, but that’s a debate worth having. Of course, it’s easier to praise works for being provocative than it is to examine what they provoke and why. But framing controversy in terms of people’s feelings isn’t just devoid of merit, it’s also deeply unjust. Those who are hurt the most by harmful messages will naturally have the strongest emotional reactions to them. We stigmatize anger and “offense” to shut out the voices of already marginalized people.
If you are white, never forget that the conventional wisdom you hear has been heavily filtered by white people to serve our own interests. We treat our weak defenses as gospel, and when a marginalized person seems to agree with us, we amplify their words to validate ourselves. To see past this white filter, we can’t sit back in our comfortable spaces; we have to go out and listen. It’s our responsibility to understand how we are using our power to hurt others, not anyone else’s responsibility to teach us.
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