On reverse cultural appropriation, unlived experience & sensitivity consultants

Mount Saint Vincent University obviously acted appropriately when it chose not to interfere with the decision by its history department to name assistant prof Martha Walls to teach a course on the history of aboriginal residential schools that she herself has developed.

Given her research, output and academic background with aboriginal and women’s issues, especially in the Atlantic region, Walls appears eminently, perhaps uniquely, qualified to teach such a course.

Predictably, there were calls that such a course should be taught by aboriginals, since only they can bring the requisite experiential background and insights in to this history.

It is natural that scholars should be drawn to subjects based in part on their personal background. As more aboriginals enter graduate school, more will gravitate towards aboriginal issues and be able to teach such courses.

But some have argued that only aboriginals can claim the requisite understanding, sympathy or empathy to teach a course on a topic like residential schools.

“Lived experience” should supersede academic research and analysis. This phrase is becoming very common in these debates. Which raises the question: can there be such a thing as unlived experience?

Emphasis on direct, unmediated experience implies that the purpose of an academic course is to engender such outrage over obvious injustice as to provoke outrage or political action. And perhaps, in addition, to enable victims to express their pain, and to achieve some kind of closure or healing. Does this mean that the current inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women should become a model for academic courses in general?

Such exposure to raw experience or suffering of aboriginals might offer some nonaboriginals the opportunity to do penance for collective sins. But it might also become a form of moral voyeurism, which could easily become a substitute for more serious, more carefully considered responses to current injustices. Simply trying to determine just what happened vis-a-vis residential schools over more than a century, and more importantly, how and why it happened, is a large enough challenge in itself. People — especially outside academe — often naively think that we know all we need to know about major historical events or movements; and that all we need be concerned about is to act on that knowledge. That is almost never the case.

Furthermore, our knowledge of such past events, however complete and comprehensive, does not in itself provide sure guidance as to what we should do today. Such judgements have to be based on how we view the present. That includes our judgment on how the past still impinges on the present.

The claim that only aboriginals can properly teach a course on a topic like residential schools brings to mind current debates about cultural appropriation. If only aboriginals can teach about aboriginal issues, only aboriginals can interpret aboriginal experience through artistic expression.

Trying to understand, or enter into, or interpret another culture is inherently a challenge. That is especially so when the cultural distance is as vast as between Euro based and aboriginal cultures; and when the impact of the former on the latter has been so profound and even traumatic.

But to argue in principle that outside academic study or artistic portrayals of another culture are never permitted seems to go too far. If only because it challenges what ought to be one of the foundational assumptions of our society: namely that there is but one human species. (To talk about human nature raises issues which might be best left to another occasion.)

Truly creative artists seem less perplexed by such issues. Philip Glass, the leading exponent of classical minimalism, is composer in residence at the current Scotia Festival of Music. A student asked him what he thinks about cultural appropriation. What struck me in his answer was just how unperturbed Glass obviously is by an issue that roils many people far younger than he. To Glass, appropriation seems simply an unavoidable, inevitable part of artistic creation. And Glass, for the record, has studied with Ravi Shankar; and has written an opera about Gandhi, Satyagraha, and one about ancient Egypt, Akhnaten. He has yet to face charges of cultural appropriation.

The issue of appropriation rises more often with popular culture, or even consumer culture. There have even been controversies over Halloween costumes that contain ethnic stereotypes. Popular and consumer culture are seen to be a creator or repository of cultural stereotypes. That is why they attract scrutiny from cultural guardians and gate keepers.

Neptune Theatre stands somewhere in between in these arguments. Not quite high enough on the cultural food chain to be as blithe about these issues as Philip Glass, but socially conscious enough to believe it has to anticipate charges of cultural appropriation that might come its way.

Take Neptune’s recent production of In a World Created by a Drunken God by Drew Haydon Taylor. The play portrays two halfbrothers who share the same white American father. One has been raised by his aboriginal mother in an Ontario reserve after a fling with the father. The other has been raised by his affluent American family in suburban Massachusetts.

In the play, he appears to be the epitome of the ugly American that is guaranteed to raise the anti-American ire of a typical Canadian theatre audience. He is so obnoxious and smug an American that he might let off the Canadian theatre audience too easily.

Conflict arises because the father of the two protagonists needs a kidney. And only the aboriginal son, whom the father has never acknowledged, can supply that organ for transplant. Taylor presents the moral dilemmas and cultural clashes in series of tight, compelling arguments.

It is almost a problem play in the manner of George Bernard Shaw. And the crucial plot turn occurs through a call mistakenly picked up on a lost cell phone. Just what you might expect in a classic French farce, but updated for the social media age.

So an aboriginal playwright is using classic forms of western dramaturgy to portray some of the rawest aspects of aboriginal life in Canada. Is this a form of reverse cultural appropriation? Or restorative cultural pillage?

The Neptune program lists a sensitivity consultant as part of the creative team. Such consultants are becoming common in creative industries. There are even sensitivity editors in publishing and some media (Haven’t a clue what you’re talking about! — sensitivity ed.).

The director of the Neptune production, in her notes, writes that she would have preferred to have an aboriginal director take on the production; but hopes nonetheless that her work on the production will contribute towards reconciliation.

Increasingly, the Neptune theatre season is marked by two kinds of productions. One is feel good musicals. The other is productions that celebrate Canada’s multicultural heritage and aspirations towards diversity. The paradox here is that this particular Neptune production that celebrates diversity adopts very traditional, hyper conventional western dramatic forms to do so.

And there is yet another paradox. For 60 years, Canada has had significant public funding of the arts. Yet Canadian artists and arts organizations appear more and more reluctant to justify the arts on their own merits: as supremely civilizing, as one of the ultimate signs of our distinctive qualities as a human species. The arts have to justify themselves for their social relevance. In the age of Justin, that means celebrating diversity, inclusion, reconciliation, etc.

The historian Richard Evans has written what is probably the most authoritative historical survey of the Third Reich. In his preface, he notes that there is probably no event in history that cries out more for moral condemnation. But, Evans concludes, it is your job as a reader to make that moral judgement, not his as an historian. Precisely.