In defence of Hal Niedzviecki

Hal Niedzviecki has been forced to step down as editor of Write Magazine – the house journal of the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) – after he published a controversial editorial on cultural appropriation.

‘I don’t believe in cultural appropriation’, Niedzviecki wrote. ‘In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.’ He used the piece to urge his fellow writers ‘relentlessly [to] explore the lives of people who aren’t like you’, declaring that there should be a prize for ‘the best book by an author who writes a book about people who aren’t even remotely like him or her’.

He dubbed it the Appropriation Prize, an attempt to poke fun at the contemporary obsession with cultural appropriation. Unfortunately for Niedzviecki, his joke was taken seriously. The TWUC Equity Task Force released a statement saying it was ‘angry and appalled’ at Niedzviecki’s article. ‘What will TWUC offer next, a “Best Coloniser” prize?’, it asked. After further public outrage, Niedzviecki was forced to apologise, remove his article, and resign.

Cultural appropriation is the notion that some cultural practices and experiences are unique to particular groups of people – and that cultures should not mix. Put simply, it’s the idea that white, Western people shouldn’t be allowed to adopt or mimic other cultures. Niedzviecki was trying to break out of this ghetto of the mind, and get writers to do what they have always done: write imaginatively.

That Niedzviecki published his thoughts in an edition of Write Magazine devoted to the celebration of work by indigenous writers was also seen as inflammatory by his critics, despite his own explicit celebration of indigenous work. Alicia Elliot said she had thought his editorial was ‘a joke’, damning Niedzviecki as a powerful white man who should not comment on cultural appropriation because he had not ‘experienced’ it himself. When some media commentators spoke out in support of Niedzviecki, jokingly suggesting they would contribute to the proposed prize fund, they too were attacked for abusing their position as white, privileged men.

This is scandalous. Progressives should be championing Niedzviecki’s right to speak freely, so that the rest of us can read and debate what he has to say. More than that, they should endorse his argument that ‘there is the need to forge ahead, to bridge personal and social divides’ in search of the ‘truth’.

Those of us who believe that ideas should be judged in the court of public opinion, not subject to the soft authoritarianism of self-censorship, should balk at the condemnation of Niedzviecki. It is a damning indictment of the state of free speech that his words have been erased from the record.

Steve Bremner is a writer and teacher based in London.

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