Possibly the most important part of the mental model humans construct is their mental model of themselves. This is what we call our identity. It takes all the beliefs we have about ourselves and attempts to put them together into an internally coherent whole. Some of our most cherished political, religious, racial, and gender thoughts about ourselves tells us who we are and how we ought to interact with the world.
It’s a well established trope that the main protagonist of most popular media – movies, TV shows, video games, literature – are straight, white males. Some people criticize this, saying that there should be more diversity in our entertainment, because the entertainment we consume can influence our behavior, or for the more mundane reason that non-diverse casts are just boring. Others say that trying to force diversity is politically correct tripe and that the people who produce entertainment are simply doing what they know will sell. There is certainly a debate to be had on the merits of trying to capture all aspects of the human condition versus doing what we know works, but this also leads to another issue: can someone who has not experienced a certain aspect of the human condition create that condition in their art? In other words, is it possible for a white, middle class male author to write a novel about the struggles of a poor black woman from the ghetto? And if it is possible, is it appropriate to do so?
To answer this, we must consider three questions, using the example above (although these questions are not exclusive to that scenario):
1) Is it possible for a white, middle class male to write a novel about the struggles of a poor black woman? In other words, will the story he writes be factually accurate in portraying what it is like for poor black women, or will it be completely off base?
2) If the white, middle class male does write a novel that is factually accurate as it pertains to the struggles of a poor black woman, can it still actually be said to capture that struggle since the author has never actually experienced that struggle? In other words, is there a connection between the factual accuracy of the novel and the emotional truth it is attempting to portray?
3) If the answer to the first two questions is yes, then is it appropriate for a white, middle class male to write a novel about the struggles of a poor black woman? Or, is this an example of cultural appropriation – stealing from another culture?
And remember, I used the white, middle class male writing a novel about a poor black woman as an example to illustrate the point. This could also pertain to music, movies, TV shows and so forth and be between people of all different races, genders, orientations, and socioeconomic status.
The first question is easy enough to answer. It’s very possible for a white, middle class male to write a factually accurate novel about a poor black woman. It is possible for him to scribe the words in the correct order such that they formulate thoughts that correspond to the reality of living as a poor black woman, even if he’s never met anyone like who he is writing about, nor has he ever actually experienced any of the situations he portrays.
The second question is where things begin to get a little trickier. If we accept that the author in our example can write a factually accurate depiction of life for his protagonist, it becomes a bit more of an abstract issue about whether that factual accuracy corresponds to a deeper emotional truth. The author himself can formulate words and thoughts that describe the subjective truth of his protagonist’s human condition, but that doesn’t mean he actually felt that emotional truth. A reader might read his words and have different emotions evoked by them, but can we say that those emotions are genuine when they were not scribed with that deep, emotional truth behind them? This question is a bit more indeterminate. It’s certainly possible that someone who has actually had the experiences described in the authors book could relate to the protagonist, having that deep, emotional truth evoked through the words. In that sense, the answer would be yes, there is a connection between the factual accuracy and emotional truth in the book, at least on the reader’s side. But it still leaves out the possibility that the author’s understanding of the facts doesn’t necessarily correspond to an understanding of the emotional truth behind them.
The third question is less tricky, but more hairy. If we accept that the author in our example can write a factually accurate novel and have it capture the emotional truth behind it, then we have to ask ourselves if this is appropriate for the author to do so. Does he have the right to scribe this novel, or does it constitute a theft of some kind of cultural, or at least experiential, property? And what does it even mean that a culture can own a certain point of view? Even if we say he has the right, is there not some sense that it just seems intuitively inappropriate, the way many people intuitively feel there is something inappropriate about taking from the fashions or rituals of another culture? Isn’t there some intuitive sense that it would be wrong for a Catholic family to throw a Bar Mitzvah for their son? Or for an Asian family to dress up in Native American garb and perform a Sun Dance? In that same way, doesn’t attempting to capture the struggles of another culture that you have had no part of seem intuitively inappropriate?
I don’t pose these questions as an excuse for continuing with the straight, white male protagonists. My own work is often from the point of view of people who don’t fall into that narrow category. I think there is even a case to be made that generating content about other aspects of the human condition can help people understand and empathize with it. The question then becomes how far is too far? And at what point does a culture get completely subsumed by another, causing it to lose its true identity? There are not simple answers to these questions, but I think it’s important to keep them in mind, especially for people who produce arts and entertainment.