When confronted with an attitude that we consider to be shocking, or perhaps scandalous, crazy, and unacceptable, we must first try to explain it. Not to justify such attitude, but to better understand how to deal with it, and particularly how to combat it, especially if this attitude contradicts our most fundamental values.
This is the case of what is happening today in the academic and publishing worlds, first in the United States and also in Europe.
In these circles, in recent weeks, it has become difficult to teach a course on global art history that is only about European art. Furthermore, it is becoming difficult to teach a subject that could, in one way or another, concern a minority population without one being a minority. In a very real sense, could it be that someone is no longer allowed to speak about women if he is not a woman, or of the Jewish world if he is not a Jew, or of the Muslim world without being a Muslim, or of the Indian world if he is not Indian. These restrictions would apply not only to teachings, but also to books: it would no longer be possible for an author to speak in an essay or a novel about a gender or group that is different from his own. We have even seen women that are criticized for talking about women from a social background that is different from theirs in a novel. Or for recounting the adventures of a transgender character without being one herself. This would ultimately reduce literature to autobiographies. One might even expect that this issue could soon reach the media industry and make it impossible for a journalist to talk about a subject that does not concern his or her gender or social background, or country.
We can easily be shocked by this issue. It is, however, necessary to understand that much of Western literature has, for centuries, portrayed women from a masculine perspective, which often meant giving a devalued image of women. A large part of the teaching of literature, philosophy and music has for a very long time neglected women creators, who are now being rediscovered with difficulty. The same is true of minorities, especially minorities of colour.
This development is neither insignificant, nor is it reactionary and unimportant. It is part of a vast movement that has been growing for decades (and I have spoken about it often) toward a philosophical, ideological, artistic, economic, mediatic and political narcissism. Moreover, it translates into a general “me first.” Additionally, its pervasiveness is evident in the excessiveness of personal exposure on social networks and the success of works of art, in all types of fields, which value the most personal stories to the detriment of works of pure fiction.
In a real sense, what is at stake with the coronavirus is also part of this, by pushing the community toward the most restricted form of confinement that is possible.
As always, a desirable evolution first involves excesses; this is also the case here: one should not go so far as to think that Flaubert did not have the right to write Madame Bovary. Or that Jane Austen, or the Brontë sisters, were not legitimate in recounting the adventures of formidable male characters in their respective novels. And so many other examples, especially in movies today.
Everything can be understood and justified, except intolerance. Especially when it concerns the censorship of talent. The evolution must become a beneficial development. May it lead all of us to become much more vigilant about the relationship between the author and his work. Not in order to censor him or her, but so as not to be misled by what he (or she, or “they”, as we may soon say) wants, consciously or unconsciously, to convey through his or her work. And to judge it as such. And even more, to create the conditions so that everyone, whatever their background and origin, is not intimidated by the most privileged forms of artistic expression, and dares to nourish them with their identity and hopes.