Shocking behavior at the Art Gallery of Ontario,
and other accusations by the professional justice warrior.
Know thyself. Harder than it seems.
Karen K. Ho is an Asian-Canadian writer living in New York. A recent CBC article of hers spoke of “How the Art Gallery of Ontario should move forward in the wake of their racial sensitivity fiasco”.(1) Karen says that “they've apologized for an artist's racist costumes. Now they need to back it up by making meaningful change”. Karen wrote how “seeing this choice of clothing — the most basic cliché example of casual racism and decades-old caricature of what East Asian people dress and look like…” made her feel depressed. Karen accused the designer of racism, of insulting and demeaning Asian people.
However, not all is at it seems. At times victimhood is abused as a moral currency, used in policing the boundaries of human identity.(2) Roger Scruton wrote “we have encountered a new type of predatory censorship, a desire to take offense that patrols the world for opportunities. As with the puritans of the 17th century, there is the need to humiliate and to punish.”
A senior liberal Canadian art administrator put this in a more sophisticated form:
As artists we disagree with that statement: we will not reinforce the oppressor-oppressed binary through which justice warriors see life. We're not slaves to the past, and we can create a better future. Say no to perpetuation. As artists we can + we need to change the world. As immigrants, of which I am one, we have all experienced dislike, prejudice, and racism, and most of us have rebounded as humans do. Often such events spur us to act better than those people who see race only as conflict.
Ian Leslie in The New Statement explains that we know a lot less than we think – which explains the allure of “simplism”. “The right likes to explain as much as possible with reference to the perfidy of foreigners. The left’s preferred strain of simplism is the conspiracy of a self-serving elite, while liberals assume everyone else is uneducated or less intelligent.”
But we do need to consider the pain caused by stereotypical depictions.
The guests at the AGO Massive Party consisted of woke people from the Toronto art world, like most people reading this, perhaps including yourself. One would think the Asians arts community would have walked out that night, followed by the other guests, had they seen or felt racism or stereotypical depictions, but this was a dreamy surrealist fashion show, it was beautiful. And everyone had fun but we heard that among 2000 guests, someone later complained. So the AGO publicly apologised and Karen branded the fashion designer as racist, but not the 1999 socially conscious guests who did not object, enjoyed the party, danced till dawn.
The fashion designer was Pedram Karimi, a young golden-brown POC immigrant, born in Iran, raised in Austria, now living in Montreal, who chose Asian dress for it's stylish beauty. The article shading Pedram was written by Karen K. Ho, an Asian-Canadian author living in New York, who at the time was wearing jeans for comfort... even though she's not from "de Nimes", France. There’s no excuse for such insensitivity, even if Karen’s unaware of the history; the depredation French coastal people endured for centuries at the hands of the British. Karen in New York was paid by the CBC… to write in English… of her feelings at seeing a photograph. The feet on the street, who were the Asian guests actually at the party in Toronto, later wrote on the AGO Facebook page that there was no racism, no offense.
I think about the feelings of that guest who complained. I'd like to meet with them to say we do not have to embed past hatred in today's culture; we can change that and see this show for what it was, Asian appreciation by another immigrant in a land of immigrants. We can stop the anguish of the past from branding the present; artists can create a positive space where there was pain before, we no longer have to see the world as racist at those times when it is not.
And seriously, at the AGO it was not; some common sense is required, the AGO is not overrun by obtuse bigots, an argument Jamie Kirchick also used in a similar case at Yale, Reflections on the Revolution at Yale.(3) The I CHING or Book of Changes, one of the five books of Confucianism, writes that correcting injustice starts with self-criticism so that we're not guilty of what we accuse others. And obviously if you stayed and danced all night then complained later, it looks like you're a survivor.
Photographs that evening show expensive fabrics in a surrealist design by a youthful fashionista; no one felt prejudice directed against someone of a different race, no discrimination or antagonism based on the belief that one's own race is superior. Will you spend your life seeking bigotry where there is none? Let's be friends instead of talking trash, when there’s real bigotry out there. We need to beware the fascist right, we must also beware the fascist left, and the professional justice warrior fuelled by anger with benefits.
We need to care for the weaker among us, to heal the souls who need healing, but that does not mean bossing, shaming and blaming the 1999, or silencing artists and poets. Helen Pluckrose writes in Areo that “If most people are now working on an understanding of fairness, equality, and reciprocity as individual, this mentality can be incomprehensible and alienating.”
Because you're hurting innocent artists like Pedram. You silence their song. We forget the harm done to the skinny Iranian kid with bronze skin, whose POC workmates would laugh at the idea he’s racist. Margaret Atwood writes of the Puritan Right in The Handmaid's Tale; are we not also creating a Puritan Left of flawed ethics... fuelled by a craving for power, status, and identity?
On the AGO apology page, some concur but many shame the AGO for apologizing, including those Asians who wrote no racism, no insult.(4) A talented young designer's career and creativity were used as a punching bag by Ms. Karen to get a writer’s paycheck and take a victory lap; Pedram deserves more than an apology.
First they came for the others… and someday it will be your turn, so when it’s your turn… let’s hope we made a world where your voice can be heard instead of silenced, where people seek co-operation not conflict. For there has to be a solution, and one is proposed here.
“Appropriation complaints are almost beyond comprehension in the first place. Without cultural appropriation we would not be able to eat Italian food, listen to reggae, or go to Yoga. Without cultural appropriation we would not be able to drink tea or use chopsticks or speak English or apply algebra, or listen to jazz, or write novels. Almost every cultural practice we engage in is the by-product of centuries of cross-cultural pollination. The future of our civilization depends on it continuing”. (5)
The left must challenge our own bias, negativity, and greed, those perverse sides of the human spirit, and we do need to consider the unintentional pain caused by stereotypes. We invite the A.G.O. and the anonymous litigant to join us along with Ms. Karen K. Ho, we invite everyone to support the following much needed policy; #CulturalAppreciation is now a thing.
Our bespoke term sees artists respecting other cultures in their work. Available to all copyright free, this poster is a trigger warning notice. #Cultural Appreciation protects cultural freedom and allows complex civilization, says that an artist is using symbols with respect and without insult, - when that meme is posted it's a sign that intentions make a difference.
In his book “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” Francis Fukuyama writes that we must begin to shape identity in a way that supports rather than undermines democracy.(6) Fukuyama's lessons learned and applied, Iranian-born Pedram Karimi and Hungarian-born Miklos Legrady coined #CulturalAppreciation so we can ethically speak English although neither of us is Anglo, and so we can prevent triggering situations by noting the artist is using cultural symbols with care and respect.