(A discussion about identity politics and the consequences for literature)
In recent times two issues have dominated public discourse, especially in the West: All identities have the same right to exist and to be treated equally, but sometimes the interests of certain groups appear to be in opposition to one other. Does taking a critical stance against an opinion with which we disagree constitutes “cancel culture”?
This raises the question: What is the relationship between freedom and freedom of expression, and when does the freedom of expression of one group threaten the freedom of another group?
Where does artistic freedom end and when does the necessity of being ‘politically correct’ begin in artistic creation? And can an artistic work be considered as ‘good’ if it overlooks the link between creative freedom and politically correctness? Can there be good literature that goes against these principles and that challenges this connection and these boundaries, which oftentimes are invisible? What is the border between creative freedom – who determines that border – and has this border been eroded or reinforced by the ‘era’ of ‘cancel culture’? Does art require an ‘ideological guardian?’ On the other hand, how are we supposed to ask for accountability from artists who abuse and hide behind their ‘creative freedom’. Peter Handke attempts to hide his fascist viewpoints towards the war in Bosnia behind ‘literature’ or as he puts it, ‘everything is literature’.
The debate is far from over. The protests against JK. Rowling, who was accused of transphobia for making fun of the term “people who menstruate”, saw angry trans activists burning her books, the author opposed on all sides. Doesn’t it limit the author’s freedom to attack her in this way? Hadn’t she been free to say these things in the first place? Who decided that? Are those who attack her on the Right or on the Left? Is burning books now a valid method of protest? And who decides this?
The Austrian cabaret artist and author Lisa Eckhart, who according to many critics uses anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes, was excluded from a festival in Hamburg because there was allegedly danger of violent protests by the radical Left. This was condemned as hindering the freedom of art and freedom of expression in general, but the debates about "cancel culture" often started on the Right, with the Left accused of displaying an allegedly anti-democratic attitude.
It is suggested that an excess of political correctness from the Left leads to the prevention of freedom, but under the guise of this freedom, the Right pushes the boundaries of what can be said. This often results in historical revisionism, racism, and anti-Semitism. "We will be allowed to say it" has become the rallying cry of populists and the Right, often used deliberately to spread anti-feminist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic slogans.
How do we, as writers, deal with these problems without restricting freedom of expression and without being offensive to other people who do not belong to this assumed "we"?
We live in an era of identities. Identity has overshadowed the notion of class, without bringing economic benefit: A small minority of people are still enormously rich and the rest enormously poor, and this division exists on a global level as well as within societies. The debate about identities shifts the focus from the economic to the cultural.
What are the consequences of these discussions for literature? Can an author who is not a lesbian write a novel from the perspective of a lesbian? A white man from the perspective of a black man? Would Shakespeare be allowed to write Othello today? Can straight actors play gay main characters in the theatre? Is it permissible to declare anti-Semitic slogans to be literature in the name of freedom of speech? May an author lie about historical facts in his work? How can one know whether it is part of an artistic process or ideological propaganda? Who is responsible for analyzing this? The debate in Western countries about who is allowed to translate US poet Amanda Gorman's work showed how serious the question of identities is in comparison to, for example, theories of translation and literary reception.
At the Polip International Literature Festival 2021 we want to reflect both on the experiences of the Balkan countries and place them in the context of these global discussions.