In Australia, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a memoirist who, at 24, published an account of her childhood titled Who Do You Think I Am? stormed out of a talk by Lionel Shriver at a local book festival. In her now-well-known account of the incident, printed in the Guardian, Abdel-Magied fumed about the novelist’s impudence for having argued that fiction is, essentially, the attempt to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and that without such attempts our ability to empathize with one another is bound to atrophy. To Shriver, this thesis was about as controversial as arguing that fruits and vegetables are an important part of a balanced diet. To Abdel-Magied, it came across like a license for cultural appropriation, yet another invitation for society’s powerful and privileged to dispossess the poor and the marginalized, in this case by stealing their stories.
It’s easy to laugh away Abdel-Magied’s rigid proposition. Follow it to its logical extreme, and you’ll find each of us advised to deliver nothing but a narrow account of her or his private life, replacing art with exact receipts of particular transactions and denouncing any attempt to imagine the lives of others—or the past, for that matter, or the future, or anything to which we can not immediately and materially lay claim in lived experience. But our mockery is misplaced, as it misses the point of what’s really going on: For Abdel-Magied, as for so many other young progressive activists everywhere from Brisbane to Boston, I is not a point of departure but a terminus, not an invitation to engage others in conversation but an invocation of self that trumps anyone and anything else. It’s an ideology rooted in a crude calculus that assigns each of us a definite value and then arranges us in binary oppositions. It doesn’t care about the content of our character, only about the color of our skin or the nature of our reproductive organs. It gives us permission to do nothing but succumb to the accidents of our birth, whatever they might’ve happened to be.