Appropriation and Empathy

Appropriation and Empathy

This past September, writer Lionel Shriver gave an address at the Brisbane Writers Festival for which she was later accused of crimes agains identity politics. Her offense was to argue on behalf of what’s been called “cultural appropriation,” the literary application of which is to write in a voice that is not your own. Those who decry cultural appropriation have charged that a white writer composing fiction about a black experience is a kind of crime, that it adds to the ongoing cultural enslavement and subjugation of black people. This results in a logic where white people are forbidden from wearing dreadlocks, playing jazz or rapping, wearing sombreros at a party or serving sushi in a university dining hall. Presumably, I’m not allowed to dance to Bruno Mars. And while we’re at it, because I’m mostly Irish, I probably can’t drink tequila.

Shriver’s address made the case that were such a thing true, all she’d be able to do is “write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but finally able to buy the odd new shirt.” Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, precisely what and who she is. 

She argued that it is a writer’s job to go and explore psyches other than our own. That’s the very nature of fiction writing.

In a defense of Shriver (perhaps the only defense of her published to date), Jonathan Foreman points out that if we hold that logic consistent, black actors should not be allowed to play King Lear or Macbeth and nonwhite dancers should not be allowed to perform ballet (seriously, is there anything whiter than ballet?) or opera.

Think about it. Kirk Hammett would not be allowed to play in Metallica because he’s half Filippino.

As a writer, my argument for “cultural appropriation” is that we learn nothing in a novel comprised entirely of straight, 59-year-old white women. It would be a curious novel, to be sure, but it wouldn’t carry the fundamental insight into human nature that made books like Faukner’s “As I Lay Dying” so fascinating. And it was fascinating precisely because one of the characters had Down syndrome, and the postmodern work allows each character to speak in the first person. Writing about other people, at least in fiction, rarely comes from a place of contempt. It begins with curiosity and fascination. Where it leads is the stuff of books like “Moby Dick.” One cannot write about characters as flawed as Ahab with derision. No, one must love the human condition. One must have empathy.

I’ve been thinking about this of late and how, as a writer, I turned my back on pro cycling in the wake of the Reasoned Decision. That we needn’t refer to that event with any greater specificity than those two words says everything we need to know about what a watershed it was for us. I learned less from reading the Reasoned Decision than I did from reading Tyler Hamilton’s and Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Secret Race,” and later from Reed Albergotti’s and Vanessa O’Connell’s volume, “Wheelmen.”

My enthusiasm for the grand tours took a sick day and has yet to call in.

But while my excitement for that racing lacks the passion it once had, my interest in the people is as high as ever. I’ve struggled to reconcile those conflicting features. What I’ve realized is that the moral ambiguity and the inherent conflict of interest that pro cycling forces upon riders. The grand tours trouble me the way that the Red Bull Rampage and many reality television series trouble me. They all exploit their subjects, and the only way for characters to succeed is to surrender to the clarion call for the extreme.

I realized while reading “The Secret Race,” that had I been good enough to be faced with the dilemma of doping in order to further my career, how I answered would have depended on where I was in my life.

That’s not a comfortable epiphany.

In my late teens and early 20s, an offer of performance-enhancing drugs would have scandalized me. I was too innocent, too idealistic. I’d have gotten on the first plane back home to Memphis. I’d have done the same thing in my mid-to-late 30s, but for different reasons. By then, I was secure enough in who I was and what I was about that I wouldn’t have been shocked, but I would have said no. That doing such a thing wasn’t worth to me what I’d have given up in self-respect.

However, I need to admit my mid-to-late 20s were a different story. I was hungry for success and willing to play by the rules of whatever game I was presented. That guy didn’t last long, and for that I’m grateful. But I am self-aware enough to know how that person once inhabited my skin. Which brings me back to empathy, and the notion of a writer’s mission, the author’s work.

I haven’t lived the life of a pro cyclist. Nor do I want to. But in the last few years, I’ve gained a more informed perspective of what the peloton faced, the ugly choices so many riders faced. I needn’t be a fiction writer to do that.

It’s harder to condemn someone once you’ve faced the same vulnerabilities.


Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Lyle Beidler

    Well said. As a high school friend and riding buddy of Floyd Landis, I went through a whole spectrum of emotions as I observed his saga: denial, anger, denial, sadness, anger…
    it wasn’t until I read those two books that I was able to put myself in the shoes of my childhood friend and understand what he went through.

  2. Murray

    Patrick, this realty resonates. Your preface to the position you take on your personal experience is extremely well stated. Much to think about. Thank you.

  3. John Borstelmann

    Pro cycling is considerably cleaner than it was in the Lance era. The Reasoned Decision enabled me to enjoy the Grand Tours again. Same with pro nordic skiing, my other passion! Humans are weak and fallible, but it is the culture they swim in that determines choices. We’ll see what the IOC and FIS do about the McLaren Report and the revelations of state-sponsored doping and coverup in Sochi. The athletes want it cleaned up, and it is better than it has been in the last 25 years. Maybe I’m just an optimist…

  4. Dave King

    I couldn’t agree more. Especially in regards to Lionel Shriver.

    Re: pro cyclist and doping. Like many, I have read many sources on doping in pro cycling and have had many, many conversations around it. As a category 1 racer in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I competed against many of those implicated in the Reasoned Decision and against many others who (later) tested positive. I was a witness to incredible performances on the road that were profoundly demoralizing which I at the time I ascribed to greater natural talent and better/harder training. For me, many of those “incredible performances” have now been tainted. Although I was not close to signing a pro contract, I do firmly believe that doping was common (although not as widespread as in Europe) in the US domestic pro peloton and that it had a dramatic effect on the experiences of clean riders and in some case to severely limit their potential to earn their living through their sport.

    My main concern around doping is its effect on clean athletes. A Clean Break by Christophe Bassons is an excellent account of not just the physical challenges he faced in the doping milieu but the psychological, emotional and social challenges and toll placed upon him being a rider who not only refused to dope but refused to remain quiet about it.

    I have heard many times the reasons that riders in the Reasoned Decision doped. While I understand that doping was basically a necessity to continue racing in Europe, it is a falsehood to claim that they had no choice. Simply by being born in the US, these athletes have more choice than do most people in the world. Scott Mercier, Darren Baker, Christophe Bassons, and many, many others faced these decisions, did not dope and were able to construct meaningful and productive lives outside of and after pro cycling.

    For me, part of the reason why doping is so fascinating is because the lies and denials went on for so long, but also because I was a witness to the incredible physical transformations it could create. While I believe that some riders have shown some regret and remorse about their doping (e.g., Tyler, Floyd, Zabriskie, Frankie), there are many others (e.g., Lance, George, Levi, etc) for whom it seems their only regret is having been caught. In many cases, they have amassed fortunes and continue to live and thrive off their successes as pro athletes and continue to seek support (financial, emotional) from the public. Even the ones who are regretful seems mostly regretful about their own personal cost of doping and not how their doping effected the careers of clean athletes.

    One of those riders I mentioned above was confronted by a friend of mine who was a domestic pro for several years. He spoke to this doping rider (who won several local and national level stage races in the US when not racing in Europe) and remarked how disappointed he was and that he felt that his pro career was negatively effected by riders like him who doped. This doping riders response? Well, I wasn’t doping for races in the US.

    Anyway, I don’t really expect a response to this long essay. I just wanted to explain why I (and perhaps some of us as others I know share similar feelings and thoughts) have difficulty forgiving and forgetting these offenses when true remorse seems in scant supply. Lastly, to those who say that it is sport and so it doesn’t matter … I suggest it might matter to you if your child became proficient enough at a sport that a professional career was a possibility. More concerning to everyone, is the potential for future Alzheimer’s and dementia treatments to be used by healthy people for “cognitive doping.” The moral quandaries are the same as doping in sport, the potential rewards greater, the risk of punishment low, and the consequences even more profound for those committed to clean living.

  5. Rod

    I have no comment at this point on dopers and so.

    But I do have something to say regarding “only being ‘allowed’ to write about your own cultural experience”.

    Frag, if that was valid, we’d have no Flowers for Algernon. We’d have no Science Fiction period (who has gone to space, travelled to the future or interacted with aliens or sentient robots?). No magical realism. No Wonderland or Looking Glass. No George’s Wonderful Medicine. No Frankenstein. No Shakespeare (how can know what it is to be Titania?).

    Maybe nothing but biographies would be safe for authors?

  6. Lyford

    If it’s true that “you’ll never understand how it feels to be ______because you aren’t a ______”, the logical extension of that is that no one can truly understand anyone else. But being willing to try — to mix experience, information and imagination to understand how someone else thinks and feels — is part of what makes us human.

    Arguing that it’s wrong to make those leaps of imagination seems ludicrous. Without empathy there would be no compassion, and there could be no justice — there’d just be law enforcement.

    I’ll never know what it’s like to be an aspiring pro racer. I’ve never had to make a hard moral choice to get or keep a job. But It seems right to try to understand that culture — which is not my own — before I pass judgemnt on everyone involved.

  7. Shawn

    I don’t know and am not aware of many talented pro cycling prospects walking away from the sport. I know only one, in fact. If you’ve put that much into it by then, you will almost certainly put-in the rest rather than abandon what you worked for. Think about it.

    I don’t hold doping against those who doped. Only hypocrisy.

    1. Luke

      unfortunately, I personally know a whole list of them. Name after name of podium u18 & u23 racers, of both genders.
      National/WC level track racers, amazing junior/U23 racers, young people who looked at the life they’d have in cycling and compared that to an entry level job w/ a fortune 500 company…. and then we don’t see them again. The pipelines have been narrowed and effectively capped by the accomplishments of dopers and a simultaneous lack of sponsors & teams (see doping, effects of).

      It’s really a pity, but when you see guys like Tilford still placing well in CX & Crit results, –and with absolutely no significant disrespect to him — he’s an amazing guy, were the prospects and talent staying in the sport, he wouldn’t be near the top 30 of any results sheet. Look at the amateur racing in northern italy, or the Kermis events over in europe – that’s what keeping talent in the sport looks like – and even there it’s a shell of what it used to be.

    2. Author

      I need to back Luke up on this, but in more stark terms. There were a number of very talented guys who were signed to U.S. Postal in the late ’90s and early ’00s who were killing guys regionally. And for reasons that many couldn’t understand, they never made the leap into riding more than one or two grand tours for the USPS. I’m not going to name names because their stories aren’t mine to tell, but a willingness to get on board with “the program” was a greater determiner of your success within that team than your actual biological talent. I’ll never forget one guy saying to me after he’d been out of the team for a season or two, and I just happened to bump into him, “Yeah, I wasn’t taking the right vitamins.” Then he winked.

      There are guys on record, guys who were on Motorola, who bowed out because they wouldn’t dope. Again, I refer to “Wheelmen” by Albergotti and O’Connell.

  8. JAS

    Fine column, thank you. Appreciate your connection of “cultural appropriation” to cycling and doping. However I’m more chilled by your example of those practicing identity politics using alleged cultural appropriation as a blunt instrument to beat down voices that don’t agree with their agenda. Identity politics, political correctness, seeking to destroy those that disagree- one sees way too much of that these days. Intolerance too often flows from those who claim to be so tolerant.

  9. Richard Sachs

    “The grand tours trouble me the way that the Red Bull Rampage and many reality television series trouble me. They all exploit their subjects, and ”

    It’s not the grand tours. It’s the sport. It’s always been the sport, and I can’t imagine it being otherwise, at least in my lifetime. Pro cycling is an old sport, a pre-war sport, a pre-motorsports sport, and even a pre-televised sports sports. It’s run by old men who once were young men, and who also pinned on numbers. That it continues unchanged and to this day has never surprised me. It is, essentially, accepted as it is. From my perch, it’s the USA audience mentality that wants to right this ship. Take a Lemond, an Armstrong, the Postal Team, and one or two other American based entities out of the equation, and we’d never care a wit about this. But since we do, we’ve spent the past two decades trying to solve cycling’s doping problems and doping culture as if it touches us directly.

    I’m not advocating for doping, or cheaters. But the sport is what it is. And all the prolix in the world can’t unring its bell of tradition going back well over 100 years. If you cover the sport, you enable it. Unless you’re willing to throw yourself into the cogs of the machine the way for instance, a Paul Kimmage did, then at least you’re trying to use your press card for change. But if you write about the rest of it and prop any of the players or events, you’re just part of the conversation that keeps this facade alive.

    Through the years I keep coming back to the film, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” At its core, the story-line touches on how depression era folks would do anything/ANYTHING it took to win dance marathons in order to make some money. The doping tie-in there is analogous to the one we have in our sport. And again, it’s a sport issue, not a grand tour one.

    I like what we have. It entertains me. I have no illusions that these people are racing without pharmaceutical help. That much hasn’t changed since 1969 when I began following European cycling in earnest. It’s a rolling shitshow, but it’s my rolling shitshow, or ours as the case may be.

    1. Author

      I hear you Richard, and to a great degree I agree with you. What you say is true. Now, that said, I really think the grand tours hold back cycling from cleaning up. There’s an interest in riding clean that I don’t think has an equal in history. And grand tours reward doping in a way that no other race does; it’s where oxygen vector doping makes the biggest difference, where the effort to ride clean is most punished. As much as I love the Tour, it is the sport’s biggest problem.

    2. Dave King


      This really hits to the heart of the matter with most issues in this world – does it affect me directly? If not, no problem! Let the corruption and lies and fraud bloom as long as I am entertained. And hey, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway, so why bother trying to eliminate it?

      I’m guessing that you might feel differently if such issues hit closer to home. Frame building and bicycles perhaps. I don’t imagine you’d find it “entertaining” to see Chinese knock-offs of your frames for sale on Ebay.

      It’s human to care most about those things that affect us directly. But it’s also a part of our humanity to be concerned about and be a voice for justice, fairness and honesty outside the fairly small perimeter of our lives. Personally, I don’t believe apathy or the tacit acceptance of corruption is a goal to aim for or accept – those in power will only see it as approval of their means and ends.

  10. John Kopp

    Regarding the “Reasoned Decision” and other doping in cycling, I can only say that Christophe Bassons was sanctioned for a doping infraction. That pretty well sums up all that is wrong with doping enforcement!

  11. MrEss


    “Cultural appropriation” is the name we give to objectifying someone’s culture, aping the parts we like, and happily ignoring the rest. It’s a reminder to have empathy, not a stick to hit people with. Lionel Shriver lied to you, and her speech belongs in the bin with “feminists hate men” and other trash.

    One of the best resources on why cultural appropriation sucks and how to avoid it is Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s widely-
    acclaimed “Writing the Other: A Practical Approach.” It’s a $10 paperback, about 100 pages, from Aqueduct Press. ( )

    I’ve read every article on RKP, and have been following it years. You constantly show your empathy for others, your love of humanity. That love is why people like you hate cultural appropriation.

    Check out what those brilliant ladies have to say. I think you’ll agree that an Irishman *can* enjoy tequila, no brown makeup or fake mustache required.

    1. Author

      Ideally, yes, “cultural appropriation” does mean objectifying a culture and adopting the bits you like and jettisoning the rest. Ideally. However, that term has become a cudgel in many academic circles, and on this score, along with many others, I completely agree with Shriver. You can go to far with anything: alcohol, cycling, being politically correct. While I believe that the right has used the extremes of the left to unfairly dismiss every effort and urge within the movement to be more empathetic, I completely agree that there are times it’s taken too far. To your point: there’s no good reason why I can’t drink tequila, why I shouldn’t be able to eat Thai food, why I should apologize for the chicken tikka masala I ate last night.

      I’ve written a number of works (not published here) in which I adopted a voice other than my own. The experiences of writing those works have been exhilarating and educational. I don’t plan to stop because some college kids think I’m an ass.

      But Shriver is correct: a reasonable urge has been taken to an absurd extreme.

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