Don’t you dare lower the bar for people like me

The arguments over Rupi Kaur’s work represent a more insidious sort of identity-politics laziness which threatens to delegitimise art by marginalised individuals that is actually good

@bobby's original tweet.

On July 24, Twitter user @bobby posted four pictures of pages from Rupi Kaur’s book milk and honey, saying “sorry but this shit sucks so bad lol”. The tweet has since accumulated 37,687 likes and been retweeted 11,601 times, and below it in a long, meandering thread of replies, you can find netizens passionately tweet-duelling about the merits, or lack thereof, of Kaur’s poetry.

Kaur’s work is polarising. In the froth of the Twitter debate, there are those who mock her outright, taking memeish song lyrics and adding line breaks until they resemble her short, clipped, enjambed lines; there are others who defend her work, saying it is wildly successful and has brought comfort to many young women, especially survivors of domestic violence and abuse; there are yet more who decry the callous mocking that much of the conversation is made up of.

Mentions of the plagiarism accusations made against Kaur by fellow woman of colour poet Nayyirah Waheed pop up now and then; people make comparisons between her and Warsan Shire, another woman of colour poet whose work was sampled by Beyoncé in her latest album, and label Kaur’s work derivative. It’d be dishonest, I think, for me to continue talking about Kaur without mentioning these things. But they’re also not my focus.

In amongst all the back-and-forth, some defenders of Kaur come out with the argument that because Kaur is a woman of colour who has survived domestic violence and abuse and been able to write about it, criticism of her writing is ignorant, cruel, or entitled. They insist that those who are targeting her are targeting her for these things.

The defence reads hollowly; it’s a reach to say that Kaur’s naysayers have it out for her because of her identity, and more to the point, to treat Kaur’s identity as somehow the factor that grants her immunity from criticism of her work is to misunderstand the nature of marginalised artists.

In the Twitter thread alone, you can find multiple individuals expressing their dislike of Kaur’s work as survivors themselves. Not only is it critically lazy to assert that art has value or shouldn’t be touched because the creator is Oppressed, but it’s simply wrong to assume that the people for whom Kaur’s art is most ‘relatable’ will agree that it represents them.

Let me be clear: I agree that artists of colour should not be held to some impossible higher standard. But the whole conversation around Kaur, to me, reads like a subset of young, well-meaning, progressive, identity-driven types lowering the bar for people like me. Can’t we conceive of a critical atmosphere that raises the bar for everyone? The idea that we should entertain any kind of mediocrity for the sake of fairness seems like a terrible one for everyone involved.

I anticipate that if we were to exempt Kaur’s work — or by extension, the work of people of colour, of women, of survivors, or of any intersection of any oppressions — from being taken apart by critical eyes, it would only lead to such work not being taken seriously by anyone because of its tokenisation. I’m aware that such work already faces greater barriers and harsher scrutiny. But the sort of knee-jerk responses we see defending Kaur purely on the basis of who she is, and not the quality of her work, are not the right answer either.

There are some valid objections to the way people are talking about Kaur’s work: the criticism is often more like mean-spirited parodic takedowns, with plenty of users tweeting fake Rupi Kaur poems (one of my favourites, by @bobby, goes, “i / am my own / dad”). I’m not even convinced that this sort of mockery is bad — actually I think it might be good sometimes, but that’s something for another time — but at least this objection isn’t a conflation of the marginalised with the good.

And what of my opinion of Kaur’s writing? Well, I still would have written this piece even if I thought her work was worthwhile.

This article previously included a tweet from Roj Amedi; it was removed on Monday, August 7, as the article misrepresented the intention of the tweet and the opinion of Amedi.