The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

[Author’s Note: The (28) endnotes have been appended to the last of the fourteen sections into which the present piece is divided. There are also two Postscripts.]

“I am human.  I think nothing human is alien to me.”

— African writer, Publius Terentius of Carthage (a.k.a. “Terence”)

Over the course of the past decade, a potpourri of buzz-terms has emerged in contemporary political vernacular.  Some of these terms help us better understand the world in which we find ourselves.  Others, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject-matter to which they have been applied.  The latter is the case with the shibboleth, “cultural appropriation” (Cul-Ap).  Typically used pejoratively, the contentious term has become fashionable amongst aficionados of political correct-ness.  Extracted from the sudsy depths of academic lingo by the most obstreperous p.c. aficionados, it is now commonplace in the argot of those smitten with “propriety”.  The feckless leveling of this accusation has sewn needless discord, and has served to undermine the integrity of public discourse.

As we shall see, using Cul-Ap as a gauntlet rather than as an invitation serves to exacerbate the very problem its enthusiasts purport to solve.  Instead of effecting inter-cultural comity, scorn for Cul-Ap only stirs up acrimony.  How so?  The vilification of Cul-Ap (tacitly) prescribes a regimen of cultural segregation, thereby setting the stage for contrived pique directed across confabulated borderlines against an imagined OTHER.  In other words: The anti-Cul-Ap crusade is diametrically opposed to the most vaunted ideals of cosmopolitanism.  (For more on this point, see Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics In A World Of Strangers”; chapters 7 and 8.)

So how did this term become a pejorative?  As a neutral term, it simply points to the use of memes associated with cultures other than one’s own.  The implication, though, is that such an act is impolitic.  Appropriation is, after all, typically a bad thing, isn’t it? {26}

I will argue that the act of “appropriating” an element of culture, while deemed ethically-questionable by Cul-Ap-phobes, has generally salutary repercussions. {1} Embracing Cul-Ap involves an endorsement of what historian Iriye Akira referred to as “cultural internationalism”, which–I hope to show–is integral to cosmopolitan ideals.

First, a note on memes.  Memetics is a way of thinking about epidemiology, whereby pieces of information are seen as the analogues of genomes, and thus subject to natural selection.  Put another way: As replicators of information (that is: patterns of thought / behavior), memes are analogous to genes (that is: biological replicators).  A meme can be anything from a belief in the flying spaghetti monster to grandma’s recipe for chicken pot pie.  Memes might be names, catch-phrases, tunes, dance routines, superstitions, sacred rituals, or countless other things that humans think and do.  The successful memes tend to be the ones that are both sticky (memorable) and catchy (contagious).  For the present purposes, we are concerned with memes insofar as they are widely-recognized elements of a particular culture–especially when they are recognized to be UNIQUE to and INTEGRAL to that culture.  While the laws of biology and ecology dictate which anatomical mutations succeed; social psychology is the primary determining factor in meme-proliferation. {17}

But what else is at play when it comes to an aversion to “Cul-Ap”?  As a term of opprobrium, this shibboleth tends to be invoked by those who subscribe to a divisive form of “identity politics”, a topic I explore at length elswhere.  For in order to be cast as an ethical transgression, Cul-Ap must be conceptualized in terms of people’s membership in a demographic category.  In its pejorative incarnation, it pertains to how said designation relates to a (dubious) regime of cultural demarcation.  That the ham-fisted use of this term (to wit: “cultural appropriation” as a pejorative) has wormed its way into the catechism of “identity politics” is testament to how misguided otherwise well-meaning expositors have become.

The supposition that we should all come together without engaging in any cross-cultural memetic exchange–while spurning trans-cultural fertilization–is untenable.  For it assumes distinct cultural boundaries where no such boundaries exist.  It should be uncontroversial to note that one does not have to be Mexican to eat fajitas any more than one has to be Swiss to eat Emmentaler cheese.  (Non-Belgians who enjoy eating Belgian waffles are on notice!)  When people of different cultures interact with one another, one culture invariably blends into another culture; and this is usually a felicitous development.  Indeed, the phenomenon is ubiquitous.  Cul-Ap is happening all around us every day; and occurs without notice in the most anodyne ways.  Little are anti-Cul-Ap crusaders aware: They are THEMSELVES engaging in Cul-Ap countless times a day with virtually everything they do and say.

Each of us lives within a memetic microcosm that has no clearly-defined boundaries.  Our locus of memes is perpetually shifting, changing.  This metamorphosis is based–in part–on external memes that happen to be impinging upon us at any given time.  Understanding this, it is plain to see that the compartmentalization of cultures is not only inimical to pluralism, it is antithetical to the most fundamental principles of cosmopolitanism.  What proponents of “identity politics” cannot seem to understand is that, though it is perhaps a quick fix for some, such an approach does nobody any good in the long run.

Granted, discursive segregation can be done along demographic lines–per the regime of “identity politics”.  Yet an elementary fact seems to be lost on Cul-Ap-phobes: A melting-pot is not merely about the co-existence of disparate cultures; it is about the (discretional) MELDING of cultures.  This is even the case when it comes to the most insular cultures.  For even as parochial enclaves are themselves not melting pots (insofar as they have impermeable boundaries), they are effectively petrified melding pots (haven been frozen in time by Reactionary forces that treat the CURRENT version as some pre-ordained final destination).  Put another way: While a pluralistic society is comparable to a salad, its culture is an ALLOY.  Even as people may maintain their distinct ethnic identities, the cultural milieu in which they live is a fluid amalgamation of ethnic components.

Thus: Even when cultures are segregated, they can’t help but be the products of Cul-Ap.  A society that has been systematically partitioned into discretely-defined collective identities cannot truly be said to be pluralistic.  For it is a society that has not come to terms with the Cul-Ap that brought it to where it currently is.

Cultural boundaries blur into each other because cultures INEVITABLY meld whenever they interact.  This process is more a matter of fusion than it is of superposition.  Such intermixture can happen any number of ways for any number of reasons.  One way: A culturally exogenous population that has recently arrived in a new land assimilates (wittingly or un-) elements of the indigenous culture.  Another way: The native culture adopts elements of other cultures; thought the latter is sometimes coerced into doing so due to the power asymmetry typically involved in colonialist scenarios.  Cul-Ap is bi-directional.

Bottom line: ANY culture is–invariably–an alloy of other cultures, which themselves are alloys of other cultures, and so on, going back to time immemorial.  This is a good thing; as the alternative is insularity and stagnation.

In spite of all this, anti-Cul-Ap crusaders insist that trans-cultural fertilization is somehow deleterious to civil society.  The only solution to this (purported) injustice, we are led to believe, is a regimen of meme-sequestration carried out along cultural lines.  In other words, the prescription for respecting other cultures is cultural segregation: separate but equal.  (This should sound eerily familiar.)

In their eagerness to doll out memetic injunctions, these self-appointed arbiters of cultural exchange fail to realize that cultures cannot be “purified” any more than communities of people can be purified.  We might recall that part of cultural purification is exclusivity: Believers in a pristinely-maintained culture want to prevent things from leaking out as much as from leaking in.  That is: They insist on some kind of memetic quarantine so as to preserve the (purported) integrity of each culture.  But what, exactly, are we seeking to preserve with our memetic quarantines?

Calls for cultural segregation are a reminder that parochialism typically accompanies Reactionary thinking.  This is where things get confusing.  Cul-Ap-phobes are conservatives masquerading as “liberals”.  As it turns out, they are not advocates of pluralism; they are cultural segregationists who see any transference of memes across cultural lines as a ploy–by the adopters–to exploit those of the source-culture.  Any incidence of domination / exploitation that DOES exist is thus attributed–at least in part–to whatever Cul-Ap can be identified.

But here’s the thing: Cultural integration (what the sociologist, Max Weber dubbed “sinnzusammenhaung”) involves some sort of memetic co-optation; which is simply to say that the formation of a given culture is the result of incorporating elements from other cultures.  Such memetic transference constitutes the warp and woof of ALL cultural life.  This is not some insidious program of annexation; it is cultural integration taking its natural course.  In other words: It is part of the natural course of cultural evolution (and, hopefully, cultural progress).

Therein lies the snafu: In order to depict Cul-Ap as invidious, we must suppose that one can somehow annex the elements of another culture.  The suspicion is that, by SEIZING this or that meme from its rightful owners, those (purported) owners are being short-changed.  Consequently, the argument goes, Cul-Ap occurs to the detriment of the source-culture.  It’s as if, by making use of an exogenous cultural element, one were perpetrating some sort of memetic heist.

This supposition is, of course, entirely specious; as memes are non-rivalrous–which is to say: barring instances of intellectual property (copyrights, trademarks, and patents), the use thereof is non-exclusionary.  Memetic transference is NOT a zero-sum game.  When the element in question is conducive to the commonweal, everybody wins.

And so it goes: To characterize Cul-Ap as a transgressive act, one is forced to contend that temporarily adopting–or blithely participating in–an element of another’s culture is somehow trespassing on that culture’s sovereignty over itself; and thereby committing a kind of desecration.  Hence Cul-Ap–by its very nature–is deemed derogatory toward and/or exploitative of those who identify with the meme-in-question.  The indictment is made especially when the meme plays an integral role in their cultural heritage.  The unavoidable conclusion is that any act of unsanctioned adoption / participation must be forbidden…even if it is done in good faith.

It is an irony that those most engaged in cosmopolitan life are especially prone to breaching this municipal ordinance.  After all, the modus operandi of cosmopolitanism entails engaging in Cul-Ap AS A MATTER OF COURSE.  In fact, it is impossible to be a genuine cosmopolitan WITHOUT enthusiastically engaging in rampant Cul-Ap at almost every turn.

Prohibition of Cul-Ap effectively mandates what is best described as cultural Apartheid: “I shall keep my culture to myself; and you are expected to keep your culture to yourself.”  This is especially ironic, as such onerous strictures are (ostensibly) meant to enforce a “respectful-ness” for all cultures.  In the end, Cul-Ap-phobes are hyper-parochialists who refuse to admit that they are being, well, hyper-parochial.  To reiterate: The demonization of Cul-Ap betrays a fundamental ignorance of the principles of cosmopolitanism.

So there we have it: In the Cul-Ap-phobes’ eagerness to condemn what they see as an infelicitous use of exogenous cultural elements, they lose track of the implications of such their own captious thinking.  (After all, part of obtuse thinking is not recognizing such thinking as obtuse.)  By rebuking a gringo for snacking on tortillas, one may as well castigate anyone who isn’t Japanese for making a “pinky swear” (the “yubikiri”, coined by the Yakuza).

The indictment of illicit Cul-Ap is shown to be frivolous the moment we attempt to universalize the maxims on which it is purportedly based.  As I will show in the present essay, taking the stricture to its logical conclusion, and applying it everywhere–especialy where its proponents did not intend–exposes an UNAVOIDABLE inconsistency in its actual application.  An anti-Cul-Ap crusade cannot help but be riddled with double-standards.  For the standards it purports to uphold are INVARIABLY selectively applied…lest proponents of Cul-Ap strictures run headlong into a wall of their own absurdities.

In the final analysis, we come back to the (unavoidable) fact that Cul-Ap has always existed; and has usually been welcomed by all parties involved.  Indeed, only the most conservative societies on Earth have sought to curb adoption of memes from other cultures; or claimed ownership of certain memes as though it were written in the stars.  Time after time, history has shown that a robust, vibrant culture is one that readily incorporates new elements–even if from external sources–whenever such elements are encountered.  That is, after all, what an open society entails.

As will be shown here, societies the world over have been appropriating cultural elements from external sources since time immemorial.  “The Persians are greatly inclined to adopt foreign customs” wrote the Greek historian, Herodotus about the Achaemenid Empire.  In fact, Herodotus attributed the Persians’ astounding success to this modus operandi; which was inextricably linked to their embrace of pluralism.  In the Book of Ecclesiastes, written in Babylon in the 5th century B.C., there is a reason the authors noted that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  The book was composed with many Persian and Aramaic loan-words; and, as we shall see, Judaic tradition is comprised largely of culturally-appropriated elements–cribbed from older traditions during the Exilic Period.  The passage may as well have read, “We’re just revamping what already exists.”

In Classical Antiquity, the Romans engaged in rampant Cul-Ap from the Greeks.  In the Dark Ages, the Arabs engaged in rampant Cul-Ap from the Nabataeans and Persians.  And we might note that the Mongols were so incredibly successful because they engaged in Cul-Ap from the Uyghurs…and the Chinese…and the Persians…and pretty much EVERYONE ELSE they conquered.

The reason the charge of illicit Cul-Ap is spurious is that all cultures are based–to some not insignificant degree–on the co-optation of antecedent and/or exogenous cultural elements.  Indeed, any given culture is–essentially–crystalized cultural hybridization.  We speak of memetic “fusion” as if it is something exotic; when it is probably the LEAST exotic thing that humans do.  (For a historical perspective on this point, ref. “Ancient Worlds” by Michael Scott.)  There has never existed a culture that was not a pastiche of memetic precursors–with elements extracted from the various contemporaneous cultures with which it interacted.  To wit: Every culture is derivative.

Cul-Ap-phobes fail to realize that appropriation–whether calculated or unwitting–is the only way that any culture came to be in the first place.  Over the course of human history, Cul-Ap has never–to repeat: NEVER–been seen as problematic.  Only recently has cross-cultural memetic transference taken on a contentious penumbra.  This ersatz crime is now a touchstone of those preoccupied political correctness, for reasons that I will also explore in the present essay.

Cul-Ap-phobes fail to see that the inter-mixture of cultures is socially beneficial; and that an integral part of that intermixture is meme-exchange.  So they demand a memetic embargo at the imagined boundaries of each cultural enclave.  The concern seems to be the preservation of cultural integrity, upholding a purist version of this or that culture against the dreaded scourge of meme-poachers.  But what of cultural integrity?  When harmonious, a culture is imagined to be a mellifluous memetic fugue.  Yet even the most ordered cultures are a salmagundi of elements culled from different places at different times for different reasons–usually by sheer happenstance.  Cultures are rather messy things; and that is what makes them so fascinating.  Any given culture, insofar as it can be discretely defined, is what Levi-Strauss called a “bricolage” of elements from antecedent sources–which is simply to say that any given culture is an accident of history.  A designated culture is not some timeless blueprint inscribed into the fabric of the cosmos.  For it could easily have been other than it now is; and it STILL CAN be something other than what it currently happens to be.  Cul-Ap-phobes seem unable to grasp this.

Another problem, as we’ll see, is that the anti-Cul-Ap crusade is gratuitously tendentious.  Being officious about (purported) meme-allocation rights is no strategy to foster amity across cultures.  Rather than engendering respect for foreign cultures, the vilification of Cul-Ap only succeeds in amplifying tribalism.  Once participation in others’ cultures is forbidden, we start going down a dangerous road–a road that leads to a raft of unintended consequences.  As it turns out, making Cul-Ap taboo is a surefire way to keep the other (however demarcated) other-ized; which is simply to say that cultural segregation–like any form of segregation–reinforces alterity.

To sum up: There are two elementary things that those who demonize Cul-Ap seem not to understand:

  • No culture exists in a vacuum
  • No culture–as it has come to exist, however it has come to exist–emerges ex nihilo

Both of these things remind us that cultures are BASED UPON Cul-Ap.  Cultures interact, and are perpetually in flux.  Culture is a process; not a destination.  Yet the way Cul-Ap-phobes cast the issue, one would think that any given culture has been magically conjured from stardust, then frozen in time “as is” for the rest of eternity.  For them, this means that “preserving” a culture means protecting it from memetic leakage / penetration.  According to this thinking, a culture must be quarantined so as to preclude memetic transference TO or FROM other cultures.

There are countless ways to illustrate the present thesis.  Let’s start with something simple.  Shall we suppose that all Americans are denigrating pagan culture with their festivities around the “Christmas tree”?  The practice was originally a Germanic celebration of the winter solstice.  It focused on the Norse god, Odin; and even made use of the colors red and green.  The Christmas tree itself was based on the “koliada” from ancient Slavic (pre-Christian) winter festivals.  Yet today we rarely hear those from Eastern Europe accusing the rest of the western world for “appropriating” a sacrosanct part of their culture.

Meanwhile, the Georgians could accuse everyone else of ripping off their yule-tide “chichilaki”.  Or were THEY ripping off the Roman Empire’s custom of Saturnalia: a winter solstice celebration of the god, Saturn; and–believe it or not–his representative on earth?  (That’s right: The Romans used the occasion to commemorate a deity’s worldly incarnation.)  During Saturnalia, homes were bedecked with wreaths of evergreen.  And the date that Romans–through Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor–celebrated the birthday of the godhead, Sol Invictus? December 25. All this should sound oddly familiar. {28}

And why, exactly, the 25th of December? As it happens, that was the day of the Mithraic winter solstice festival, in which the annual birthday of the sun was commemorated. Mithra-ism was still rampant throughout the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity (spec. when the Christian version was being formulated by the Vatican’s magisterium in the 4th century).

But that’s not all. Christmas revelers today are all–unwittingly–riffing off the cult surrounding the canonized Greek bishop, Nicolaus of Myra (rendered “Sinterklaas” in Dutch), on whom “Santa [Saint] Claus” is based. Why Nicolaus? Well, there was a cult surrounding him at the time, which had itself been modeled on a cult around the Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana–a man who lived in Cappadocia during the 1st century.  Even the holiday’s exalted mascot was purloined from antecedent pagan figures. {2}

So what’s with the repudiation of Cul-Ap NOW? With all the contrived pique, one would think the grievance at hand was with some sort of cultural ASSAULT.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As will be discussed, anti-Cul-Ap crusaders treat appropriation as a kind of EX-propriation.  They react as though the source-culture were being picked dry by a horde of dastardly meme-scavengers.  Thus Cul-Ap is taken to be deleterious to the culture of those who anoint themselves stewards of those memes.  What we find, though, is that the ensuing imbroglio is nothing but an exercise in self-indulgent titivation–replete with maudlin theatrics about the ills of being “disrespectful” / “offensive” / “insensitive”.

Let’s explore whether or not there is any credence to such grievances.

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