The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

Appropriation Or Annexation? (Cul-Ap vs Cul-Ex):

The demonization of Cul-Ap only makes sense insofar as it is construed as a kind of annexation (i.e. exercising control over) the objects of concern.  But that which Cul-Ap-phobes rebuke is almost never a matter of exercising control.  Does Yo Yo Ma in any way try to exercise control over German music when he plays Brahms’ sonatas?  Does he deprive Germans of their heritage each time he performs?  We could ask the same of American culture when he plays bluegrass; or of Hispanic culture when he plays a tango.

Expropriation—cultural or otherwise—involves some sort of exploitation and/or marginalization.  It is, after all, a kind of annexation: taking control over something that is rightfully in the province of others; and doing so to their detriment.  Cultural interpenetration, on the other hand, does not necessarily involve exploitation / marginalization; nor is it a kind of annexation.  Rather, it is a kind of memetic imbrication—as with creolization (linguistic), syncretism (religious), or fusion (whether culinary or musical).  It is no secret that cultural hybridization can occur with language, creeds, cuisine, and music—as well as attire, architecture, folklore, and virtually anything else.  This is not a bad thing.

When considering creole languages, syncretic religions, dishes that borrow from disparate ethnic recipes, and other forms of cultural hybridization, we are reminded that the cordoning of cultures countermands the metamorphosis of which EVERY culture is a manifestation.  Cultures are inherently dynamic, not static.  They interact with one another in an on-going process of societal intermingling—affecting each other along the way.  Depending on a variety of factors, influences may be unilateral or they may be reciprocal.  In any case, too attempt to freeze any given culture at a certain time and place is to betray the very process that made it what it currently is.

Cul-Ap, it turns out, is a sign of comity; as well as an invitation thereto.  By contrast, cultural imposition is a sign of hegemony (whether a matter of control or exploitation / marginalization).  Cul-Ap-phobia conflates the two.  It is one thing for a group (in a position of socio-economic privilege) to IMPOSE UPON a marginalized group its own customs. It is quite another thing for one group to simply make use of the customs of another group. The former is a matter of trying to control others; the latter is a matter of pursuing affinities. The issue, then, is subjugation.

The censorious attitude of the anti-Cul-Ap crusader is based, in large part, on another kind of conflation: appropriation with expropriation. Here, (benign) instances of Cul-Ap are construed as (malign) instances of Cul-Ex. The former is what the present essay endorses, as there are no “losers” in the transference. By contrast, the latter describes something that is done to the detriment of the source-culture. It is difficult to say how, exactly, one culture could profit off of exogenous cultural elements “at the expense of” the source culture; as cultural elements are non-rivalrous. (Memetic transference is rarely a zero-sum game; and so is typically not exclusionary.) The point of contention, then, is commercialization (see the discussion above) or derogation (whereby the source-culture is diminished–or its members dehumanized–in some way).

The question arises: Are we to suppose that trans-cultural fertilization constitutes some kind of “expropriation”?  And if it is uni-directional, is it automatically to be considered exploitative? Interestingly, transference is often not a reciprocal affair.  Bavaria may celebrate having the new options of, say, Kabuli palaw and Afghan carpets for bystanders to enjoy at their leisure; yet we are not inclined to suppose that the culture of the Hindu Kush may be enhanced by sauerbraten on each kitchen table, Schubert in the air, and Schopenhauer on the bookshelves.  While Deutschland welcomes the perahan tunban, it might be unreasonable to expect female Pashtun villagers to don a dirndl whenever the mood strikes them.  

But why the uni-lateral flow?

One possibility is to think of this in terms of power asymmetries.  After all, communities unaffiliated with incumbent power structures are more susceptible to being exploited.  It is, indeed, those belonging to underprivileged communities who incur socio-economic injustices.  While such asymmetries often end up being relevant factors when groups of people interact, and while there are valid concerns about structural inequalities, such matters are beside the point when it comes to trans-cultural fertilization.  After all, who is more marginalized: a Deutscher donning a dirndl in Waziristan or a Pashtun donning a perahan tunban in the Rhineland?

Let’s evaluate that (admittedly hyperbolic) hypothetical.  In both countries, the dominant demographic would be adopting a meme from the minority demographic.  The explanation for this uni-laterality, then, must be accounted for in another way.  As it turns out, far from being explained by Cul-Ap, the key differences IN PRACTICE boil down to a fundamental socio-political disparity: a cosmopolitan society vis a vis a provincial society.  This is why we find halal kebab carts in Paris yet no ham ‘n cheese crepe stands in Kabul.  To wit: There IS an asymmetry; but the asymmetry lay in the societies’ respective open-ness.

The lesson here is obvious; but let’s spell it out.  It is CLOSED (viz. illiberal) societies that disdain Cul-Ap; as they seek to maintain ethnic purity.  Hyper-traditionalism is–after all–predicated on systematically-enforced parochialism.  There is a term for refusing any influence / input from the outside world: nativism.  THAT, it would seem, is the real problem.

The allegedly problematic instances of Cul-Ap occur only in one direction: toward the culture of those who enjoy higher socio-economic status.  But this is the antithesis of cultural IMPOSITION.  Discretionary adoption mustn’t be confused with IMPOSED assimilation–whereby a minority group is pressured into adopting the ways of the dominant group in order to be accepted. Indeed, cultural imposition (Cul-Imp) is a problem with which we should be concerned, as it involved hegemony; and is the hallmark of imperialism (You need to do things the way WE want you to).

Though coerced adoption occurs in some circumstances, it is not operative in any of the examples of salutary Cul-Ap enumerated in the present piece.  In each case I mention, those within the “appropriating” culture were not obliged to assimilate into the source-culture.  When Yo Yo Ma plays Bach, he is not trying to be more German.  When gringos eat burritos, they are not (necessarily) trying to be more Mexican.  And when Muslimahs shed their hijabs, they are not (necessarily) trying to be more “Western”.

In certain circumstances, it is obvious that meme-adoption is not the result of some calculated program of co-optation–as when an indigenous population has been assimilated by an impinging (dominant / exploitative) power.  The fact that most former British colonies–from Uganda to Bengal to Hong Kong–now drive on the left side of the road (and, bewilderingly, are smitten with cricket) is a vestige of their colonial past.  Obviously, having adopted some of the cultural elements of their occupiers, the unwilling subjects of European geo-political dominion cannot be considered guilty of an infelicity.  After all, they were the VICTIMS.  The problem in such circumstances was not memetic transference PER SE; the problem was COLONIALISM (that is: systematic domination / exploitation).  Leveling charges of Cul-Ap does nothing to diagnose the underlying problem; for it misses the point entirely.

This is why Antonio Gramsci spoke about “cultural hegemony” rather than about “cultural appropriation”.  To cavil about Cul-Ap is to invert his diagnosis of social injustice.  The obloquy toward Cul-Ap is something he would have found bewildering; as one does not exploit someone by simply participating in what they are doing.

Colonialism is objectionable because it involves domination and exploitation.  Of course, Cul-Ap is sometimes a byproduct of colonialism; but is that a bad thing?  When the Dutch eat Bami Goreng, we are reminded that some Indonesian cuisine made its way into the Dutch cuisine; and it is no secret that that occurred as a result of the Dutch colonizing Indonesia.  But in such cases, what was wrong with the colonialism was the COLONIALISM, not the transference of culinary memes.  All the harm wrought upon the Indonesians had nothing to do with the fact that a few Dutch adopted some of their tasty dishes back in the Netherlands.  (As it happens, the Indonesians ended up adopting some tasty Dutch dishes, like hagelslag and poffertjes).

Meanwhile, the Brits adopted Vindaloo from India…which the Indians had actually adopted from the Portuguese (“vinha d’alhos”).  This was in addition to de-spiced versions of korma, tikka masala, and various curries.  Of all the horrible things the British did to the Indians (and there was a lot), this culinary transference does not make the list.  Meanwhile, Indians adopted “chai” (tea) from their colonizers, the British…who themselves (like virtually everyone else) adopted it from the Chinese.  (Ancient Indians did not drink tea.) Denouncing colonialism does not require one to vilify Cul-Ap.

Thus Cul-Ap (which is generally benign) is often concomitant with colonialism (which is invariably malign).  While the French did not adopt Vietnamese cuisine during their time in Indo-China, the colonized adopted some things from their colonizers.  Baguettes (known as “banh mi”) and croissants became a big hit in Vietnam as a result of France’s ill-considered colonial enterprise.  Even the hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine, Pho, was an adaptation of the French “pot au-feu” (with noodles and lots of broth added to the mix).

But compunctions about Cul-Ap do not necessarily involve colonialism. Sometimes, it simply involves the migration of memes between ethnic groups. When that occurs, should we suspect iniquity? No. By donning corn-rows, white hippies aren’t embezzling a meme; they are–as it were–trying something (an edgy coif) on for size.  Even if this is done heedless of the ethnic origins of the hair-style, we needn’t assume that something odious is afoot.  For corn-rows do not belong to either African or Caribbean culture.  Indeed, they could be found throughout the Greco-Roman world during Ancient Antiquity.  Yet that historical fact has no bearing on the legitimacy of, well, ANYONE doing such things with their hair today.

Alas, everyone with a parochial mindset–irrespective of their culture–likes to believe that world history started with the beginning of THEIR OWN culture.  In this sense, there is a pathological conceit underlying Cul-Ap-phobia: “It is integral to our culture; therefore we shall assume it originated with US.”

The fact of the matter, though, is that EVERYONE is deriving cultural elements from bygone eras; and often from other lands.  When a caucasian opts to don corn-rows, she is no more being exploitative than when a black woman straightens her hair and dies it blond.~  This equivalence is in no way affected by asymmetries in unrelated areas (spec. socio-economic asymmetries).  Hint: Pace the issues related to overt tribal signifiers, political oppression never had anything to do with who wore which hair-style.  Structural inequalities are a serious problem, but establishing an embargo on MEMES will do nothing to ameliorate them.  If anything, such an embargo would REINFORCE disparities along tribal lines.

Those who worry about Cul-Ap are often focused on some sort of power asymmetry: cases in which those from a dominant culture heedlessly appropriate cultural elements from those who are being marginalized.  And it IS, more often than not, heedless.  Trans-cultural fertilization usually occurs organically–which is to say: unwittingly.

Even so, such transference is sometimes done by design.  In other words, sometimes Cul-Ap results from a deliberate integration of exogenous memes into the native cultural repertoire.  When it IS done by design, the pollination is invariably unilateral.  However, such uni-laterality does not–in and of itself–entail exploitation.  Oftentimes, it is a mark of AFFINITY, and serves as a gesture of solidarity.  Sharing memes is, after all, a way for people from different walks of life to relate to one another.

One does not rectify socio-economic inequities or help marginalized / exploited communities by adjusting (or circumscribing) semiotic conventions.  Social (e.g. semantic) norms are symptoms, not underlying causes.

In any social interaction, there are–of course–legitimate worries about the repercussions of power asymmetries; as there is the possibility that those in a more powerful position will abuse their privileged status (i.e. to lord it over everyone else).  But insofar as this (very real) problem is cast in terms of Cul-Ap, we needlessly create conceptual vexations that undermine our ability to solve it.

Let’s leave aside the obvious fact that one cannot pilfer memes.  One can only exploit PEOPLE, not culture.  Moreover, it is a mistake to treat cultural elements like commodities.  Ironically, it is the commodification of culture that those afflicted with Cul-Ap-phobia claim they want to PREVENT.  They thus find themselves obliged to countenance the very thing they purport to be against.

Cul-Ap-phobes prattle on about non-existent dispossession as if a grave injustice were being done whenever trans-cultural fertilization occurs; but the injustice is illusory.  The demonization of Cul-Ap rarely–if ever–solves the problems it purports to solves.  Of all the potentially effective ways to ameliorate power asymmetries across demographic lines, this is not one of them.  Even as structural inequalities may sometimes be concomitant with Cul-Ap, they do not exist BECAUSE OF Cul-Ap.

First, a word on the terms “appropriation” and “expropriation”.  In common parlance today, the two terms are used interchangeably, as they are treated as synonyms.  In other words, they BOTH mean: to make use of–or even exercise control over–something without permission.  Presently, it is useful to make a distinction between the two terms. I take the former as meaning: To make use of for a (new) specific purpose (for which it has been newly designated).  Hence “appropriation” is to be held in contradistinction with the illicit act to which it has lately often been applied (an act for which the term “expropriation” can be duly reserved).  This semiotic conflation has led to the hermeneutic conflation on which Cul-Ap-phobia is based. {26}

When it comes to elements of culture (i.e. memes), Cul-Ap-phobes insist that appropriation be construed as EX-propriation (as though a memeplex could be looted).  Yet this misapprehension only attains if memes are treated as commodities.  According to such blinkered thinking, Cul-Ap is seen as a kind of resource-extraction…even as the resource is un-deplete-able.  In order to get their indictments to hold water, anti-Cul-Ap crusaders are forced to (effectively) commodify cultural elements; thereby reifying the very terms of exploitation they deign to expurgate!

Let A be the culture of those who happen to dominate a society (socio-economically) and B be the culture of those who happen to be subjugated / marginalized.  Even as A might incorporate elements from B into its memetic repertoire, the problem lies with the mechanism of subjugation / marginalization, not with the transference of memes.  Consequently, to focus on Cul-Ap per se is to completely ignore the source of the problem.

Cul-Ap-phobes focus their ire on the allocation of meme-usage…as if trying to rectify an unhealthy diet by restricting the manner in which one sets the table.  Shall we suppose that one can make the food one eats more nutritious by only using one’s own dinnerware?  Herein lays the irony: One of the ways in which a subaltern population is marginalized is through the marginalization of their CULTURE.  While a PEOPLE can remain marginalized, a CULTURE cannot be said to be marginalized if its elements are being adopted by those in a more privileged position–thereby being INCORPORATED INTO the dominant culture.  (One cannot at the same time elevate something and suppress it.)  Admittedly, problems arise when those cultural elements are adopted even as the people remain marginalized.  However, such an eventuality cannot be attributed to the Cul-Ap.  The solution to the marginalization of people is not the sequestration of their culture.

Cultural segregation is never a good idea.  For it paves the way for–and subsequently reinforces–other modes of segregation.  Indeed, it is a slippery slope from cultural segregation to ETHNIC segregation.  Memetic embargoes (based on purported meme-ownership) do nothing to ameliorate power asymmetries.  If anything, they create yet another obstacle to effecting social justice.

We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that trans-cultural fertilization is a key feature of multiculturalism.  Indeed, it is the hallmark of a pluralistic society.  Would those who deride Cul-Ap urge us to embrace other cultures yet simultaneously keep our distance?  It is not a good sign when people are inclined to say: “WE can don this attire / hairstyle, but YOU cannot; because you aren’t one of us.”  This “respect it but stay away” approach can only be described as a kind of cultural schizophrenia.

In virtually every case discussed in the present piece, we find that the embrace of Cul-ap is a sign of amity.  The prohibition of Cul-Ap, then, is an (inadvertent) invitation to alterity.  In this respect, Cul-Ap-phobia encourages the very thing it deigns to mitigate.

So why the skittishness when it comes to embracing exogenous cultural elements?  Cul-Ap-phobia stems–in large part–from a Reactionary mindset, whereby people are exhorted to be skittish about novelty; and who are suspicious of anything deemed foreign.  “It’s not ours, so we should keep our distance!”  (Ironically, they typically remain sanguine–as well they should–when others opt to adopt THEIR cultural elements.)  It all comes back to an US and THEM mentality; where everyone is exhorted to stay on their own side of the fence.  This imperative to “stay on your own turf” is simply about memetics instead of geography.

The appropriation against which Cul-Ap-phobes inveigh is deemed a form of oppression–as if those engaged in Cul-Ap were participating in a meme-procurement racket.  To equate meme-adoption with oppression is to censure what–in turns out–is the basis for human bonding (whether it be within or across cultures).  This holds true even in the case of power-asymmetries.

Those who argue that only enfranchised demographic groups can be guilty of Cul-Ap (as, indeed, only the more-privileged are in a position to dominate the less-privileged) miss what makes oppression oppressive.  The contention is that when someone from a marginalized group (esp. when a minority demographic) does it, it doesn’t count as “cultural appropriation”.  But does this make any sense?

We should note, though, that this same double standard is employed in the argument that certain demographic groups (spec. those that are marginalized) are exempt from being bigoted–as if racial minorities are incapable of being racist and women are incapable of being sexist.  This changes the definition of racism from something that is race-neutral (prejudice based on race qua race) to something more tailored to one’s own interests (anything a certain racial group does that I don’t like)…which is, ironically, ITSELF racist.  Such an ad hoc application of this criterion prescribes a regimen of (de)merit along racial lines.

The selective application of indictments should clue us into the double standard afoot.  We don’t begrudge non-French girls who–on a lark–put their hair in French braids.  Why not?  If, say, a Desi girl opts to put her hair in a French braid just for fun, it is technically an act of Cul-Ap; yet not in the way that p.c. aficionados find objectionable.  For such practices are not especially cherished in–nor integral to–French heritage.  Yet woe to any girl who isn’t Native American who decides to dress up as Pocahontas for Halloween. {10}

Power asymmetries are relevant when it comes to populations interacting–especially when there is any kind of systematic domination / exploitation afoot.  But such a problem cannot be diagnosed in terms of Cul-Ap; nor can it be resolved by appeals to mitigate Cul-Ap.  Of course, domination / exploitation is ALWAYS bad.  Being socio-economic in nature, it can even when occur WITHIN a culture.  Clearly, Cul-Ap is not the clinching factor.

Generally speaking, what does it mean to “appropriate” something?  In the event that X is non-rivalrous, “appropriating” X  can not be a matter of exercising control over X; nor can the use of X be in any way mutually-exclusive with another’s use of X).  Think of using someone else’s recipe for a delicious meal.  In spite of all this, Cul-Ap-phobes speak of such an act as if it were tantamount to EX-propriation–as if it would entail depriving its rightful stewards of their exclusive province.  Are we to suppose that an annexation of Caribbean culture is taking place any time white Brooklyn hipsters put their hair in dread-locks? {11}  How about when Southerners eat “jerk” chicken while listening to Reggae music?  Are we to inventory cultural elements–some of which are tacitly marked “proprietary”–according to the decree of some arbiter of cultural exchange?

The non-rivalrous (that is: non-exclusionary) nature of memes means that–pace intellectual property–they can only be invoked, not seized; celebrated, not confiscated.  This is why incorporating–into one’s personal fashion repertoire–a clothing style normally associated with another culture does not constitute some kind of sartorial larceny.  Elements of a culture are–after all–non-rivalrous BY NATURE.

Thomas Jefferson put it well when he said: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”  In the event that a gringo dons a sombrero while throwing a taco party, the world’s Mexicans have lost nothing; no more than when gringos eat popcorn or Caesar salad (which were–incidentally–also invented by Mexicans). {20}

Should someone contend that he likes this part of another’s culture, and that he might like to incorporate it into his life, the response is: “Keep your grubby hands off THEIR memes!”  But one cannot copyright an element of culture.  Elements of culture are not a kind of property; so they are not subject to the kinds of strictures germane to intellectual property rights.

Those who treat Cul-Ap as if it were an ethical transgression are implicitly calling for meme-ownership along cultural lines.  They are effectively prescribing a regime whereby each meme is consigned to (what they surmise to be) the source-culture (which is almost certainly not the ORIGINAL source-culture).  Meanwhile, they are calling for the prohibition of un-sanctioned usage, which amounts to an embargo on cross-cultural memetic transference.  According to this thinking, the only solution to illicit meme-usage is some sort of meme-requisition program along (imagined) cultural lines–lines that, it turns out, don’t exist.  One must wonder: Is it even possible to requisition memes?  No.  But this does not prevent culture-misers from calling for the repatriation of cultural elements.  Nor does it deter them from promoting an ad hoc program of cultural segregation so as to maintain the sanctity of chimerical cultural demarcations.

And so it goes: The self-appointed proprietors of the source-culture are concerned with the taking of memes AS IF it were the taking of property.  This only makes sense insofar as one treats memes AS property (spec. as intellectual property collectively held by all those affiliated with the designated culture).

Reality tells a different story.  Cultural elements are, in a sense, a public goods–like the air we breath.  Sometimes we happen to share the air with those who are not in our own group.  Culture belongs to humanity itself; which is to say it is a GLOBAL public good.  There is an open invitation for every person–qua member of mankind–to participate in the gloriously diverse panorama of cultures of which the global community is comprised.

The Cul-Ap-phobe’s dubious enterprise seems viable only insofar as cultural elements are treated as something other than public goods.  Recall that, in broaching the topic of participation in cultural life, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary, or artistic production of which he is the author” (Article 27).  This pertains to intellectual property.  But the thing with cultural elements is that no particular person is the author.  Elements of culture, then, are NOT like intellectual property.  Hence cultural tort makes no sense.

Pace this legal construct (i.e. private property), memes cannot be indemnified as if they were articles of property.  Ideas belong to all mankind.  An attempt to proscribe unsanctioned meme-usage–or to prohibit memetic cooptation across cultural lines–is thus based on a category error.

Whenever taking a stand, we must ask what principles we are ultimately championing.  Proscribing Cul-Ap is antithetical to cosmopolitan ideals.  For to limit ourselves to using only autochthonous cultural elements is to preclude the possibility of both quotidian and activist cosmopolitanism.  If we are willing to eschew cosmopolitan ideals, then what shall be the guiding principle for our decisions?  Are we prepared to put forth some ethnically-oriented puritanism?  If not, then we should take pause before rushing to judgement about inappropriate meme-usage.

Were we to mandate a hermetically-sealed culture for everyone on Earth, what would the repercussions be?  (This is not hyperbole; it is merely taking the logic of Cul-Ap-phobia to its logical conclusion.) There is no doubt that commodifying what is a cherished cultural element “cheapens” it; but in such cases, it is COMMODIFICATION, not appropriation, that is at issue.

But when this is done on an INDIVIDUAL level, commodification is clearly not salient. One person adopting a meme (for personal purposes) is hardly tantamount to commodifying the meme.

Barring the legalistic construct, intellectual property (alt. “proprietary information”), genuine knowledge cannot be “owned” by ANYONE.  Barring the legal construct of “intellectual property”, knowledge belongs to all mankind; and so cannot be stolen.  How, then, can one possibly STEAL knowledge?  More to the point: How can one steal ANYTHING simply via expression?  Any given instance of expression is a HUMAN act; ergo no one party can claim sovereignty over it.  (Imagine claiming: We own the exclusive rights to handshakes; so they’re off-limits to everyone else.)  Where do we draw the line?  Does it make sense to claim ownership of, say, high heels?  Henna tattoos?  Peace signs?  Pony-tails?

The self-appointed arbiters of Cul-Ap seek to impose a strict regimen of meme-allocation…yet they can never provide a consistent logic to how the lines shall be drawn.  In this dialectical shakedown, each adjudicator fashions himself a sibyl–arrogating to himself the magical power to divine what does and does not qualify as Cul-Ap.  The rest of us are expected to await judgement; and abjure on demand whenever we are called out for illicit meme-usage.

Cul-Ap-phobia involves certain a kind of derangement that any level-headed person would find confounding.  Cul-Ap-phobes think that one must show respect for any given culture-taken-as-a-whole…rather than for PEOPLE (who may happen to be affiliated with that culture).  Never mind that it makes no sense to evaluate a culture wholesale (as if it were some monolith with clear-cut edges); one is obligated to demure whenever given the chance to investigate any other culture.

Even more absurd: Cul-Ap-phobes believe that the only way to do this is to refrain from ever showing curiosity about any culture other than one’s own (e.g. acknowledging that a foreign culture may seem, well, FOREIGN).  This is especially the case if one happens to be WHITE–whereby being curious about other cultures is, we are notified, tantamount to COLONIALISM.

Sound too zany to be true?  Note the bullying of knitting enthusiast, Karen Templer on in early 2019.  (You read that correctly: KNITTING.)  Templer was excoriated for the sin of wanting to incorporate Indian aesthetics into her repertoire; and–to make things worse–for noting OUT LOUD that Indian culture was foreign to her.  (Meanwhile, when Oprah Winfrey chastised Indians for using their hands when they eat–a wonderful idea–, she was called out neither for her arrogance nor for her ignorance.)

This is where “identity politics” becomes so perfidious as to be Kafka-esque.  To SIMPLY NOTICE differences between one’s own culture and another, and subsequently express a genuine interest in acquainting oneself with the other culture, is seen as beyond the pale. Some denizens of this knitting forum felt the need to decry the menacing scourge of interwoven cultures (pun intended)…when it came to the stylization of TEXTILES.

Let’s be clear: Templer was castigated for being COSMOPOLITAN.  Her crime was being fascinated by other cultures.  (All the more terrifying: She was looking forward to actually visiting India–a land as alien to her as another planet; thereby learning more about how THEIR craft may have related to HER craft.)  No doubt that the world would be a more beautiful place if MORE people were so inclined!  There is no other way to characterize Templer’s (bizarrely churlish) persecutors than as hyper-puritanical, hyper-provincial cultural segregationists–each of them demonstrating that it is possible to simultaneously engage in pearl-clutching and finger-wagging.

Templer’s on-line assailants were pernicious actors who–clearly–had nothing but contempt for internationalism.  In their eyes, to strive to be worldly was to somehow be IMPERIALISTIC.  But what, in heaven’t name, was the real problem supposed to be?  (Before attempting to answer this question, note that Templer was invited by an Indian family, and was planning on staying with them–in their home–to better familiarize herself with their time-honored sartorial practices.)

Alas. So far as bad-faith interlocutors are concerned, to find something “exotic” is to engage in some devious scheme of alterity.  If Templer–as a white woman–had the gall to celebrate the Indian aesthetic when it came to woven fabrics, and incorporate any element thereof into her own practice of this handicraft, she must be guilty of that imaginary crime: Cul-Ap!

What can we learn from this disturbing episode?  Anti-Cul-Ap crusaders often engage in Reaction Formation–projecting their own bigotry onto those who are, in fact, the OPPOSITE OF bigoted.  (It only more Americans were as interested in Indian culture as Templer was!)

Here’s the contention: If you fail to countenance the strict parochialism that these self-appointed arbiters of cultural exchange have mandated, something downright invidious must be afoot.

You will therefore be summarily harangued for the bigotry that Cul-Ap-phobes refuse to see in themselves.

What is most ironic–and risible–about such bullying is that p.c.-mongers do absolutely nothing to mitigate the iniquities that they claim to be so deeply concerned about.  How many of Templer’s persecutors actually knew ANYTHING about the depredations of British colonialism in India, and WHY it was so awful?  Well, you see, there’s no time to actually learn anything about the world when one is busy patting oneself on the back for chimerical activism.

We are once again reminded that virtue-signaling requires no ACTUAL virtue. And, once again, the purported victims can’t decide whether they are supposed to be on their high horse or on a cross. Sanctimony loves a good persecution complex…even if the alleged persecution involves woven fabrics that combine motifs from two different cultures (the horror!)

It is plain to see that NONE of those officious cultural adjudicators are serious about effecting cosmopolitanism.  Rather, they are simply scavenging the public square for an opportunity to cavil.  And we are reminded that there is no (legitimate) problem that political correctness purports to solve that cannot be solved without it.  Weaponizing propriety is a way of vilifying those whom one would prefer remain muted.  As is the case with other recriminations in the p.c. ambit, the cynical accusation of ransacking another’s culture is a matter of guilting people into silence; so that one need not engage them in serious discussion.

In his book on “rethinking identity”, Kwame Anthony Appiah made the point very well.  When noting that the Ghanaians of west Africa had developed the distinct art of “bodom” (glass beads) after having adopted the craft from the Venetians, he asked: “What sorts of progress would have been advanced by insisting that the Venetians owned the idea of glass beads, and policing their claim?”  The mistake, he noted, was treating elements of culture as (intellectual) property.  “Unfortunately, the vigorous lobbying of huge corporations has made the idea of intellectual property go imperial.  [The idea] seems to have conquered the world.  To accept the notion of cultural appropriation is to buy into the regime they favor–where corporate entities, acting as cultural guardians, ‘own’ a treasury of IP, [thereby] extracting a toll when they allow others to make use of it.”  He concluded that those who make indictments based on Cul-Ap “in terms of ownership have accepted a commercial system that is alien to the traditions they aim to protect.  They have allowed one modern regime of property to appropriate THEM.”

Unlike Cul-Ap, Cul-Ex is exclusionary.  An example would be Disney’s attempt to copyright the Swahili saying, “hakuna matata” [“no problem”] due to the fact that the phrase had become somewhat of a trademark of the cinematic blockbuster, “The Lion King” (an animated film released in 1994, itself a rip-off of the Japanese “Kimba, The White Lion”).  All reasonable people would agree that trying to monetize a cultural element is highly objectionable.  The attempt by a large media conglomerate to take legal ownership of a LOCUTION for its already-bloated corporate profits is downright obscene.  The culprit here, though, was greed; not Cul-Ap per se.  What Disney was attempting to do was annex a phrase, thereby claiming exclusive rights to it (effectively taking ownership of a phrase in order to use it as a marketing gimmick).

Such an odious act had nothing to do with what is commonly described as “cultural appropriation” simply because the phrase had ALREADY BEEN appropriated (in the making of the film itself); and without issue.

Gladly, Cul-Ap is rarely about using a meme for strictly commercial purposes.  Any given cultural element X is non-rivalrous; which is simply to say: Appropriating X is not an act of seizure, as it does not entail depriving anyone else of X (nor of their ability to avail themselves of X of their own accord).  The same would be the case with, say, the “appropriation” of an IDEAL.

EX-propriation of X, on the other hand, involves seizure of–or the exercise of control over–X.  The latter act DOES entail depriving someone else of X (that is: of their right to make use of it).  Therefore it is a mistake to conflate the appropriation of X with the EX-propriation of X.  The former is not exclusionary (as X is non-rivalrous).  The latter IS exclusionary (when X is treated as property, as when Disney attempted to copyright a Swahili phrase).

This crucial distinction can be captured explicitly: When those enjoying more power say to those who are less powerful, “Hey, that’s a nifty thing you do; we’d like to give it a try,” it is consummate with the cosmopolitan spirit.  Doing so is the OPPOSITE of declaring: “Hey, you are no longer allowed to do that; you now need to do things OUR way.”  The former is born of open-mindedness; the latter is born of hubris (read: an authoritarian, puritanical mindset).  Cul-Ap is germane to the former; Cul-Ap-phobia is germane to the latter.  Cultures are actually STRENGTHENED by dissemination; not diluted by it.  (Diffusion does not entail dilution.)  In any case, one can no more pilfer a meme than one can embezzle an ethos…or abscond with a zeitgeist…or steal a moral principle.

The way Cul-Ap-phobes talk about cultural elements, Cul-Ap entails a deprivation of another’s ability to partake in his own culture.  Yet cultural elements are non-rivalrous.  So the indictment is based on flawed logic.  One party’s participation in culture in no way compromises another party’s prerogative to do the same.  In reality, Cul-Ap is not resource-extraction.  Rather it is the inevitable consequence of cultural efflorescence.  It is not a matter of picking at dead flesh; it is a matter of harvesting the ripe fruits of human activity; and SHARING.  Adopting an exogenous cultural element is not a matter of predation; it is a matter of culling.  When anti-Cul-Ap crusaders accuse anyone engaged in inter-cultural exchange of “taking” something to which they are not entitled, they are treating cultures as (deplete-able) commodities instead of public goods.

We might explore the flawed logic here even further.  Take the harebrained suspicion that some sort of meme-poaching operation is afoot whenever those of one culture adopt–or partake in–elements from another culture (especially when they do so without “permission”).  This misses an elementary point: participation is not appropriation.  When one TAKES something, the source no longer has it.  That is not the case when it comes to the adoption of cultural elements–whether temporarily or permanently.

In this respect, Cul-Ap phobia is based on zero-sum thinking (the supposition that one party’s gain is another party’s loss).  But cultural elements are non-rivalrous (that is: communal); and so cannot be thought of in the same way we think of intellectual property.  So any attempt to commodify cultural elements proceeds from a fundamental misunderstanding memetics.

Such Reactionary thinking is a hallmark of the right wing.  As usual, the problem with parochialism is that groups of people anchor their self-esteem in the esteem accorded to certain cultural elements.  Consecrated memes are taken as proxies for DIGNITY.  So to critically evaluate those memes, the thinking goes, is to derogate the people who covet them.  According to this gestalt, sanctified cultural elements are rendered the basis for the humanity of those who do the sacralizing.  This is based on a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” mis-step: mistaking what we now happen to associate with WHO WE ARE for something we own.  We thereby set ourselves up to be offended.

This is a reminder that with political correctness, EVERYTHING is taken personally; and, as a consequence, objectivity goes completely out the window.  Most p.c.-mongers deign to vanquish the inequities of society with a strict regimen of enforced propriety–as if all the ills of the world were attributable to breaches of etiquette.  In doing so, they confuse propriety with probity.

It is one thing to become obsessed with etiquette; it is quite another thing to WEAPONIZE etiquette–using propriety as a weapon against those who refuse to color within the lines.  The upshot of all this is that good form masquerades as moral principle–as if being polite were somehow a surrogate for rectitude.

Consequently, political correctness amounts to a program of weaponized etiquette, which operates at the nexus of puritanism and authoritarianism.  The strictures of political correctness are simply blasphemy laws by another name.  In fact, the program has all the trappings of cult activity–replete with Inquisition.

Trans-cultural fertilization on a global scale is sometimes referred to as “cultural globalization”.  The globalization of certain cultural elements strengthens social relations across cultures; as it sets the stage for an inter-connectedness amongst the world’s populations.  That sounds fine.  However, for those concerned about systems of domination / exploitation, the worry is less about cultural globalization than it is about (what has mistakenly been called) “cultural imperialism”.

When enculturation is the handmaiden of imperialism, the culprits are the stewards of the SOURCE-culture, not the adopter culture.  To recapitulate: Cosmopolitanism is not imperialism; it is its antithesis.  In the event that one party encounters another party’s culture and–of its own volition–simply “tries it on for size”, nothing odious is afoot.  It is when this is done so as to denigrate that dubious motives may be afoot.  Yet even then, it is not the adoption PER SE that is the problem, it is the hubris underlying the gesture.

So what, then, of the (perfectly valid) concern about imperialism?  Imperialistic agents engage in both imposition (ON others) and expropriation (FROM others).  This entails domination / exploitation (OF others).  But Cul-Ap does not involve either of these; as it is either a matter of engagement (WITH others)…or of simply leaving others to themselves.

The other form of appropriation IS of concern–namely: that by which one seizes CONTROL OF the object (rather than simply SEIZING it).  Yet this has nothing to do with what is often referred to as “cultural appropriation”; as Cul-Ap is no more about taking control than it is about taking.  For it is merely a matter of participating.  That is: Cul-Ap is a matter of participation.  It certainly has nothing to do with controlling anything.  In other words: Cul-Ap is about SHARING, not about usurping SOVEREIGNTY.  Alas.  Cul-Ap alarmists construe “participating in” as some kind of “control over”.

To resolve this quandary, we are forced to define Cul-Ap as the taking of “cultural expression” (alt. “cultural knowledge”) without permission.  Yet here, the litigation falls apart.  For it is unclear what “taking” and “permission” here could possibly mean.  (Can one pilfer a meme?)  Permission from WHOM?  From an appropriations panel?  From some supreme arbitration authority?  Indeed, it is not specified how, exactly, one is supposed to secure “permission” from a “culture”.  What would it mean to be the anointed spokesperson of an entire culture?

Once we posit that a particular cultural element “belongs” to THIS set of people, but not to THAT set, insoluble problems arise.  Who, pray tell, would be the ultimate adjudicator in such matters?  Emotional investment is an amorphous psychical state.  So who shall be appointed for ascertaining what is and what isn’t a permissible instance of cultural invocation?  Can ANY one person (that is: any ONE person) speak on behalf of everyone in the world who is affiliated with a given culture?  Such an arrangement would prove itself to be intractable within the hour.  So what, then?  Are we to undertake a worldwide referendum every time someone wants don ethnic garb or try a signature hairstyle or perform some traditional music?

Shall allotted entitlement (i.e. exclusive access to memes) be determined by plebiscite?  Shall usage rights be accorded per the decrees of self-designated stewards of the meme-in-question?

A sign of the neurosis endemic to Cul-Ap-phobia is the recent emergence of the inane pejorative, “culture vulture”.  The pejorative makes it seem as though cultural EX-propriation were somehow possible.  The term is bandied about as though there were bad actors scavenging the social landscape for cultural elements to seize for their own selfish purposes.  (Is meme-dispossession a sensical concept?)  Cultural elements are not commodities; they are part of the social milieu in which we live.

Memetic hegemony is a problem only insofar as it is a symptom of INSTITUTIONAL (governmental and/or corporate) domination.  Problems arise when the propagation of culture is a matter of IMPOSITION (i.e. one group wielding power over another group).  This is not the scenario described by “cultural appropriation”.  Cul-Ap could never possibly be the explanation for oppression / exploitation.  So to blame Cul-Ap for structural inequality (or for systemic socio-economic injustices) is to miss what makes oppression oppressive and exploitation exploitative.  Gringos cannot possibly oppress Mexicans by eating a tacos.

Insofar as the promulgation of memes is NOT a function of hegemonic designs, it is not problematic in this way.  In other words, the problem with “cultural imperialism” would be the IMPERIALISM.  When unconnected to imperialism, then, cultural globalization is not necessarily a matter of domination / exploitation.  When group A adopts a cultural element from group B, A is not dominating / exploiting B.  However, Cul-Ap-phobes suppose that the propagation of memes is INHERENTLY imperialistic–as if epidemiology somehow translated to hegemony.  This is an utterly spurious proposition.

Antonio Gramsci conceived “hegemony” as the control that those in power wield with impunity over a subdued (marginalized) population.  He held that this was largely a matter of controlling the culture.  This should be contrasted with Cul-Ap, which has nothing to do with imposing anything on anyone.  It’s about making use of memes, not wielding control over people.  Ironically, it is the Cul-Ap-phobes who deign to control culture by fiat–issuing permissions from on high.

Concerns about power asymmetries are entirely valid.  Yet none of the problems arising from structural inequalities along ethnic lines are addressed by demonizing Cul-Ap.  Prohibiting those in a more privileged position from making use of memes that originated in a marginalized community does nothing to attenuate the marginalization.

When memes propagate, so long as they are adopted organically, moral problems generally do not arise.  It is when memes are imposed from above that charges of imperialism hold credence.  Even then, insofar as it is a descriptor, Cul-Ap pertains to the opposite of this.  That is to say: Cul-Ap does not involve imposition; it involves adoption.  In the normal course of cultural globalization, imposition is typically not what’s going on; it is SHARING that is the aim.

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