The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

Guidelines For Fostering Healthy Cul-Ap:

In trying to navigate the labyrinthine logic of Cul-Ap-phobia, I am left with questions about my own conduct.  Is wearing the Buddhist necklace my Thai friend gave me unseemly because I am neither Thai nor Buddhist?  Am I guilty of Cul-Ap every time I put it around my neck?  This seems to be tantamount to asking: Shall I refrain from aspiring to be–in the words of Thomas Paine–a citizen of the world?  The important thing, it seems, is that I appreciate what the necklace means in ancient Siamese culture; and–in particular–to my Thai friends.  So long as I have an understanding of its significance in Theravada Buddhism, it would seem that–as a fellow human–I am edified by embracing this hallowed talisman.

Felicitously, I am put at ease the moment I realize that the arguments against Cul-Ap are entirely specious.  In leveling charges against those of us who make use of memes from beyond their own culture’s purview, Cul-Ap-phobes may as well impugn someone for illicitly annexing the oxygen she breaths when it has wafted from foreign lands.  Mankind shares this planet, and remains in awe of the same night sky.  There is no reason to balk at the chance to share in the fruits of mankind’s magnificently diverse cultures.  The human family is a widely variegated mosaic of cultural spaces, each melding into the other over time.  This is a GOOD thing.

As we have seen, much of what is derisively labeled Cul-Ap is, in fact, simply people trying to interact with–and appreciate–other cultures.  Sometimes, this means putting on someone else’s hat (that is: trying it on for size).  And sometimes doing so leads to the conclusion: “Gee-wiz, that’s a great idea.  I think we might start doing that too.”

When people make use of exogenous cultural elements, the results are usually favorable to everyone involved.  Affinities are developed, bonds are formed.  Be that as it may, there are–from time to tome–instances of impertinence.  This can happen in various ways.  A lack of appreciation for the virtues of the material’s source; and a lack of proper attribution.  These are the two most common problems.  A recent example–one of many in dunderheaded Hollywood casting choices–was Dreamworks decision cast a white actress (Scarlett Johansson) to be the protagonist in the Japanese anime classic, “Ghost In The Shell”.  (Hollywood then doubled down, and cast a white actor in “Death Note”.)  This was somewhat of a travesty, just as when anyone disregards the ethnic origins of a story; or is dishonest about the ethnic nature of its characters–as when Disney opted to cast an African-American actress for the Scandinavian “Ariel”. {4}  (Still no word yet on whether anyone is planning on casting a transgender Asian midget as Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof.)  The irony here is that it is primarily Cul-Ap-phobes who endorse such mis-representations.  (So much for a sincere interest in respecting cultural traditions.) {15}

If one wants a prime example of Cul-Ap gone awry, look no further than the hokey “New Age” American appropriation of (Indian) yoga–suffused, as it is, with oodles of faux spirituality and an ever-shifting glossary cloying jargon.  Notable is the utterly daft use of “namaste” as a kind of profound utterance; as if it were some deeply spiritual incantation (as opposed to what it actually is: the Hindi word for “hello”). {27}  Again, we find that Cul-Ap is problematic primarily when it is done out of ignorance.

Make no mistake: odious cases of Cul-Ap do exist.  They often involve efforts to erase an ethnic exigency or simply a blatant disregard for the cultural legacy of the material.  (There is a difference between the failure to give credit where credit is due and deliberate elision of the origins of an idea.  One is careless, the other perfidious.)  For example, some Israelis rebranded the Lebanese-Palestinian chickpea-based mezzeh item, “[k]Hummus” as Israeli–a semiotic maneuver that was concomitant with the (attempted) erasure of an entire PEOPLE.  (As it happens, cultural cleansing often accompanies ethnic cleansing.)  However, the problem in such a case is obfuscation, not appropriation.  The sin lay not in eating hummus, but in denying where it came from.

Hummus was not an isolated incident. As it happened, halva, tahini, z’hug, falafel, shawarma, and pepitas were all co-opted from Arab cuisine and dubbed “Jewish” by the Sephardim. All such items now considered staples of “Israeli” cuisine. Here’s the point: Such Cul-Ap is a wonderful thing…so long as the origin of the dishes is not elided.

Another odious form of Cul-Ap is what amounts to cultural VANDALISM–as when the “Hare Krishna” cult mal-appropriated Hindu motifs.  This can be a matter of desecrating another tradition’s artistic achievements–as when Hollywood adapted the manga, Dragon Ball into the risible film, “Dragonball Evolution”: a mawkish American rendition of a Japanese classic (done for purely commercial purposes).  The film was produced with complete disregard for the material’s cultural legacy, and heedless of its artistic merits.  Yet we heard nothing but silence from those who threw tantrums when an Asian dared to pen a parable about the evils of slavery.

A prime case of cultural vandalism was the cynical re-purposing of Beethoven’s 9th symphony (a.k.a. “Ode To Joy”, named after the poem by the German freethinker, Friedrich Schiller), often used by the Roman Catholic Church.  In 1907, the American minister, Henry van Dyke changed Schiller’s lyrics, expunging the feminine idiom (re: the daughter of Elysium) from the verse; and re-branded the song, the “Hymn Of Joy”.  Beethoven would almost certainly not have approved.  Should we consider this memetic adaptation an instance of cultural desecration or simply an anodyne instance of meme-adoption?

There is a difference between appropriating art and perverting it.  We can encourage the former while discouraging the latter.  It is not the case that every time non-Lutherans perform, say, one of Bach’s devotional pieces, they are misappropriating German culture.  For it is honoring the “spirit” of the artistic work that counts.  Artistic tribute is not the same as artistic defacement.  This is why it is perfectly fine for atheists to sing Gospel music…so long as they do so with a full artistic appreciation for the material.  Subscription to Pauline Christology is not a prerequisite for performing music composed with a Christian theme.  For one does not need to espouse the dogmatism of the material’s authors to appreciate its artistic value. {18}

It is important, then, to recognize the legacy of the cultural element being invoked.  When connoisseurs of political correctness alter the wording of a classic piece of writing to suit their own (puritanical) sensibilities, it is profane.  It does not follow from this, however, that those from outside the source-culture should be disallowed from making judicious use of the material.  Memetic emulation is not inherently impertinent.

Imprudent occurrences serve as reminders that REAL problems arise not from Cul-Ap per se, but from a lack of appreciation for, and/or a failure to give proper attribution to, the cultural element being invoked.  Our tendency to indulge in collective narcissism makes us blind to such things.  (Conceit is, after all, a hallmark of a tribalistic mindset.)  Denying the origins of a cultural element because we want to make everything ALL ABOUT US is a problem that has nothing to do with Cul-Ap.  The problem is self-absorption.

In a twist of irony, the music for the national anthem of the United States is a BRITISH song (“To Anacreon in Heaven”), even as it uses lyrics composed during the War of 1812 AGAINST the British (by a captive on one of the British ships, Francis Scott Key, as he witnessed the attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore).  On the fourth of July, Americans often play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, which was composed to celebrate a RUSSIAN victory (against Napoleon).  In the United States, the appropriation of cultural elements is riddled with ironies.  Cul-Ap-phobes might ask themselves if we are to become disgruntled about Americans’ use of other nations’ musical scores?

Regarding anti-Cul-Ap crusaders who’s motives are not duplicitous, it can be said that their misgivings about Cul-Ap are gravely misplaced.  Though concerns about deprecation are valid, censuring alleged mal-appropriation is not an effective way to mitigate such regrettable occurrences.  One cannot mitigate ill will simply by proscribing it.

We might remind ourselves that even those from WITHIN the culture-in-question are capable of mal-appropriating an element of that culture.  One does not have to hail from a different culture to pervert an artistic masterpiece–a literary or musical work–or to desecrate a sacred artifact.  So clearly it is not the Cul-Ap PER SE that is the problem in such cases.

One way to look at the issue is as follows: Appreciation is the opposite of resentment. The former begets comity; the latter begets enmity. Whenever Cul-Ap-phobia is operative, we find people sowing resentment and suspicion. Meanwhile, being “cultured” stems from appreciation. It involves a celebration of the world’s resplendent variety of cultural offerings.

Even as we celebrate, we should be prudent. Given that Cul-Ap does not (automatically) entail a kind of derogation of the source-culture, we might wonder: What are the things with which we should be concerned?  When it comes to adopting cultural elements that are clearly from outside one’s own culture (for the time being), there are two basic conditions of basic decency that should be honored:

  1. Give credit where credit is due.  It is a matter of common courtesy that the source-culture of the element-in-question not be mis-characterized; and that there be proper attribution in the event that something is being adopted from another culture (at least to the degree that a distinct source-culture can be designated).  It is, of course, routine for prideful peoples to be reticent to acknowledge that cherished elements (elements that often buttress their own identity) were lifted from other cultures.  But recognition of actual history (i.e. cultural legacies) poses no problem for those who are honest about the origins of their own heritage. {14}
  2. The adoption should in no way lend credence to–or enjoin–real exploitation.  That is to say: It should not be done in a way that adopters are apt to benefit to the detriment of the integrity of the source-culture.  It is reasonable to suppose that those who use an exogenous cultural element as a GIMMICK may not be acting in good faith.  As we have seen, commodifying cherished cultural elements cheapens them.  The only acceptable reason to employ gimmickry is for satire (i.e. for didactic purposes), where the aim is to bring attention to an important issue.  By making use of cultural elements for dubious reasons, one is betraying the spirit behind them.  THAT is the problem.

In sum: All participation should be done in good faith, with proper attribution.  Cul-Ap should never be done to denigrate. In viewing cultural elements that happen to be foreign, we must never lose sight of the fact that humanity transcends culture.  Even amidst the world’s motley assortment of cultures, mankind is one.

It goes without saying that Cul-Ap is not inherently salutary.  Recognizing this fact is simply to say that there can be perfidious forms of Cul-Ap.  But the problem in such instances is the perfidy, not the “appropriation”.  For Cul-Ap is not inherently defamatory; it is the ill-will of the people engaging in it that make such cases objectionable.  In and of itself, meme-adoption is a morally neutral act; which means that “cultural appropriation” is categorically amoral.  Every culture has done it.  Every culture continues to do it.

Again, we should be reminded of the captious attitude (endemic to p.c. in general) that animates Cul-Ap-phobia. The prospect that someone, somewhere might claim to be “offended” / “insulted” is the eternal, ever-present hobgoblin of p.c.-mongers…who insist that any given person’s (purported) discomfiture entails that certain guidelines (read: formalities) must be mandated for any and all bystanders who could feasibly be blamed for eliciting said discomfiture.  Thus one party’s subjective state shall impose obligations / restrictions on everyone else.

This is asinine.

In the event that ill will IS involved, we must bear in mind that bad faith is opprobrious regardless of the context.  The fact that the same act can be done with good will proves that it is not the act itself that is at issue.  The same “cos-play” can be done from a place of admiration or of derision.  But even if it is done out of spleen, we must ask: Is acerbic mockery–even the most offensive kind–to be permitted in a free society?

Bottom line: We needn’t resort to frivolous indictments of Cul-Ap to denounce perfidy.  Instances of Cul-Ap that involve dubious motives are not indictments of Cul-Ap; they are simply reminders that anyone can have dubious motives when doing, well, ANYTHING.  The solution, then, is not to proscribe Cul-Ap; it is to ensure that Cul-Ap is done with a modicum of common courtesy.  As I hope I have shown, once we deign to forbid ALL instances of Cul-Ap, we miss what makes any culture WHAT IT IS; and end up devolving into absurdity.

The issue to address, then, is that of proper attribution / recognition. To illustrate this point, let’s look at an example to which many can relate. In the United States, white people have been doing the well-known choreography (sometimes referred to as “the hustle”) to the “Electric Slide” since the late 1980’s.  Most of them haven’t the faintest idea that the song and accompanying dance come from African American culture, going back to 1976.  This can be attributed more to heedlessness than to perfidy.  Here, Cul-Ap PER SE is not the problem.  As is often the case, a lack of recognition is at issue.  Such dereliction is remedied not by cultural segregation, but by spreading awareness.  In other words: The answer is cultural INTERACTION; and—invariably—cultural MIXING.

The little-recognized provenance of the Electric Slide is not an anomalous phenomenon.  It is a reminder that Cul-Ap is part of the natural process of memetic transference (also illustrated by the African American basis for jazz, the blues, R&B, rock ’n roll, and—for that matter—most pop music).  This is a matter of absorption, not deracination.  White people dancing to the Electric Slide in no way infringes on African Americans’ ability to do the same.  That Britney Spears owes a debt of gratitude to Chuck Berry isn’t the problem; that many of her fans are unaware of this debt of gratitude is.

Of course, a dearth of cultural appreciation is not solely due to a failure to acknowledge memetic genealogies.  Being “cultured” means being relatively well-versed in the landmark artistic achievements of global society—musical, sartorial, architectural, theatrical, and all the rest.  After all, aesthetic value (which is universal) transcends cultural demarcations (which are circumstantial).  Memetic transference across cultures is inevitable, as memes are—by their nature—viral.  This is the case whether the memes are culinary or literary or anything else.  To fail to understand this is to fail to understand how culture works.  This even goes for something as basic as language.  Heck, it goes for every social norm under the sun…even a silly dance performed during social gatherings.

Shall we begrudge those who want to partake in the bountiful cultural smorgasbord of humankind; or shall we eagerly delve in?

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