The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

Concluding Remarks:

The present survey has shown that the appropriation of exogenous cultural elements is ubiquitous–and often felicitous.  Cul-Ap is not tantamount to the desecration of the (purported) source-culture; nor is it tantamount to the dis-empowerment–nay, denigration–of members of that culture.  Even when done cavalierly, there is typically no condescension intended; and–far more often than not–no actual harm done. After all, the propagation of memes across cultures–whether deliberate or unwitting–is simply a matter of memetic diffusion…which, as we have seen, is how any given culture came to be in the first place.

Alas, for those afflicted with Cul-Ap-phobia, this is all a moot point.  For according to their tortured logic, Cul-Ap is prima facie invidious, and therefore must be decried out of hand. Anti-Cul-Ap crusaders call for memetic quarantine…as if the (imagined) boundaries between this and that culture were iron-clad and forever indissoluble.  Pretending that the world is comprised of immutable ethnic demarcations does not foster pluralism; it mandates cultural segregation…which, we are notified, must be enforced in perpetuity (for reasons that they themselves don’t even seem to understand).

As we have seen, any culture that has ever existed is a concatenation of cultural elements that antedate it…as well as a merging of contemporaneous cultures that have impinged upon it.  Indeed, the proliferation of such acts is how any given culture came to be in the first place.  Every meme started somewhere with someone for some reason; and was then promulgated by others elsewhere for other reasons.  This has never been considered a moral abomination.  In fact, barring those obsessed with some delusive notion of cultural purity, it has always been seen a fairly routine.

If we define Cul-Ap as the adoption of elements of one culture by another, then we soon find that Cul-Ap is something we should celebrate…and, yes, even encourage.  For it is one of the best ways to generate awareness about “the other”.  Meme-exchange is the substrate of inter-cultural pro-sociality.  It always has been; it always will be.

Embracing Cul-Ap is a matter of availing ourselves of what the human race has produced at various times, in various places, under various circumstances.  Americans especially should remind themselves that American culture is almost entirely derivative; and has a lot to learn from other cultures (and, in some cases, superior memes to adopt).  So to condemn Cul-Ap would be to negate virtually everything that is now considered “American” (including apple pie); and to preclude America’s continued cultural evolution.  Pluralistic societies don’t see the incorporation of exogenous cultural elements as some kind of contamination; they see it as a potential enhancement.

The co-option of exogenous cultural elements is the basis for every culture that has ever existed; and is one of the reasons that cultures flourish.  The prohibition of Cul-Ap, then, ends up being just a ill-conceived social ordinance that one violates simply by living life to its fullest.  To delimit meme-usage to memes that can be readily tied to one’s own heritage (or one’s own ethnicity) is to ignore history.  Even worse, it flies in the face of the cosmopolitan spirit.  Such meme-sequestration is a recipe for hyper-parochialism–an attitude that is sure to lead to the Balkanization mankind into a network of insular cultural redoubts.

The onus is on anti-Cul-Ap crusaders to point to a single case in which the mitigation of Cul-Ap moved the cause for civil rights forward in some way.  (Hint: This will be a difficult task considering no such case exists; or, I dare say, possibly could exist.)  The demonization of Cul-Ap does nobody any good.  If our aim is to forge global human solidarity, that is not the way to go about it.

And so it goes: Cul-Ap-phobia engenders insularity along ethnic lines–which invariably translates to tribal chauvinism.  For by supposing Cul-Ap to be iniquitous, one mandates strictures that exacerbate fissures between cultures rather than engendering human solidarity.  We mustn’t mistake the Cul-Ap-phobe’s veiled parochialism as a clarion call for cosmopolitanism.

In assessing the role of Cul-Ap in a liberal democracy, we should ask ourselves: In the grand scheme of things, what is it we REALLY want people to stop doing?

What is often called “cultural appropriation” is a good thing.  Anyone confident in the integrity of their own culture is inclined to say: “Please, by all means, appropriate elements from my culture ‘til your heart’s content!  We may all be all the better for it.”

Culture is a dynamic in which to participate, not a commodity to be rationed.  It is a process, not a piece of property.  To partake in a cultural element is not to loot the source-culture…any more than using a recipe entails looting its originator’s kitchen.  Sometimes it is commercialized and branded (Hello Kitty); sometimes it is mal-appropriated (the Nazi’s use of the swastika); and sometimes it is reified and passed off as one’s own (the Christmas tree).

Throughout this essay, I have referred to the salutary effects of trans-cultural fertilization (a cross-pollination of memes).  This might also be thought of as a kind of weaving–whereby threads of each culture reticulate in harmonious ways, creating new patterns from old.  This is more of a mesh than a clash.  The result is a new tapestry; not some infelicitous corruption of “pure” cultures.  For no culture is ever purely ANYTHING.  There are just threads that find their way from one tapestry to the next.

Any culture that has ever existed is itself an embroidered memetic lattice, resulting from the entwining of antecedent and adjacent cultural exigencies.  That’s how memes work.  And that’s why it makes no sense to see this–in any given iteration–as an iniquity visited upon the source culture, perpetrated by the adopters.

As I hope to have shown, culture is more like a twirling kaleidoscope than a stained-glass window.  Purporting to assert what any given culture “REALLY IS” is like beholding the twinkling spectrum of refracting light in a kaleidoscope and trying to discern the “true color” of the pattern.  It is no one thing; and it is certainly not static.  Culture is synthesis; which means culture is metamorphosis.

What cultural purists fail to understand is that every culture that has ever existed is a hybridization of previous cultures.  What we refer to as this or that culture is just a snap-shot in time of an on-going process, where we often pretend–for heuristic purposes–that we are beholding some calcified arrangement with discrete boundaries, which emerged “as is” from the aether.  Those of us who are smitten with a given culture imagine it to be a consecrated monolith that might be maintained ‘til the end of time.  This fanciful thinking is anodyne…until we start begrudging others for not playing along.

Alas. We often find ourselves in an imbroglio wherein everyone is inclined to protect their own memetic turf.  This is inimical to the cosmopolitan vision.  Cultures are not meant to be hoarded; they are meant to be shared.

As we have seen, we can find oodles of cultural appropriation in virtually any culture on the planet.  But no matter, Cul-Ap-phobes rebuke ethno-convergence for fear that memes might migrate across cultural lines and intermix–forgetting that an intermixture is how any given culture formed in the first place.  If not for memetic transference across cultures, Brasilians wouldn’t play futbol (which originated in England) and Canadians wouldn’t play hockey (which originated in Mongolia amongst the Daurians).

Let’s conclude our survey with martial arts. Already mentioned was the Russian appropriation of Japanese “ju-do” (itself inspired by the “Kito-Ryu” and “Ten-jin Shin-yo-Ryu” schools of ju-jutsu), rebranded “sambo”. After the Second World War, a Jewish Hungarian named Emrich Lichtenfeld created a spin-off of ju-do and the craft of ai-ki-do (itself derived from “Daito-Ryu” school of “ai-ki”-oriented ju-jutsu).  This led to an Israeli martial art known as “Krav Maga” [contact combat].  Meanwhile, in Korea, Hap-ki-do was adapted from the Japanese “Daito-Ryu” (Ai-ki-do) school of ju-jutsu.

The Japanese were not up in arms over any of this appropriation of their craft.

Also after the Second World War, Japanese martial artist, So Doshin (working off the practice of Muneomi Sawa-yama) adapted the Chinese “quan-fa” of Shaolin–rendering it “Ken-po” (meaning “first method” in both languages).  The Chinese didn’t seem to mind. (Note: “quan-fa” is a kind of wu-shu [martial craft], the Shaolin version of which is dubbed “kung-fu” in Cantonese.)

“Karate” has an even longer history.  It began in the 15th century in the Ryu-kyu archipelago of the South Pacific…which has since been claimed by both the Japanese and Chinese…each of which adapted the exogenous martial art in its own way.  After the First World War, its Okinawan incarnation came to be dubbed “Motobu-Ryu”. Then, after the Second World War, in Korea, practitioners melded “karate” with their indigenous “Taekkyeon” to yield “Taekwon-do”.

The appropriation of this craft soon made its way to the United States…without anyone in the Far East taking umbrage.

One of the best arguments in favor of Cul-Ap (and thus against the supposition that it is something to be held in contempt) is modern “jiu-jitsu”.  It was originally a method of combat (known at the time as “yawara”, later as “ju-jutsu”) used in Japan by the Samurai during the 16th century (the Sengoku period).  The martial art was brought to Brasil in the mid-20th century, APPROPRIATED (most famously, by the Gracie brothers)…and extensively refined. That is to say: It was significantly improved upon.  (The craft remained in Japan as the aforementioned Daito-Ryu ju-jutsu via the practitioner, Takeda Sokaku, where–as we’ve seen–it incorporated the principle of “ai-ki”.)  Now it is BRASILIAN jiu-jitsu that is the most revered form of the craft.  Are we to say, then, that the Brasilians were “guilty” of appropriating Japanese culture?  In a sense: Yes!  And thank heavens for it.  It was appropriated and ENHANCED; and its Latin American incarnation is a far more useful art than its Samurai precursor.

And that wasn’t even the end of it.  A hybrid of (Japanese) ju-do, (Siamese) Muay Thai, and (Brasilian) ju-jitsiu was then created: “sanda”.  Who did THAT?  The Chinese. This is hardly a development to be repudiated. On the contrary, such hybridization is to be CELEBRATED…as all culture is NOTHING BUT hybridization.

Think of it this way: If even one person outside the (purported) group-of-origin is allowed to make use of the meme, then EVERYONE must be allowed to use it.  Otherwise, we are obliged to start designating sanctioned groups (that is: specifying additional terms of circumscribed entitlement).  Such a tendentious enterprise entails positing demarcations that are invariably ad hoc…thereby compounding the very problem we purport to be solving.  In the case of jiu-jitsu, shall we accord exemption from the charge of Cul-Ap exclusively to Brasilians?  (Or, more narrowly: Only to the descendants of Helio and Carlos Gracie?)

The charge of Cul-Ap precludes us from being at liberty to appreciate–and subsequently judiciously select–the best elements from other cultures; and incorporate them into our own.  To prohibit Cul-Ap is to deprive people of a prerogative that animates the efflorescence of culture in its most estimable forms.  After all, nobody can “steal” a custom.  Barring intellectual property, memes belong to the world.  Those of us who genuinely care about other cultures REVEL in the judicious appropriation of exogenous cultural elements.  Indeed, such a gesture is a hallmark of cosmopolitanism.

The lesson here is simple: If cosmopolitan ideals are to prevail, Cul-Ap is to be celebrated.  (To reiterate: What is to be discouraged is any conduct that is mean-spirited.)  If only MORE “cultural appropriation” were undertaken, then more people around the world might try “ahimsa” on for size; and maybe even try emulating, say, the pedestrian courtesies of the Japanese.  To familiarize oneself with the world’s resplendent variety of cultures is to recognize that memetic cross-pollination is integral to civilizational advance.  Always has been.  Always will be.

While Cul-Ap does not ALWAYS have positive repercussions, it usually does.  Proclaiming the appropriation of memes from other cultures off-limits not only undermines the cosmopolitan enterprise, it consigns each culture to a condition of permanent stasis and insularity (conditions which render cosmopolitanism untenable).  Forbidding Cul-Ap is a mark of parochialism, not of respect.

While Cul-Ap-phobes are busy inventorying memes in a ham-fisted attempt to enforce cultural patrimony, those of us who embrace cosmopolitanism are happily engaging in a saturnalia of trans-cultural fertilization.  It is only natural for cosmopolitans to encourage Cul-Ap…at least insofar as we see something of ourselves in other cultures, and seek to embrace it.  This means recognizing the shared humanity that underlies even some of the most foreign cultural elements.  Without trans-cultural fertilization, the Balkanization of mankind would persist indefinitely.

Civilization, it might be said, has been NOTHING BUT one culture appropriating elements of other cultures–ad hoc–in an effort to enhance itself.  Decrying Cul-Ap as a social ill would be like decrying foreign ingredients as a culinary sin.  When we learn more about other peoples, we learn more about ourselves.  For THEY are–after all–other instances of humanity (which is simply to say that they they are other versions of US).  Hence human solidarity is best realized via inter-cultural exchange.  This is ESPECIALLY so when it is the more-privileged adopting–or participating in–the culture of the less-privileged.  For the scope of empathy is broadened by a sharing of ideas.

The problem is that we are all–to one degree or another–unwittingly ethnocentric in our heuristic; as we make sense of the unfamiliar by analogy to the familiar.  Alas, we cannot help that the accident of our own environs shapes the lens through which we see the world in which we find ourselves.  Much of that lens is formed via an enculturation process we do not fully recognize; as it infuses our daily lives.  We no more notice it than the oxygen we inhale.

Mankind is like a library where, as John Donne put it, “all books lie open to one another.”  It might be added that nobody OWNS any one of the books.  When it comes to the meme-sphere, we are ALL immigrants.  And every one of us is entitled to a green card.

While Cul-Ap-phobes are perfectly fine with PEOPLE FROM different cultures intermixing, the intermixture of the CULTURES THEMSELVES is something that they urge us to rebuke.  What they fail to realize is that cultural intermixture is salubrious for the same reasons that miscegenation is salubrious.  Maintaining purity in EITHER context is a fool’s errand.

Partaking in different cultures enables us to grasp–in the most palpable way–that the one thing we all have in common is our humanity.  This is the definition of humanism.  Cultural evolution is predicated on the embrace of exogenous cultural elements.  Thank heavens for the intermixture of cultures.

In addition to Balkanization, the demonization of Cul-Ap contributes to the dumbing-down of our own culture, and of EVERY OTHER culture; as it discourages people from putting themselves in others’ shoes.  Cultural segregation is inimical to humanism, as it rebuffs our shared humanity.  The best parts of human civilization, it turns out, are not ALL to be found within one’s own cultural heritage.

Finally, we might note that “unauthorized use of meme” is a crime one would only expect to encounter in a totalitarian society.  No pluralistic society has ever been sullied because too many people were at liberty to evaluate–and, if the evaluation turned out to be salutary, to adopt–the fruits of one others’ cultures.  If only we engaged in MORE cultural appropriation, provincial Americans might start appreciating things like Buddhism and soccer.  We might even discuss the issue over a nice, cold yogurt drink…be it “kafir” (the Russian version), “ayran” (the Turkish version), or “lasi” (the Indian version).

As a point of departure, we should recall the perspective articulated in the 2nd century B.C. by “Publius” Terentius Afer (the African slave better known as “Terence”): “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”  [“I am human; and I think nothing human is alien to me.”]  Amen.

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