The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture


Those who want cultures to be memetic silos are countenancing parochialism in its most flagrant form. It is difficult to embrace our shared humanity across cultural divides if one is pilloried the moment one dares to sample an exogenous meme.

A cosmopolitan outlook is predicated on a recognition of universals; which is simply to say that it is based upon that which transcends all cultural divides. Meanwhile, cultural segregation represents everything that cosmopolitanism is against.

There is nothing written in the stars about this or that culture, let alone about ownership of any one of a culture’s signature elements; as any given social norm is the product of a long sequence of historical accidents.  Such things cannot possibly define our humanity; for there is nothing accidental about being human.

Irrespective of circumstance, we all have access to the better angels of our nature because we are all human–irrespective of culture. As such, parochialism–whereby one circumscribes one’s sense of humanity according to this or that cultural affiliation–is not consummate with a sincere embrace of universals. Such an outlook is inimical to cosmopolitanism.

A genuinely cosmopolitan zeitgeist demands a broader perspective. (Think of it as the cultural analogue of Rawls’ socio-economic “original position”.) This entails a vantage point that urges us see past our own memetic orbit, to venture beyond the confines of our assigned cultural boundaries, and thereby expand our horizons. After all, those boundaries are nothing more than an accident of history. Human solidarity demands nothing less. Such solidarity is possible only because we are capable of rising above the warp and woof of the social constructs that govern our daily lives.

Memetic transference is an integral part of our shared humanity. And it bears worth noting that Cul-Ap often occurs in places we don’t realize.  Robin Hood is a prime example.  The folk-hero was made famous by ballads from the 15th century like “Robyn Hode & The Munke” and various versions of the “Gest” of Robyn Hode.  Later, he was dubbed Roger Godberd (the noble vigilante of Sherwood Forest) by some…Robert of Loxley by others…Fulk Fitz-Warin by still others.  All those were English versions of the folklore; and they may or may not have been based on an actual person.

The tale is a timeless one: A noble thief takes from the rich and gives to the poor–a philanthropic mercenary meting out economic justice in an unjust society.  Around the world, there also ended up being…

  • a French version: Louis Mandrin
  • a Scottish version: Robert Roy MacGregor
  • an Irish version: Redmond O’Hanlon
  • a Dutch version: Kobus van der Schlossen
  • a German version: Johannes Buckler (a.k.a. “Schinderhannes”)
  • an Estonian version: Rummu Jüri
  • a Lithuanian version: Tadas Blinda
  • a Slovak / Polish version: Juraj Janosik
  • a Russian / Cossack version: Stepan Timofeyevich Razin (a.k.a. “Stenka”)
  • a Georgian version: Koba
  • an Abkhazian version: Abrskil
  • a Ukrainian version: Ustym Yakymovych Karmalyuk (as well as a Yiddish version: Hershel of Ostropol)
  • a Bulgarian version: Hitar Petar (the Macedonian version of whom was Itar Pejo of Mariovo)
  • a Romanian version: Iancu Jianu
  • a Turkic version: Koroghlu
  • an Ottoman Turkish version: Hekimoglu Ibrahim
  • a Tamil version: Koose Muniswami Veerappan
  • a Sinhalese version: Deekirkevage Saradiel
  • a Chinese version: Song Jiang
  • a Japanese version: Ishikawa Goemon (a.k.a. “Gorokizu”; as well as Nezumi Kozo, inspired by Nakamura Jirokichi of Edo)
  • a Korean version: Hong Gil-dong (loosely based on the historical figure, Im Kkeok of Yangju)
  • a Swahili version: Fumo Liyonga
  • a Mexican version: Jesus Malverde; Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo

…to mention examples from 25 other cultures.  Some of them were based on real people; some of them were entirely apocryphal.

A few of these tales may have emerged independently of the others; especially if they were inspired by historical figures.  However, in other instances, the tale was likely an adaptation from another culture’s version. In any case, over the centuries, the mytheme has clearly resonated across cultural lines. The tale says something about our shared humanity. Indeed, it is a legend that speaks to us…even if we need to couch it in terms of our own cultural heritage.

When we regard what Franz Boas referred to as “cultural diffusion”, we might ask: In the cases of folkloric cribbing, who cribbed from whom?  This might be historically interesting, but it is morally irrelevant.  Sometimes mythemes emerge in different places / times independently; sometimes they are coopted from exogenous sources.  Either way, insofar as any given motif qualifies as a mytheme, there is something about it that resonates with all humans–be it a rages-to-riches story or a holy trinity.

Robin Hood is a reminder that in most cases, the result of Cul-Ap has been salubrious. Moreover, the myriad incarnations of this legendary figure illustrates that there does not exist any meme that is INHERENTLY part of a singular memeplex–that is: inscribed on a particular culture for all eternity.  Memes know no such exclusivity.

There are no more cultural essences than there are racial essences.  There are only trends within social groups (just as there are only phenotypic tendencies / predispositions within haplo-groups).  And there is no necessary correlation between a given cultural element and a certain ethnic group. Such correlations were not written in the stars.

Any given feature of a given culture–as with any given part of a dogmatic system–is not inextricably tied to a particular ethnic group. As with any social norm, a custom emerges when, where, and how it does by historical accident.

That’s why criticizing an element of a given culture–or of a given religion–is entirely disconnected from bigotry against whatever group might happen to espouse that element.  Memes are not people. One can no more be racist against a social norm than one can be racist against a recipe for casserole (which may or may not happen to be affiliated with a certain community).

In fact, suggesting that such criticism is somehow “racist” is ITSELF born of racism. (The ironies never end.) Criticizing a dubious practice that inheres in a particular culture as actually a civic responsibility. For it is based on the fact that we are all fellow humans; and so are ultimately subject to the same moral standards…whether we acknowledge it or not. Our shared humanity is what give us all access to universal principles: standards by which any practice–regardless of when or where it occurs, or how much it is sacralized–can be evaluated. Objective morality is unconcerned with the myriad idiosyncrasies of communal consecrations. We are all human, so we all have recourse to the same moral compass. (I address this topic in my essay: “The Timelessness Of Morality”.)

More to the point: The humanity of a given person / group is not dependent on any particular social norm.  We are far more than an agglomeration of the conventions we countenance–whatever those conventions might happen to be.  For our humanity transcends the memes we espouse.  What makes us human is not some historical accident–even one that has been sacralized for eons. Meanwhile, the memes we adopt–and opt to retain–are NOTHING BUT a historical accident. Such affinities are, after all, up to us to embrace or discard; and do so according to that which transcends our memetic proclivities.

As Johann Gottfried von Herder pointed out, mankind is not divided into distinct races with any inherent differences that really matter; mankind is divided by CULTURES, all of which are adopted after birth…and, of course, BY ACCIDENT OF birth.

The implication of the present thesis is that Cul-Ap-phobia is the lifeblood of cultural segregation–impelled, as it is, by a fever-dream of cultural puritanism.  Like most of those obsessed with political correct-ness, anti-Cul-Ap crusaders are puritanical and authoritarian; which is simply to say that they are the antithesis of the astute cosmopolitans that they fancy themselves to be. Being, as they are, the self-appointed constables of enforced parochialism, we are morally obligated to repudiate their officious decrees.

I could have just as easily entitled this preceding piece, “The Case Against Cultural Segregation”.  For anti-Cul-Ap crusaders are effectively cultural segregationists.  They fail to realize that any meme-sequestration regime is antithetical to liberal democracy.

As I hope to have shown, a rudimentary knowledge of history is all that is needed to disabuse Cul-Ap-phobes of their peculiar gripe; as the gripe only seems credible to the most obtuse thinkers.  I submit that a basic understanding of how culture-in-general works is all that is needed to attenuate this daffy neurosis. Caviling about Cul-Ap, one may as well hem and haw over the fact that all the world’s peoples happen to breath oxygen.

How, then, shall we think about memetic transference?

Consider “cumbia”. Since this dance style eventually migrated to other Latin American cultures from Columbia, do all other Latinos owe a debt to Colombians?  Perhaps.  But wait.  Cumbia is essentially just a Latin take on belly dancing…which was popularized by Arabs, Turks, and Persians during the Middle Ages.  Even THEY were not the originators, as the dance style likely originated in Pharaonic Egypt.  (In Arabic, the style is referred to as “raqs sharqi”, meaning “Oriental dance”.  In typical Latin American fashion, it was rendered a partner dance.)  As it happens, belly dancing also led to “flamenco” dancing (also a partner dance) in Andalusia–first amongst the Romani, before eventually catching on with Spaniards.  So what are we to make of all this?  Is there something sinister afoot?

Let’s answer that (absurd) question by posing another question: Shall the Belgians and Swiss thank the Aztecs for chocolate?  (The name derives from the Nahuatl “cacahuatl”.) If so, they presumably owe a massive debt to all Meso-Americans. Bear in mind that when Coenraad Johannes van Houten created Dutch cocoa, he was engaging in Cul-Ap. After all, he co-opted a hallmark of Native American culture from a people. Was Coenraad being iniquitous? Don’t be ridiculous. His adaptation was largely the consequence of him sharing the same planet as Native Americans.

When Morgan Bullock (an African American from Richmond, Virginia) pursued her passion in Irish Dancing, it is disingenuous to contend that she was pilfering from the Celtic legacy.  She wasn’t extorting Irish culture; she was paying tribute to it.  Indeed, the DANCING may have been Irish, but SHE didn’t have to be.

The question remains: Might it be said that Morgan was “appropriating” something from an exogenous culture?  Sure.  Should the Irish feel slighted by this?  That would be a peculiar reaction to what she was doing.  It would be like begrudging Yo-Yo Ma for performing a concerto on his cello that had been composed by Bach for the harpsichord.

Cul-Ap sometimes involves black dancers performing Irish dances; and sometimes it involves Chinese musicians performing German music.

Perhaps Morgan will adapt Irish Dancing to hip-hop, creating a novel (hybridized) style…as occurred with belly dancing (Middle Eastern) to flamenco (Andalusian) to cumbia (Colombian).  Appropriation is–after all–the engine of emerging culture.  That’s how older cultures got there themselves.  We mustn’t begrudge these cultural mavens for doing what our progenitors did in the first place.

Demanding that Cul-Ap be proscribed is opposed to the cosmopolitan spirit.  Indeed, to have a problem with Cul-Ap is to have a problem with CULTURE ITSELF.  Memes propagate across cultural lines because no meme is tied to any given culture by some immutable law of the universe.  It’s why the British don’t take umbrage when Americans say, “It’s as American as apple pie.” (The pie is originally from England; apples originated in Kazakhstan.) And it’s why Americans don’t take umbrage when culinary maestros from Africa or Asia create their own ethnic variation on the scrumptious dessert. After all, EVERYONE loves apple pie.

The indemnification of memes does not preclude ACTUAL exploitation; it simply diverts our attention from the structural inequalities (power asymmetries) that REALLY account for the more privileged exploiting subalterns.  Cul-Ap no more contributes to marginalization than the world’s Muslims were denigrated when Colombians inaugurated “cumbia”.

Cul-Ap-phobia ends up being a huge distraction. It is no secret that there are far more important things to concern ourselves with than who “owns” apple pie…or chocolate…or belly dancing.  We live in a world with massive structural inequalities, in which certain communities are marginalized… and oppressed… and exploited.  Socio-economic injustices run rampant throughout society.  So we might ask: At the end of the day, does it really matter whether this or that teenage girl celebrates a “quinceañera” (meso-American) or a “sweet sixteen” birthday?  Answer: No. Heck, she may as well do both. And we may as well throw in a Bat Mitzvah-style candle-lighting ceremony while we’re at it.

In the final analysis, we find that nothing was pre-ordained to be a part of any given culture.  There is no cultural destiny.  It’s all open-ended.  So a culture as it happens to exist NOW is merely a point along the way.  Along the way to where?  Nobody knows.  It’s an on-going process in which each of us partakes, at our own discretion.  For, in a civil society, cultural participation is a matter of personal prerogative.

What will become of this long, meandering metamorphosis? Only time will tell. But that’s part of the fun of it. We’re all just trying to evolve; and part of that is adapting our meme-o-sphere to new developments. As fellow humans, we find that certain memes are good for everyone, others are bad for everyone; and ANYONE can point this out. For the only credential required is, well, being human.

So what are we to make of those who deign to assay a specified culture, as if it could EVER be discretely defined?  As it turns out, any demarcation between one culture and another is interminably blurry, and perpetually in flux; and–in any case–an accident of history. 

Cultures are dynamic agglomerations that are ever-evolving, not static wholes meant to be preserved as-is for all eternity. Moreover, ethnic identities have ALWAYS been amorphous; and don’t depend on any given meme for their continued existence.  Such is the nature of memetic exchange: the lifeblood of all human interaction. Consequently, embracing our shared humanity requires us to break out of our parochial mindsets; to not be hung up on what we–or others–happen to have inherited by accident of birth.  The point, then, is to look beyond the cloistered precincts of our own cultural milieu; and survey–with a sense of awe and wonder–the vast, global meme-o-sphere.  Only then can we recognize the world–in all its glorious variegation–as our common home.

What, then, is the key to fostering pluralism?  We might note the Spanish term, “convivencia”, which refers to inter-cultural amity.  It makes sense that this is a felicitous ideation; as it literally means “living WITH one another”.  Imagine.

Postscript 2:

Sharing food is a time-honored way to engender comity between different communities.  Indeed, “breaking bread” with one another is one of the oldest ways to forge bonds with wayfarers.  Our shared humanity is exemplified by EATING together; and this is especially so when we treat each other to our most hallowed recipes from days of yore.  Cordial culinary transmission is yet another reminder that trans-cultural exchange ATTENUATES alterity; and is one of the first steps in eliminating the marginalization of minority communities (who are often seen as “other” by those in a position of privilege).

Today, many cuisines are drawn from what is effectively a global pantry–a process whereby culinary practitioners use ingredients from around the world, and do so at their own discretion.  There’s nothing sinister about this.  For it is just humans in one place appreciating things traditionally used by humans in another place.  In assaying this phenomenon, we may wish to bear in mind that…

  • Chervil is originally from France.
  • Dill is originally from the Slavic region.
  • Dukkah and thyme are originally from Egypt.
  • Tahini is originally from the Levant.
  • Cumin is originally from the Eurasian Steppes.
  • Rosemary is originally from Mesopotamia.
  • Saffron is originally from Persia.
  • Turmeric and mustard are originally from India.
  • Ginger and coriander (a.k.a. “cilantro”) are originally from China.
  • Basil and lemon-grass are originally from Southeast Asia.
  • Yuzu-kosho and kimchi are originally from Japan.
  • Sambal is originally from Java.

And don’t forget: vanilla and chocolate are originally from Meso-America.

Willful ignorance is required to not realize that, when it comes to the culinary arts, these are just INGREDIENTS, not marks of divine ordinance.  Such items have been culled from various flora, which–surprise, surprise–tend to grow in some places rather than in others.

To recognize the fatuity of decrying Cul-Ap whenever signature elements of “ethnic” cuisines intermix, one need only concede that every ingredient that has ever existed originally came from SOMEWHERE.

When the Japanese adopted “concha” from the Portuguese, rendering it “melonpan”, was this a crime?  Probably not any more than when the Portuguese started eating sushi.  Meanwhile, curry ended up becoming a big hit in Japan (as with currypan), with a distinct style that barely resembled the Indian version.  Do Indians hold this against the Japanese?  Nope.  Meanwhile, the Japanese are perfectly fine with Indians eating sashimi.

When it comes to assaying how cultural interaction influences the dietary predilections of respective peoples, indigenous botanical exigencies are historically relevant.  (Bordeaux comes from the soils of Bordeaux, Champaign comes from the soils of Champaign, Burgundy comes from the soils of Burgundy, and Cognac comes from the soils of Cognac.) Morally, though, such exigencies are entirely beside the point.

Culinary styles that were, at one point, the signature trait of a particular culture end up migrating across cultural lines. Such memetic dispersion is only natural–which is why fajitas, quesadillas, and chimichangas have become ubiquitous throughout the Occident…in spite of the fact that they happen to be offshoots of Mexican fare. Stylistic choices affect one another, whether it’s food or clothing or anything else. (Imagine if Cajun food were limited to New Orleans.)

The salient issue is proper attribution–something Cul-Ap-phobes tend to know–or care–very little about.  Trans-cultural adoption is about giving credit where credit is due; and THAT requires one to know something about world history (how cultures have interacted over the course of centuries–nay, over the course of millennia).  Such inquiries can be tremendously edifying.

Alas.  Cul-Ap-phobes are not interested in edification; as they are too busy with “call out” culture to concern themselves with such frivolous endeavors as, say, generating awareness and forging global human solidarity.  They’d much rather segregate cultures than appreciate them.

With this in mind, we see that there is a valid concern about those who are mendacious enough to adopt a meme from elsewhere, then pass it off as their own.  In such cases, the problem isn’t the adoption per se; it is the dishonesty.  Incorporating “exotic” ingredients is not some sort of “cultural theft”.  It is, in fact, the way that the culinary arts have worked since time immemorial.  Any given item is invariably going to be a novelty to someone somewhere at some point in time; as every place on Earth has social norms from one historical period to the next (of which certain things are NOT a part).  It is no crime to find something “foreign” if it is, indeed, unfamiliar.  After all, what is and isn’t familiar is a matter of historical accident.

The key is how people REACT to such encounters: with conceit and superciliousness…or with an open mind and open heart.  A genuine appreciation for the new meme’s origins makes Cul-Ap MORE appealing; not less.  If we’re truly concerned about empowering marginalized communities, unabashed cosmopolitanism is what matters.  Decrying “cultural appropriation!” accomplishes nothing…save, perhaps, stirring pointless resentment. In a misguided attempt to uplift marginalized communities by “protecting” their cultural heritage, such interlopers end up amplifying alterity.

Once more, we are reminded that the aim of Cul-Ap-phobes is the segregation–rather than the appreciation–of cultures.

So what of the cockamamie fixation on CUISINE exhibited by “foodies” who’ve become afflicted with Cul-Ap-phobia?  Their first mistake is to suppose that they have identified a phenomenon that is unique to the Occident.  Since the Middle Ages, turmeric and cumin have commonly been used in Arab dishes.  Are we to suppose, then, that Arabs are somehow guilty of illicit Cul-Ap from Indians?  (Arabs adopted Indian numerals as well.  Another outrage?)  Ever put mustard on your hot dog?  Well, then, you’re ALSO stealing from the Indians.

What’s going on here?

To illustrate the neurosis involved, let’s consider a recent case of umbrage.  Some of the more fanatical Cul-Ap-phobes have criticized the renown chef, Rick Bayless for his expertise in–and passion for–Mexican cuisine.  Why?  Well, you see, he is WHITE.  The irony here is mind-bending; as anyone who levels such a criticism is racist.  This holds whether or not the target of opprobrium (in this case, Bayless) happens to be from a marginalized ethnic group.  Bigotry is bigotry, regardless of who’s doing it and to whom it is aimed.  Bayless is a champion of Mexican culture, not a thief.  If only MORE gringos had the appreciation that he exhibits. (!)

No matter.  Those who are determined to demonize Cul-Ap persist in their caviling, heedless of how culture actually works.  According to their (laughably obtuse) logic, the entire planet is complicit in some perfidious scheme of culinary cooptation.  So far as they’re concerned, anyone using fennel, parsley, sage, marjoram, or oregano–who does NOT have ancestors from the Mediterranean basin–is engaged in a memetic heist; and so must be excoriated. The same goes for those using nutmeg, mace, or cloves who don’t have ancestors from the Maluku islands of Malaya.

Heaven forfend you happen to prepare a vanilla or chocolate dessert without paying tribute to the Aztecs, sip a coffee without paying tribute to the Abyssinians, or drink some beer without paying tribute to the Egyptians.  And be careful not to ever use sambal without first securing permission from the world’s Indonesians.

Welcome to the wacky world of Cul-Ap hysteria.  Cosmopolitans are forced to contend with a cadre of ornery schoolmarms who, pretending to know anything about international cuisine, are determined to tsk-tsk-tsk their way into paroxysms of indignation. They engage in such acrimony even as they sprinkle some basil onto their dinner…without having thanked those of East Asian descent.

After all, Cul-Ap is only iniquitous when OTHER people do it.

The logic here can become so convoluted that a persnickety commentator once indicted a novel chickpea-based stew in which turmeric was used as an ingredient.  Wherefore?  Because many curries ALSO use turmeric.  Therefore said stew could be considered a kind of curry (even though it did not contain the key element of curry–namely: CURRY LEAVES), and so was IPSO FACTO a case of cultural appropriation from Indian culture.

This is bonkers.

The upshot of this bizarrely censorious attitude is actually quite simple: Limit your diet to only the things that your ancestors likely ate centuries ago.

We regret to inform all mankind: If you aren’t English, marmite is forever off-limits to you.  Meanwhile, if you ARE English, you’re stuck with mutton and haggis for all eternity. (On second thought, haggis is Scottish, so that’s off-limits as well!)  It seems not to occur to Cul-Ap-phobes that virtually everyone on the planet engages in culinary cooptation on a daily basis, because that’s how FOOD works. Broccoli is a Sicilian vegetable; and did not become a part of the American dietary repertoire until the 19th century. (That’s right. The Founding Fathers did not know what broccoli was.) Are we now ALL guilty of purloining Sicilian cuisine?

We’re all doing it, even when we don’t realize it.

The same goes for etymology; because that’s how LANGUAGE works.  The same goes for religious beliefs; because that’s how DOGMATISM works.  Etc.  Memes that subsist, subsist because they propagate; and they propagate because they resonate with different people at different times and places.  We’re all human, which means that accident of birth does not make any of us exempt from this all-encompassing dynamic. We’re all a part of a global memetic ecosystem, so we’re all complicit.

The key, then, is to recognize the malleability of culture.  Memetic transference across cultural lines (which THEMSELVES are fuzzy, and perpetually fluctuating) is a function of socio-psychical resonance.  Such resonance is, in part, explained by our shared humanity; but it is also dictated by historical contingencies (incumbent power structures, exigent social norms, prevailing sensibilities, etc.)  This cultural gradient exists simply due to the fact that certain people, under certain circumstances, have affinities for some memes rather than others. Some people like curry (many of whom are not Indian); others don’t. And that’s fine. Begrudging people for their culinary choices (i.e. when those choices happen not to coincide with their ethnic identity) is antithetical to the spirit of cosmopolitanism. Would we do the same with literary choices? Musical choices?

Human interaction entails memetic transference. Whenever in close proximity, cultures do not ABUT; they BLEND.  Their boundaries are rarely discrete and static; they are blurred and fluid.  Consequently, demarcations become fuzzy…and even illusory.  Now that we live in a globalized world, such proximity is not limited to geography. And that’s wonderful. Thank heavens for memetic dispersion–be it culinary or sartorial or mythological or anything else.

Tracking the cross-currents of culture is like tracking any other winds.  Trying to predict how one culture will interact with another is comparable to predicting the weather.  In either case, one is contending with highly-complex, open systems–which, when they meet, are bound to inter-penetrate in idiosyncratic ways.  Memetic zephyrs impinge upon a given locality, and do so SPORADICALLY.  This is the case whether we are talking about cuisine, architecture, literature, folklore, attire, music, dance, sport, or anything else.  It is asinine to begrudge anyone who opts to participate in this on-going dynamic.

Cosmopolitanism requires that one eschews Exceptionalism; and recognizes that one’s own culture is–in the grand scheme of things–nothing ontologically special.  All cultures are a concatenation of social constructs; and all social constructs are accidents of history.  No singular culture was determined by divine Providence; and no memetic ownership was written in the stars.  So it is important that we come to any evaluation NOT as members of any particular tribe, but simply as fellow HUMANS.

In the early 1930’s, the renown social anthropologist, Ruth Benedict noted that “there has never been a time when civilization stood more in need of individuals who are genuinely culture-conscious, who can see objectively the socially conditioned behavior of other peoples without fear and recrimination” (“Patterns Of Culture”, p. 10-11).

Benedict’s approach was to assay the world’s widely-variegated cultures NOT through the lens of one’s own culture, but from an impartial perspective.  As Edward Said would four decades later, she rejected the Occident-centric way of seeing the world (see my essay, “The Universality Of Morality”).  Surely, Benedict AND Said would have recoiled at the thought that people would one day vilify those engaged in Cul-Ap; and do so in the name of social justice.

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