The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture


My aim here is to show why that entire project of of proscribing Cul-Ap is wrong-headed.  Later, I will explore the crucial distinction between appropriation (which I take to be non-rivalrous / inclusionary) and expropriation (which I take to be rivalrous / exclusionary). {26}  But first, let’s survey some examples to see whether or not hysteria over Cul-Ap might possibly be stemming from a pointless moral panic.  This means evaluating Cul-Ap as it actually is rather than how it is caricatured by Cul-Ap-phobes.

We might begin by noting that the cooptation of cultural elements is generally celebrated in liberal democracies around the world.  As will be explicated, we see this in literature, in architecture, in musical styles, in dance, in language, in iconography, as well as in culinary and sartorial practices; from the most formal rituals to the most quotidian social norms encountered in everyday life.

Language is one of the best examples.  With idiosyncrasies in vernacular (like street-lingo, idiomatic expressions, and buzz-terms), ANY catchy turn-of-phrase that becomes fashionable can’t help but be appropriated by those outside of the culture that originated it.  Indeed, that’s how any snappy locutions propagate across the meme-sphere…even across cultures.  ANYTHING that becomes sufficiently popular can migrate between cultures that interact with one another.

By looking at some well-known instances of Cul-Ap, we can begin posing pertinent questions.  As will become immediately apparent, characterizing Cul-Ap as an illicit act leads to absurdity.

Let’s start with a song.  “Amazing Grace” was sung by African slaves in the antebellum South as a way to keep hope alive during an epoch of tribulation.  So, today, can non-black people sing this heartfelt song?  According to the logic of Cul-Ap, the answer is a resounding “no”.  It’s as if allowing non-black people to sing that particular hymn would somehow deprive African Americans of their legacy of empowerment through song.  Even more preposterously, the contention is that PREVENTING non-black people from singing this song would somehow HELP them forge solidarity with black people.  Hence the Kafka-esque prescription: Universal inclusion via targeted exclusion.

But wait: It gets more complicated.  For the song was composed in 1725 by a white (Anglican) clergyman…who was, it turns out, a former slaver.  John Newton wrote the song as a way of expressing contrition (pursuant to his change of heart regarding the enslavement of Africans).  So it is, in a sense, MORE appropriate for white people–remorseful of a past injustice–to sing this song.

We might continue along this line of inquiry.  If Europeans play jazz, are they guilty of cribbing African-American culture…or are they simply paying tribute to great music?  Should Buddhist musicians be allowed to perform Handel’s “Messiah”?  Can Taoists sing “Jingle Bells”?  Can Caucasians sing the Blues?  The legendary Egyptian pop-singer, Umm Kulthum (a.k.a. “Kawkab al-Sharq”) incorporated an Occidental musical idiom.  Was she guilty of Cul-Ap as well?  And what about other Arabic pop-singers (like Samira Said and Elissar Zakaria Khoury)?

When Bing Crosby sang “Silent Night” (which would become a secular American classic), was he ripping off Austrian culture?  After all, Franz Xaver Gruber composed the song (“Stille Nacht”) for his church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg in 1818.  Shall non-Bavarians be prohibited from singing this song?  Should it be off-limits to non-Catholics?  (If so, we should be thankful that Crosby was Catholic!)

According to the specious rational undergirding the charge of illicit Cul-Ap, sharing customs across cultural lines, however demarcated, without express permission to do so, is a morally dubious act, and so should be forbidden.  For engaging in such an act, we are told, is indicative of (tacit) condescension; and even of derogation–especially if it is done in too flip a manner.  But does anyone REALLY believe this?  If so, it becomes a quandary that many of the most cherished Christmas songs were composed by Jewish men: Jay Livingston, Sammy Cahn, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, etc.  In such cases, who was appropriating who?

As I hope to show forthwith, the entire case for the vilification of those engaged in Cul-Ap unravels as we recognize that Cul-Ap is everywhere–even in places we might not suspect.  If we were to apply the standards for Cul-Ap-prohibition consistently–and universally–we would end up implicating everyone’s culture, everywhere, since the beginning of recorded history.

In order to bring to light the issue at hand, we might pose some other questions: Can Arabians perform Shakespearean plays…in Arabic…donning Bedouin attire?  What about when Arabian dancers perform “Liwa”, which was adopted from African folk dance?  Do I need to be Irish to direct a production of River Dance?  Can Irish who do not have a full appreciation of their Gaelic heritage do so?  If yes to BOTH, and fidelity to the culture is not the ultimate standard, then are we to predicate eligibility on bloodlines?  Birthright?  Shall qualification be cased on some minimum time of having been immersed in the culture?  The further we inquire, the more convoluted the criteria we use for allotting license to participate in another culture becomes.

We are forced to use the same standards to answer analogous questions: Can anyone other than the Cantonese take Kung-fu lessons?  Can non-Venetian film-makers use Vivaldi in their scores?  Can non-Indian women wear saris?  The more examples we assay, the more it becomes apparent that when Cul-Ap occurs–especially when done in good faith–the world is all the better for it.

We might note that meme-adoption between cultures regularly occurs even when we don’t realize it–with technical innovations, scientific insights, superstitions, folklore, catch-phrases, games, attire, and countless other things.  This is salubrious in most instances; and it is salubrious for reasons that may not be immediately apparent to the parties involved.

Regardless of who one might be, succumbing to Cul-Ap-phobia is tantamount to cultural masochism.  For insofar as one identifies with a given culture–one is invariably forced to indict ONESELF for the illusory crime.  The fact is: Nobody is NOT currently enjoying a product of serial Cul-Ap.  Cul-Ap is as endemic to culture as is breathing oxygen.  It is safe to say, then, that grievances involving Cul-Ap demonstrate a fundamental mis-understanding of how cultures interact.

If I attend a luau and wear a lei around my neck, am I in some way desecrating Polynesian culture?  In such a scenario, there are two different perspectives at play: For the Hawaiian, donning the flowered necklace is customary; yet to me, the accoutrement is simply nifty–even mildly exotic.

Exotic?  Wait.  What’s THAT all about?  Exoticism, we should bear in mind, is simply the result of differing vantages of familiarity, not the result of some invidious double standard.  Yet, proclaims the Cul-Ap-phobe: “If you find it exotic, then you shouldn’t be allowed to do it!”  This is a harebrained declaration.  Shall one also refrain from dating people one finds exotically attractive?  Shall we deem exotic locals off-limits for holiday travel?  Shall gourmands avoid any cuisine they happen to find exotic?  Must we curb ALL curiosity in things that we find unfamiliar in a beguiling way?  We may as well criminalize fascination.

Well, then, how shall problematic instances of exotic-ization be addressed?  What is typically identifying as a problem is the FETISHIZATION of exotic-ness.  Here, it is not the (perfectly natural) fascination with the exotic that is problematic; it is the fetishization of such things.  But then again, fetishizing ANYTHING is indicative of dysfunction.  Ironically, Cul-Ap-phobia is ITSELF based on fetishization: treating cultural elements as sacrosanct totems–that is: as if they were the sole basis of existential ballast.

But that’s not the worst of it.  When it comes to “trying on for size” exogenous cultural elements, a censorious attitude ends up being just another form of parochialism.  Indeed, a key facet of Cul-Ap-phobia is a nagging penchant for meme-sequestration (whereby one is obliged to hold in abeyance anything seen as FOREIGN).  The notion that one should not be permitted to (intermittently) participate in–or temporarily adopt–some cultural element (esp. when one happens to find it exotic) is ludicrous.

Take, for instance, a non-Hindu attending a Navratri celebration, and opting to don a “bindi” (third eye) as part of his participation in the festivities.  Fancying the practice, the person opts to do it again later on–of his own accord–in other contexts.  In doing so, is he being patronizing toward Hindu culture?  Hardly.  Supposing that doing so is somehow uncouth would be to conflate homage with mockery.  Looking at the spirit behind the gesture is key.  Alas.  As we shall see, so far as Cul-Ap-phobes are concerned, intentions are entirely beside the point; as the act itself is ipso facto perfidious.

The vilification of those engaged in Cul-Ap misses what makes humans social creatures: curiosity of novel memes from other lands.  Indeed, to hear those who carp most about this ersatz crime, one would think the sky was falling every time a group of Asians formed rock-n-roll band.  (Based on this standard, K-pop would be a moral outrage!)

Ironies abound.  For every one of the gormless enthusiasts who demonize Cul-Ap benefits from the fruits of Cul-Ap as much as anyone else; they just don’t realize how much of what they do is the result of the very thing against which they inveigh.  Most Cul-Ap is unwitting; yet it suffuses our lives.  In adopting one or another meme, people are simply being pragmatic.  As Steven Lukes put it in his “Liberals & Cannibals”: “People often follow customs [prevailing social norms] blindly, even compulsively and without reasoning about what they do.  But the fact that they don’t reason does not mean that they don’t have reasons.”  This goes for art, music, dance, cuisine, clothing styles, literary styles, religious dogmas, and virtually everything else that constitutes culture.  Indeed, meme-exchange is a spur for cultural FRUCTIFICATION; but the benefits are not always recognized until we have the benefit of hindsight.

So what happens if a Kurd puts a Persian rug in his home while a Persian puts a Kurdish rug in his home?  Is that a fair trade?  Can either hang a Native American tapestry in his foyer?  If all of this is illicit, then what’s really going on here?  It would seem that even interior design must be subject to cultural sanction.  (And unless you’re a Parisian of Italian descent, don’t even think of putting Venetian blinds on French doors.)  Once we proscribe Cul-Ap in ONE context, where does it stop?

Mehendi (a.k.a. “henna tattoos”) is used ritually in Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh amongst Muslimahs; yet it was originally a Vedic practice that predated Islam by many centuries.  Does this make Dar al-Islam culpable in an elaborate memetic caper?

It might be noted that the two most popular sports in Japan are baseball and soccer.  While soccer is international through and through, baseball is a hallmark of Americana.  Shall Americans–even as they watch Dragonball Z and snack on a bento box–begrudge the Japanese for adopting this hallowed pass-time (and, it might be noted, infusing it with their own cultural flavor)?

And so it goes with other instances of cross-pollination.  Some Russians practice ju-do (rebranded as “sambo”) even as some Japanese fancy Asian-style matryoshka dolls (rebranded as “Russian nesting dolls”, though with a Japanese aesthetic).  As a result of this mutual “appropriation”, no one is the worse for wear.  In fact, such reciprocal meme-transference is oftentimes a means of trans-cultural solidarity (a refreshing change from the war of 1904-05).  Now Russians watch anime and read manga; and not a single Japanese person is up in arms about it.

The point cannot be emphasized enough: The charge of Cul-Ap as some transgressive deed demonstrates a grave misunderstanding of how culture qua culture WORKS; and how it has ALWAYS worked.  Making Cul-Ap taboo is–paradoxically–a gambit to celebrate our shared humanity via cultural segregation.

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