The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

The Relevance Of Intentions:

When the Japanese play baseball, are they being “insensitive” to American sports-fans?  Simply posing the question demonstrates the inanity of this line of inquiry.  Clearly, Cul-Ap is not inherently disrespectful.  Otherwise, we would be forced to insist that rap be off-limits to Eminem; that country music be off-limits to Lil Nas X; that curry be off-limits to anyone who isn’t Indian; and that Brasilians can no longer practice jiu-jitsu.

So what, then, of ill will?  Do intentions really matter to those for whom Cul-Ap is a moral outrage?  Is their bone to pick not really with Cul-Ap per se, but with the attendant sentiment?  Perhaps it is dubious motives that they are after.

Alas no.  The more petulant Cul-Ap-phobes are apt to feign indignation even if it is clear that no disrespect was intended.  After all, their (cockamamie) presupposition is: For people of one culture to adopt–or even to casually partake in–an element from another culture is to AUTOMATICALLY be derogatory toward the latter culture.

Nobody actually believes this; yet Cul-Ap-phobes pretend to think that it is true.  So it goes with the puritanical mindset endemic to a fixation on political correctness.  Imputing sinister motives to those engaged in utterly innocuous activities has become somewhat of a cottage industry in p.c. circles.  Participants are incentivized to take offense at virtually any breach of etiquette, no matter how frivolous.  The agora is quickly flooded with dyspeptic interlocutors afflicted with a severe case of what the Danes refer to as “krænkelsesparat” (a predisposition to quickly take offense at trivialities).

Consequently, the vilification of those engaged in Cul-Ap seems to attain regardless of intention.  That is to say: The alleged transgression exists whether or not there is ill will involved.  For, the thinking goes, the gesture ITSELF is an act of desecration.  Hence: Cul-Ap should be seen as an affront irrespective of the sentiment attending the act of the accused “appropriator”.  Good will is a moot point.

So far as Cul-Ap-phobes are concerned, the use of an exogenous cultural element is iniquitous no matter how innocuous–or innocently intentioned–the gesture might be.  If anyone FEELS patronized, then the accused is IPSO FACTO guilty of being patronizing / disrespectful.  Those who prosecute this ersatz crime fail to see that there is a difference between naively being hokey (trying something on for size, just for the fun of it) and derisively engaging in mockery (demeaning others simply because they are different).

We find that, in the vast majority of cases in which invidiousness is attributed to the unscrupulous use of an exogenous cultural element, the ACTUAL crime is bigotry; and so can be explained AS SUCH.  No need, then, to blame such things on Cul-Ap.

The issue here, then, is not Cul-Ap per se, but Cul-Ap done in bad faith.  Consequently, the primary concern should be cultural obloquy, or–for that matter–ANYTHING that is not done in good faith.  The fact is that not all participation in–or adoption of–an exogenous cultural element is derogatory.  In fact, as we shall see, the vast majority of it is benign.

But how, then, are we do deal with those who are not being sufficiently deferential to others’ cultures–especially when the element in question is considered sacred?  The question answers itself.  The issue at hand, we find, is (alleged) INSENSITIVITY, a disposition can exist with or without exigent Cul-Ap.

When Thais deck their urban shopping malls with copious amounts of tacky Christmas decorations, and play American Christmas carols throughout the concourse, is it a case of Buddhists being “insensitive” to Christians?  (Make no mistake: The vast majority of Thai shoppers know almost nothing about Christian theology; and even less about the Nativity legend.)  This blithe use of kitsch is for entirely commercial purposes.  But, then again, the same could be said for Americans’ use Christmas themes.  (After all, Christmas is hardly a RELIGIOUS occasion for the majority of Westerners.)  Even the Japanese have gotten in on the action, celebrating “Kurisumasu” in laughably hokey ways.

But wait.  Christ-mas is ITSELF the result of rampant Cul-Ap.  Indeed, it is one of the most flagrant examples of Cul-Ap, based as it is on pagan precursors.  It is no more OWNED by Christendom than it is owned by Thailand.  The yule-tide holiday, celebrated on the winter solstice, has about as much to do with Jesus of Nazareth as the Easter Bunny has to do with Nicene soteriology.  (A bunny-rabbit laying colored eggs in the springtime is, at best, a cartoonish metaphor for a resurrected savior-god.)  And it was in the Middle Ages that Epiphany-tide was appended to Christ-mas-tide, so as to incorporate the legend of the Nativity (confabulated in the Middle Ages) into the holiday.

Of course, the commemoration of the winter solstice as an auspicious occasion is as universal as just about anything–from the Hindu “Makara Sankranti” to the Persian “Yalda Night” to the Incan “Inti Raymi[-rata]” (observed by the Quechua to the present day). Heck, it’s why Stone Henge was five thousand years ago. (!)

The concern about “insensitivity” seems straight-forward enough.  Yet when someone is DELIBERATELY being derogatory in doing something, the point of concern is the ill will.  Being derogatory is a problem irrespective of HOW one is being derogatory.  If it happens to be in the process of Cul-Ap, the problem is not the Cul-Ap per se.  For Cul-Ap can always be done in good faith.  How any given person might happen to feel about it is another matter entirely.  As will be discussed forthwith: We cannot establish moral standards based on this or that party’s sentiment.

When those engaging in Cul-Ap are vilified, the implication is that they are AUTOMATICALLY being “disrespectful” (or, at best, insufficiently sensitive).  Cul-Ap is thus taken a form of condescension BY ITS VERY NATURE.  Yet framing the act-in-question as an illicit form of “appropriation” does nothing to address concerns about discourtesy (alt. being “disrespectful” or “offensive” or “insensitive”) which animate many Cul-Ap-related grievances.

Here, the bone to pick is an illusory one.  The contention is as follows: By being cavalier–or even just insouciant–in the use of an exogenous cultural element, the culprit is demeaning the source culture.  That is: He is not taking the cultural element–and by implication, the culture-in-general–seriously enough.  The attitude ascribed to the culprit is: “I’m doing this simply because I find it amusing.  Consequently, I am neglecting the fact that this meme is meaningful to certain people.”  The tacit message is that members of the source-culture don’t matter.

Hence anything short of a subscription to the culture WHOLESALE disqualifies one from participating in any element of it.  If this is true, questions arise that Cul-Ap-phobes are unprepared to answer.  When world-renown (Chinese) cellist, Yo-Yo Ma plays one of Brahms’ sonatas (German), bluegrass (American Southern), or a tango (Latino), is he paying tribute to different cultures or is he exploiting them?  If the former, how can we know for sure?  By what terms is he exempt from the proposed strictures on Cul-Ap?  If the latter, how so?  Might we suspect that his ostensive tribute really a veiled desecration?  Is this acclaimed musician cribbing the material, or is he celebrating it?  Such questions answer themselves.  Indeed, the mere posing of them reveals the inanity of vilifying Cul-Ap.

The gripe, we find, is often with participation that is conducted with an inadequate degree of solemnity (that is: when done cavalierly; and so–arguably–patronizingly).  For when Yo Yo Ma plays a piece from a German composer, he is taking it very seriously; and inarguably doing the material justice.  Here the idea seems to be that participation on the part of the casual “appropriator” is supercilious; and, in being supercilious, is somewhat dismissive of the cultural element’s import to members of the (purported) source-culture.  But this is clearly an untenable assumption.  How are we to determine when someone is being too cavalier in their use of an exogenous cultural element?  Yo Yo Ma is a clear-cut case; but what of the untalented Asian cellist who is simply dabbling in Mozart for his own idle amusement?  Is he also exempt from charges of Cul-Ap?  If so, what absolves him?

It would seem, then, that for those suspicious of Cul-Ap, it is CAPRICE that is the bone of contention.  The accusation follows: “You are engaging in the act with an inadequate show of solemnity.  Ergo you are being patronizing.”  Simply being care-free when participating in another’s culture is seen as care-LESS.  This seems to make sense…until we realize that we humans do this sort of thing all the time.  In fact, it is almost unavoidable.  WASPs impetuously get henna tattoos.  Mexicans don stetsons.  Counter-culture punk-rockers shave their heads in the Native American “Mohawk” style.  Japanese music-stars simulate American-style punk…and goth…and boy-bands…and, yes, even cowboys.  Are these exuberant adopters being insufficiently appreciative of the culture that first popularized the meme?

Shall we suppose that such acts somehow undermine human solidarity?  When finding affinities is done flippantly, is the gesture morally suspect?  Are we to suppose that the lackadaisical nature of quotidian behavior disqualifies it from civility?  Does care-free really equate with care-LESS?

Harboring contempt for Cul-Ap disregards the fact that daily life is INHERENTLY mercurial.  With respect to quotidian behavior in a setting where cultures routinely intermingle, people can’t help but casually imitate memes they find amenable.  It is inevitable that bystanders will blithely emulate certain exogenous cultural elements–from locutions to attire–in extemporaneous ways.  In most cases, such mimicry is a tacit form of flattery.  Construing such behavior as IPSO FACTO patronizing–or even derogatory–is disingenuous.  It may be clumsy.  It may even be flippant.  But it is rarely invidious.

If we take this uncharitable construal of mimesis to its logical conclusion, we wind up in a maelstrom of absurdities.  For we are forced to conclude that we all desecrate the memory of the Tang Chinese by celebrating with fireworks.  And we demean the Mexican “vaquero” with our exaltation of gun-toting, Anglo-Saxon cowboys.  Never mind the insult to WASPs when men around the planet opt to don polo shirts.  We find ourselves enveloped in a tourbillion of Cul-Ap galore, and so wind up indicting every aspect of our daily lives.

Of course, there are not always noble intentions afoot.  So WHAT OF dubious motives?  Here, we must contend with the question of where mere portrayal–cartoonish or not–ends and the alleged impropriety begins.  We might ask: At what point does portrayal become exploitative?  Alas, this is impossible to discern; for what may be merely a flubbed attempt at homage to one person is an intolerable–even if unwitting–affront to another.

Yet take heart.  This disparity of sentiment needn’t leave us in some interminable quandary.  We do not need protocols to tell us that Disney’s film, “Song of the South” was exploitative AND derogatory.  We need only bring our moral intuitions to bear on the facts of the case.  But there is a difference between “Song of the South” vis a vis African Americans and, say, “Ratatouille” vis a vis Parisians.  Indeed, there is something amiss if someone does NOT find the former problematic; yet only the tetchiest Parisian would find the latter offensive.  The explanation for this key difference, then, cannot be explained by couching things in terms of Cul-Ap.

So we might pose the question: At what point does conduct that is meant to be “all in good fun” become something that exhibits an insufficient amount of “due respect”?  According to whom?  To what extent are we all obliged to cater to every passer-by’s sensibilities?  The moment subjectivity is employed as the standard for ethical guidelines, we find ourselves unwitting bystanders in a whirlwind of extemporaneous prohibitions…subject to be updated as any moment…without notice…based on any random bystander’s whim.

Admittedly, the “I’m just doing it for the fun of it” excuse only goes so far.  How shall we verify that something is REALLY being done in good faith?  Where does affinity end and perfidy begin?  Sincerity is a notoriously difficult thing to gauge; so nobody can know for sure.  Anyone who deigns to adjudicate such matters is forced to claim to have psychic abilities.

Let’s pose the question another way: At what point does anodyne playfulness involving exogenous cultural elements become insufficiently heartfelt to be deemed acceptable?  No universal standard is possible.  Short of mind-reading, no adjudication can be conducted.  For even something done without any bad intentions can still be done too flippantly–that is: in a ham-fisted manner.  After all, most imitation is more pantomime than genuine immersion.

The mimesis of something that is the hallmark of others’ identity can easily be construed as patronizing.  But one person’s impression can not be the ultimate standard for evaluating another person’s conduct.  In any case, heedlessness is not tantamount to treachery.  And being inconsiderate is not the same as being unethical.  To equate matters of propriety with matters of probity is fundamental mis-step when it comes to moral principle.

Alas.  Anti-Cul-Ap crusaders anoint themselves the adjudicators of good form; and even fashion themselves as standard-bearers of good will.  In their ardor to appoint themselves the guardians of cultural integrity, they fail to see that to vilify those engaged in even the most benign instances of Cul-Ap requires them to be complicit in the very activity against which they inveigh.  For their prosecutorial zeal involves a sense of entitlement (exercised under the aegis of “respect”); and a hefty dose of self-righteousness (which they construe as philanthropic fervor).

It requires more sense of entitlement to tell people that they are not allowed to engage in a bit of exogenous cultural activity than it does to–well–simply engage in it.  The former requires one party to tell another party what they cannot do; the latter is simply an exercise of volition regarding one’s own affairs.

And when people ARE being condescending, what are we to do?  In the event that Cul-Ap is being done with a scornful sneer, how are we to respond?  When contending with superciliousness, the proper focus is not the Cul-Ap that happens to accompany it.  The focus, rather, should be on the superciliousness.  (Put another way: The diagnosis of an act done with ill will is not the act itself, it is the ill will.)

To review: The demonization of Cul-Ap generally pertains to any act that is seen as disrespectful–typically, because it is construed as condescending.  The prohibition aims to mitigate anything that is (purportedly) done “in poor taste”.  The problem is that proponents of this approach allege bad intentions to be around every corner.  Once in this neurotic frame of mind, suspicion of Cul-Ap almost seems to make sense.  But in order for this to work, one must refrain from ever looking into ACTUAL intentions.

When, say, an Anglo-Saxon dons a Pocahontas costume, we must ask: What is BEHIND the act?  Is it an attempt to demean or is it simply all in good fun?  The charge of illicit Cul-Ap makes no such distinction.  Alas, for Cul-Ap-phobes, the act itself is seen as PRIMA FACIE pernicious.  To recapitulate: Those who insist on treating the use of an exogenous cultural element as an illicit act are forced to pretend that all of it is derogatory BY ITS VERY NATURE.

The Cul-Ap-phobe’s credo, though, amounts to the following precept: To casually partake in another’s culture is to AUTOMATICALLY be patronizing–irrespective of motives.  It makes sense to be wary of those who assume to know for certain what it is like to be someone other than themselves; but it does not follow from this that every act of cultural participation is done in bad faith (spec. when done cavalierly).  This is a rather presumptuous position to take, especially when the focus should be on the ultimate of all common denominators: our shared humanity.

What those who denounce Cul-Ap as inherently iniquitous fail to realize is that intentions matter.  When something is done in a mean-spirited manner, the problem is not necessarily with the deed per se; it is with the mean-spirited-ness.  If one is being a jerk while baking chocolate chip cookies, that’s not an indictment of chocolate chip cookie-baking.

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