The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

Where Ethnic Fidelity Is Relevant; And Where It Isn’t:

If a Westerner dresses up as a samurai just for fun, is he guilty of pilfering something from ancient Japanese culture?  Is he demeaning the ancient “sho-gun” culture with a whimsical gesture–succumbing to an impetuous “try it on for size” moment?  By blithely countenancing a simulacrum of the medieval warrior, might he be patronizing the “bushido” creed?  Is “just for the fun of it” too cavalier for the consideration such an outfit warrants?  After all, short of donning an authentic “hatomune do”, he is in danger of caricaturing something that used to be taken very seriously.

These are all fair questions.  Yet denigration would seem to be an overly harsh indictment.  (Generally-speaking, being inconsiderate is not tantamount to being unethical.)  Yet the way Cul-Ap-phobes ramble on about such incidents, one would think a grave moral transgression has occurred…whereby members of the source-culture have actually incurred harm.

Such accusations, assuming they are sincere (which is not always the case), stem more  from neurosis than they do from a bold show of rectitude.  It could even be said that it is the ACCUSATION ITSELF that is doing the real damage.  For it encourages trepidation in those who are curious about other cultures…yet are reticent to do anything that might be construed as untoward.  We are expected, it seems, to forget how commonplace cultural exchange has been since the beginning of time.

Upon even cursory scrutiny, we find that those who cry “politically incorrect” typically have laughably petty grievances.  So far as they are concerned, there is a bone to pick around every corner.  Take, for instance, grievances about the portrayal of colored people in the HBO series, “Game of Thrones”–a mythical land based on medieval European tropes.  (The show was itself adapted from the novel series, “A Song Of Ice And Fire”, which did not pretend to be doing anything other than trafficking in stereotypes in a gratuitously titillating fashion.)  Those griping about said television show neglected to note that the beautiful, noble Dornish warrior sisters–like the “unsullied” and Dothraki of Essos–did, indeed, have darker skin.  But were they REALLY concerned about a fantasy-world denigrating entire races?

It seems not.  After all, similar complainants pretend not to understand why elves and mermaids (mythical creatures) can be white or East Asian, but not black. {4}  Presumably, these are the same people who claim to be “offended” that there were no dark-skinned elves in “The Lord of the Rings”.  Shall we also be dismayed by the fact that so few Punjabis are cast as Vikings? (!)

Whether or not the figure in question is fictional is beside the point.  The Greek gods were–in fact–NOT East Asian; so it would be peculiar to portray, say, Aphrodite as Japanese in a production that deigns to depict Greek myth.  Even so, there is no problem with Asians dressing up as Aphrodite “just for fun”.  How shall we account for this discrepant assessment?  There are two different criteria at play here.  As it turns out, costumes can be used either for portrayal (where fidelity to the folklore IS important) or for recreational caricature (where there is no pretense of fidelity to the folklore invoked).

Here is where we encounter the shaky basis for Cul-Ap-phobia.  It is fair to say that, when it comes to the PORTRAYAL OF certain things, it is important to maintain ethnic fidelity.  For instance, a black vampire makes about as much sense as a Nordic Ninja or a Siamese Santa Claus.  This should NOT prevent Scandinavians from dressing up as Ninjas or people in Thailand from wearing Santa Claus costumes “just for the fun of it”.  But is SHOULD prevent those deigning to proffer a serious portrayal of medieval Japanese culture or of “Western” Christmas traditions from engaging in cultural mis-representation.

When playing dress-up (“cos-play” in the current lingo) that involves personages from other cultures, there is no pretense to ethnic fidelity.  People are, as it were, just playing around.  That is to say: They are doing so just for the fun of it.  This is why it is fine for a non-Native American to dress up as Pocahontas for a festive occasion (where there is no pretense of ethnic fidelity)…even as it is wrong to cast a non-Chinese actress as Mulan in a film (where there IS a responsibility to maintain ethnic fidelity).  The former is a matter of festivity, the latter is a matter of dishonesty.

So, yes, Disney can make a live-action version of Mulan for an audience dominated by WASPs; but only if they make an honest effort to do the tale’s legacy justice (and give credit where credit is due).  This means not betraying the spirit of the story; and not pretending that Mulan was anything but Chinese.  Casting anyone but a genuinely Chinese actress to play the role would, indeed, be an outrage.

This principle can be illustrated by making further queries.  Shall we pretend that Alexander the Great was Swahili or that Jesus of Nazareth was Slavic?  To do so would be factually inaccurate.  But this should not prevent Africans from donning Macedonian warrior costumes or the Irish from dressing up as the Messiah.

In the event that there is any pretense of ethnic fidelity, an accurate characterization is warranted.  This is not rocket science.  If one is going to do a biopic on Martin Luther King Jr., casting Jackie Chan in the lead role is probably not the most prudent choice.  Why not?  Because the famous American civil rights activist wasn’t Cantonese.  Simply noticing this is not a slight against everyone from Hong Kong. {15}

Ethnic fidelity is important; yet it does not preclude the prerogative to engage in play-acting (“cos-play” for idle amusement).  Hence we have two different scenarios:

  1. Upholding fidelity to ethnic exigencies when purporting to portray what are cultural realities.
  2. Casually participating in exogenous cultural elements–be it sartorial, musical, culinary, literary, or anything else.

The imperative of (A) is not mutually exclusive with the prerogative to engage in (B).  The former involves responsibilities; the latter involves liberties.

There is nothing inherently profane about playful experimentation–even if done puckishly, with a wink and a nudge.  Almost none of those who are playing dress-up are seeking to MOCK the thing they are ostensibly EMBRACING.  In the event “cos-play” is done a waggish manner, we mustn’t ascribe ill-intent to what is–more often than not–little more than irreverent playfulness.  For what is “all in good fun” for one party may be an intolerable mischief to another.  Therefore any given party’s sensibilities cannot be the ultimate standard by which any given behavior is proscribed.

The inconsistent standards of an anti-Cul-Ap crusade become painfully evident the moment we start applying them universally.  So far as Halloween costumes go, culture-segregationists seem not to consider donning lederhosen a mockery of Bavarians…or wearing a kilt a mockery of the Scots…or dressing up as “Swiss Miss” a mockery of the Schweizer…to say nothing of pirates and ninjas and gypsies.  But why not?  Because, like all other indictments leveled by those obsessed with political correctness, the charge of illicit Cul-Ap is based on ineluctably inconsistent logic.

Case in point: When white women wear hoop earrings, it is an affront to Hispanic or African culture; yet if they embroider ‘Hello Kitty’ on their purses, well, then the Japanese have nothing to complain about. {3}

It soon becomes plain to see that the protocols of political correctness ONLY work by being highly selective.  The modus operandi is invariably: “It’s fine if THIS group does it; but opprobrious if THAT group does it.”  Rarely do Scandinavians become incensed when Indians or Africans dress up as Vikings.  Rarely do the Irish become incensed when Arabs or Asians dress up as leprechauns.  And the Japanese have no scruples whatsoever with Western women dressing up as geishas.  (Many Japanese even APPRECIATE the gesture.)  Such widespread equanimity goes precisely to the crux of the matter: Grievances about Cul-Ap are revealed to be bogus when those doing the hemming and hawing claim to be offended ON BEHALF OF the (imagined) victims of the (imagined) crime…even when the real-world counterparts are not at all offended.  (It requires a pathological conceit to indulge in vicarious offense-taking.)  Such confectionary indignation is more a matter of self-ingratiation than it is about the sincere expression of moral opprobrium.

We rightfully take exception to those who deign to fleetingly experience the plight an oppressed / marginalized group by engaging in a superficial emulation of some element of that group’s culture…and who then pat themselves on the back for being empathetic.  The problem with such poseurs is that they trivialize the tribulation of others by role-playing–as if temporarily adopting the outward accoutrements of a people was tantamount to feeling their pain.  Such empty gestures are, indeed, problematic; as they are more pantomime than a genuine effort to empathize.

The best that might be said of posing is that it is very tacky.  In some cases, the cavalier participation is a puerile attempt at exoticism–which invariably ends up as FAUX exoticism.  The act is typically a gambit to assert a novel identity within one’s own community via superficial (that is: cosmetic) means.  In doing this, one invariably plays into stereotypes.  Even so, superficiality is not a crime, it is a character flaw.  The issue at hand is obtuse thinking, not Cul-Ap.

The problem with trafficking in crude caricatures is that it is disingenuous.  Even so, the protocols of political correctness are not a requirement for being honest.  So the question remains: Shall we EVER consider it objectionable to flippantly “try on for size” a meme from a culture other than one’s own?  Yes; if it is done IN ORDER TO demean.  What is opprobrious about such instances, though, is the mean-spirited-ness; not the “appropriation” per se.

It IS possible to temporarily–even flippantly–“try on for size” a cultural element without being mean-spirited.  Even blithe gestures can be done in good faith.

When it comes to the vilification of those engaged in Cul-Ap, it is INEVITABLE that standards will be applied ad hoc.  And it is not merely that double standards are permitted; they are–effectively–MANDATED.

We can inquire further.  Can Asians dress up as cowboys?  Can Latinos dress up as Flappers?  Can ANYONE dress up as slutty nuns?  If not, then who shall be the official adjudicator when it comes to such matters?  A subset of a group cannot claim to be offended on behalf the entire group.  So do some people’s offense matter more than the fact that most others are NOT offended?  How does the calculus of offense-taking work?

For those of us who genuinely care about culture, the primary point of concern is vulgarization–which can take the form of feckless misrepresentation or outright debasement.  This pertains to portrayals (where there IS a pretense of ethnic fidelity), not to dressing up just for fun (where there is NOT any such pretense).  Deliberately misrepresenting folklore is not so much pernicious as it is DAFT.  There is nothing wrong with “cos-play” involving Bantu Vikings…or Dutch geishas…or Celtic sheiks; but we should not pretend that such cultural chimeras have any legitimacy beyond tongue-in-cheek “dress up” (that is: play-acting that is, as it were, all in good fun).

This is simply a matter of common sense: If one is directing a play about Zulu warriors, don’t cast a Korean actor.  A Nubian Queen?  Don’t cast a Russian actress.  A documentary on Ashkinazim?  Don’t cast Bengalis.  Whether or not the character is fictional or not is entirely beside the point.

It seems not to occur to those afflicted with Cul-Ap-phobia that the sharing of culture might be impelled by good will (or even just good cheer).  King Arthur was Anglo-Saxon; it would be nutty to suppose otherwise.  But why can’t, say, Indonesian revelers dress up as English knights–if, that is, it’s all in good fun?

The hysterics over Halloween costumes attests to the neurosis underlying Cul-Ap-phobia.  The willingness to blithely mis-represent aspects of a culture’s heritage attests to the hypocrisy of those same people. {15}

Those who are most irked by Cul-Ap exhibit a state of moral panic that is entirely disproportionate to the alleged transgression–as if Korean girls wearing sexy genie costumes on Halloween might be a worse problem for the world than, say, systemic socio-economic injustices.  The “djinn” are from the Middle East, but no Persian or Arab has ever incurred harm from people dressing up as genies…any more than Jews would be harmed by people dressing up as “shedim” or Buddhists would be harmed by people dressing up as “asuras”.  The only difference is that many Muslims STILL BELIEVE in “djinn”.  That shouldn’t be anyone else’s problem.

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