The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

A Case of Narcissism (Multi-Culturalism vs. Cultural Relativism):

Even hallowed folklore is invariably the product of Cul-Ap.  So to eschew Cul-Ap actually denies the very basis for the culture one deigns to protect.  Cul-Ap, it turns out, is generally benign; and oftentimes beneficial…even when it involves sacred traditions.  For EVEN THEN, Cul-Ap was likely how those traditions came to be in the first place.  So why all the fuss?

Much of the grievance expressed regarding this hobgoblin seems to be based not on unilateral memetic transference, but on the fact that certain instances of Cul-Ap happen to bother some people sometimes.  Offense-taking, then, is the issue; not Cul-Ap per se.  My theory is that the majority of anti-Cul-Ap hysteria is insincere; and results from the puritanical sensibilities–and chronic peevishness–endemic to political correctness.

Cul-Ap has–regrettably–become one of the more handy munitions in the arsenal of p.c. vigilantes.  Certain expression is considered odious simply because it OFFENDS someone.  Inter-cultural mimesis is deemed tantamount to traducement…even INJURY.  Those who perceive themselves as having been mocked ascribe dubious intentions to whomever is seen as “crossing the line”.  The idea, then, is to prevent anyone from ever being disconcerted.

With the mere wave of a magic wand, those hell-bent on being churlish can turn even the most innocuous piece of expression into a devastating infraction.  A professed sense of discomfiture can be wielded as a rhetorical cudgel…which can then be used to bludgeon anyone with whom one opts to take exception.  The moment “offense” is used in this manner, we discover that it is invariably invoked in place of sound argumentation.

But we must ask: Shall censorship be exacted according to some designated party’s sensibilities?  Who shall be the official arbiters of meme-allocation?  Shall everyone else on Earth be at the mercy of THEIR sensibilities?  To countenance regulation on Cul-Ap requires there to be gate-keepers of cultural transference…which requires that the rest of us cede sovereignty over our own lives to those who claim to know better.

A logistical problem arises, as one party’s subjective state is used to impose restrictions / obligations on everyone else.  Any bystander is invited to allege injury due to a bout of discomfiture.  But the scene of the crime ends up being solely in one’s own mind.

According to this modus operandi, one can whimsically designate anything a sacred cow…and thereby render certain acts off-limits to everyone else.  This attests to the narcissism underlying Cul-Ap-phobia: “It bothers me.  Therefore nobody should ever be allowed to do it.”  (The collective version of this is no better: “The gesture offends certain people, therefore it must be considered odious by everyone on the planet.”)  

Here, narcissism does not necessarily involve VANITY (which was Narcissus’ problem); it is more a way of viewing the world: “It’s all about ME; and how I happen to feel.”  (The etymology of “narcissism” notwithstanding, the use of the term in psychology has little to do with vanity.)  Here, everyone is expected to cater to a given party’s subjective state.  But to suppose that one party’s sentiment is translatable to a universal ethical mandate is untenable–as it cannot help but lead to an anarchy of incompatible moral standards, each claiming precedence.

Such subjectivism-gone-haywire privileges whimsy–nay, caprice–over deliberation; which leads to formidable problems.  How shall we proceed?  Should tacky-ness be forbidden?  Unseemliness?  Even if the aim is to make the agora more agreeable to EVERYONE’S taste, we must still ask: Is it possible to eradicate poor taste by forbidding it?  Can we vanquish those who are uncouth by tsk-tsk-tsk-ing them into oblivion?

It is de rigueur amongst aficionados of p.c. to pass self-serving endeavors off as a public service.  (Virtue signaling is, after all, a kind of preening.) Here, propriety is (mis)construed as probity.  Like persnickety schoolmarms with an ax to grind, the self-styled Inquisitors of Cul-Ap take it upon themselves to police the agora, seeking to cleanse it of (perceived) improprieties.  In a fit of self-righteous indignation, they carry out this mission by leveling a litany of denouncements in a frenzy of finger-wagging; as if scolding had magical didactic properties.

Anti-Cul-Ap crusaders imagine themselves to be de-contaminating the public discourse in a flourish of virtue-signaling, construing their pettifogging as some kind of moral intrepidity.  (Virtue-signaling is about the signaling, not about the virtue.) They seek out an excuse to be offended; then feel empowered by having taken offense at any triviality they can find.  They then indulge in a paroxysm of pearl-clutching…before embarking on their next ax-grinding expedition.

Semiotic prudery is every bit as retrograde sexual prudery.  Alas, one is obliged to undertake this campaign of discursive de-contamination as if, by deploying a raft of sanctimonious asseverations, one could somehow make the world a better place.  As it turns out, though, what is seen as contamination is often just the messy–often clumsy–intercourse endemic to pandemic free expression.

But there are perks to participating in this charade.  An excuse to grouse about imaginary crimes is an occasion for Cul-Ap-phobes to congratulate themselves for standing up for some illusory ideal (an ideal that, in their own minds, ONLY THEY are qualified to fully comprehend).  Once one has adopted this attitude, a cloudy day can be seen as a sign of a sinister plot to sully another culture.  Even on the sunniest day, they see ominous storm-clouds of oppression forebodingly gathering on the memetic horizon, threatening the fabric of civil society.

The Cul-Ap-phobe’s exhibition of moral panic, then, is just moral preening.  They recognize that, in the current climate, a display of virtue-signaling affords one an opportunity to pat oneself on the back for upholding some fatuous notion of social justice.   It is little more than theatrics.  The most churlish practitioners of this craft are, it seems, DETERMINED to be offended.  By what?  Well, by SOMETHING.  ANYTHING.  The most vociferous p.c.-mongers could look at a potted plant and see a devious scheme of exploitation.

Political correctness, we should bear in mind, is entirely performative in nature; as it is more about keeping up appearances (that is: sticking to the assigned script) than it is about underlying moral principles.  Feigning outrage is a way to earn approval from those participating in the same charade.  Not only do the protocols of p.c. incentivize people to be tetchy, such protocols exhort people to put on airs.  Morality becomes a matter of keeping up appearances, following whatever choreography has been prescribed by the self-appointed impresarios of propriety.  The result of this charade is a queer combination of peevish-ness and sanctimony.

What animates such a counter-productive enterprise?  Anti-Cul-Ap crusaders find themselves operating in an incentive structure that has been designed to promote–and reward–a priggish disposition.  When it comes to virtue-signaling, the intent is to arrogate social capital to oneself–from like-minded compatriots–simply by shaming others.  Shaming them for what?  Well, for what amounts to blasphemy–as defined by like-minded compatriots.  Such posturing requires no ACTUAL rectitude.  For an obsession with etiquette does nothing to engender probity; it simply obliges everyone to–well–keep up appearances.

By participating in this pageant of virtue-signaling, one can’t help but enter into any interaction with a chip on one’s shoulder.  Taboos can be conjured out of thin air; and one can then pat oneself on the back for enforcing them ad hoc.  The more ornery commissioners of these confabulated strictures are prepared to conduct an auto-de-fé whenever even a minor infraction is encountered.  An anti-Cul-Ap crusade ends up being more a hustle than a sincere effort to foster civility.

So for the p.c. aficionado, propriety is king.  But here’s the thing: Obsessing over propriety does nothing to promote the commonweal; it only obliges everyone to PERFORM in the prescribed manner.  (To reiterate: p.c. is entirely performative in nature, and has nothing to do with rectitude.) People participate in the charade not to be better people, but simply to earn approval–that is: to feel VALIDATED by compatriots. To thrive in such environs, everyone is obliged to put on airs (while disregarding moral principle).

In this scenario, participants are adjured to exalt the latest rules of propriety; yet nobody is actually moved to ground their deeds in moral principles, which are timeless and not at the mercy of social pressures.  In other words, participants are moved to SIGNAL that they are “with the program”.  Doing so requires feigning contempt for anyone who breeches whatever the etiquette du jour happens to be. Those who refuse to play along are summarily scorned–even ostracized. (Shame is the primary weapon of the p.c.-monger.)

Characterized as it is by a mindset that is both authoritarian and puritanical, political correctness–replete with its step-child, identity politics–is a patently right-wing phenomenon.  It is, in effect, illiberalism pretending to be liberal.  One might consider p.c. a kind of inverted liberalism with pseudo-latitudinarian window-dressing.  In sum: Those who countenance p.c. are not genuine Progressives; they are imposters–nay: petty, pusillanimous imposters.

What makes p.c.–especially identity politics–so insidious is that it often masquerades as a quasi-Progressive enterprise.  If one ever deigned to sabotage Progressivism from within, instituting a strict regime of p.c. would be the optimal way of doing so.

It quickly becomes plain to see that these Potemkin “Progressives” are, in fact, RE-gressives. They care nothing for cosmopolitan ideals; they simply re-define the terms of tribalism.

The exaltation of manufactured vexation has made offense-taking an avocation for p.c. aficionados.  For for the vituperative anti-Cul-Ap crusader, taking offense is seen as taking a moral stand.  But rather than their grievance being a mark of an intrepid disposition, it is nothing more than a craven emotive ejaculation.  Such contrived indignation not only misses its mark, it ends up having the opposite of the intended effect: sowing division instead of solidarity.  This irony seems to be lost on those swept up in anti-Cul-Ap hysteria.

No matter.  The demonization of Cul-Ap is a chance for the haughty proprietors of cultural demarcation to engage in boorish rants about how some people are not staying in their own lane (a lane to which they have been assigned by accident of birth).  Pearl-clutching is passed off as a sign of injury; hand-waving is passed off as sound argumentation.  Having indulged in this hammy display of histrionics, the anti-Cul-Ap crusader can then congratulate himself for–in his own eyes–having boldly expunged a raft of chimerical social injustices from the agora.

All the while, Cul-Ap-phobes are blissfully unaware of the self-contradictions in their condemnations.  (Ideological zeal, it seems, is like Novocain for cognitive dissonance.)  The grievances of the self-appointed guardians of (unsullied) culture have little to do with respecting culture; yet they are thoroughly convinced that their mission is ALL ABOUT respect for culture.  What is lost on them is that having (actual) respect for culture involves respecting how cultures emerge in the first place.  To respect culture QUA CULTURE, one must respect the process that creates it.

Most of those bewitched by p.c.-mania are determined to be offended  It is no wonder, then, that a veritable cottage industry of offense-taking has emerged in p.c. circles.  People wear their contrived “offense” like a badge of honor.  And so it goes.  Cul-Ap-phobia is often more about scoring points in some kind of virtue-signaling tournament than it is about promoting civility.  Such posturing is the hallmark of political correctness.  After all, p.c. is entirely performative in nature; and stems from a need to be recognized as one of the good guys (which is to say: it stems from narcissism).  At the end of the day, p.c. amounts to little more than a schmaltzy exhibition: a self-ingratiating display that has nothing to do with rectitude.  (Probity, we should bear in mind, has nothing to do with earning approval from peers.)

An anti-Cul-Ap crusade is more about theatrics than it is about ethics.  Participants in this charade are eager to find an excuse–ANY excuse, no matter how fatuous–to claim “offense” in a gambit to telegraph their “woke-ness”.  Alas.  Such cloying pretense becomes de rigueur when p.c. governs public discourse.  One has done nothing to bolster the commonweal, but at least one has gotten some attention.

Offense-taking also comes in handy as a discursive redoubt.  Whenever “I feel offended” is wielded by an interlocutor as an offensive maneuver, it is done in a last-ditch effort to stand one’s ground when no argument is available to support one’s position.  For lack of anything intelligent to say, one can simply claim “offense”; then avoid conceding that one has no solid grounds for taking the stance that one has taken.  This is a very enticing proposition for those who have nothing erudite to contribute to the public discourse (yet nevertheless yearn to be noticed).

How can we be so sure that anti-Cul-Ap hysteria is much ado about nothing?  The experiment has been run countless times, so it is not difficult to simply observe.  When a non-Chinese female dons a “cheong-sam” (a.k.a. “chi-pao”), what actually happens?  Even as p.c.-mongers rant about the horrors of Cul-Ap, the vast majority of Chinese (the alleged victims) see the gesture for what it really is: a sign of cultural appreciation–even TRIBUTE.  Such vicarious offense-taking reveals not only the neurotic disposition of those who are enamored with politically correctness; it exposes the fatuity of using “cultural appropriation” as an indictment.

But wait.  As it turns out, the Han Chinese THEMSELVES appropriated the “cheong-sam”.  They adopted it from the Manchu peoples of the northeast, who were ethnic Jurchen.  And even then, the sartorial style originated during the Liao dynasty…which was Khitan (a nomadic Mongolic people related to the Xian-bei).  Shall modern-day Chinese be apologizing to the Manchurians?  The irony is that subsequent designs of the dress were influenced in large part by the fashions of the OCCIDENT…which, ironically enough, is one of the reasons it was banned in Maoist China.  That’s right.  The Chinese DELIBERATELY sought to Westernize the design.

The “cheong-sam” is a beautiful dress for all women; and we should only celebrate the fact that more women around the world are incorporating it into their fashion repertoire.

The problem with Cul-Ap, the story goes, is that by simply engaging in the act, one is according insufficient respect to the source-culture.  The idea is that to engage in Cul-Ap is to evince an intolerably cavalier attitude toward others’ cultural identities.  Yet not all Cul-Ap is done heedless of the source-culture; and–in any case–most ACTUAL instances of derogation do not involve Cul-Ap.  Cultural transference is about affinities; and exploitation rarely involves an effort to forge affinity.  So Cul-Ap-phobes are left to explain how, exactly, Cul-Ap is tantamount to exploitation.

There is another explanation for the penchant to hold Cul-Ap in contempt; and to summarily vilify anyone who engages in it.  There seems to exist a fear of comparing cultural elements across cultures.  Such comparisons are sacrilege for cultural relativists (who demand that EVERYTHING be shown deference).  For them, indiscriminate “respect” for ALL CULTURAL ELEMENTS EVERYWHERE, no matter how dysfunctional, is mandated.  Never mind that promiscuously allotted respect renders the exhibition of respect an empty gesture.  (Only when judiciously granted does respect mean anything.  For respect that is worthwhile is borne of discernment.)

Relativism lies at the root of this peccadillo.  For to make comparisons of analogous elements between cultures is to risk assessing the relative MERITS OF those cultural elements; and so must be seen as a form of chauvinism.  The supposition–entirely groundless–is that people derive their humanity EXPLICITLY FROM the designated element; and so are INHERENTLY tied to it as if by some cosmic force.  Everyone on the planet is therefore obligated to show “respect” for the element so as to avoid hurting the people who identify themselves with it.  (Make fun of tacos, and one is impugning all Mexicans.)

In the most outrageous instances of anti-Cul-Ap hysteria, comparative critiques of analogous cultural elements is portrayed as an oblique form of “bigotry” (against those who espouse the element deemed inferior).  It’s as if one could be bigoted against a custom; or even racist against a MEME.  And so making judgements about the relative merits of this or that custom is seen as a kind of hubris.  Those engaged in such heretical critiques are even at risk of being assailed for pointing out incontrovertible cultural tendencies (viz. statistical realities that stem directly from prevailing social norms; i.e. those which are embedded in the ambient culture).  For such critiques involve JUDGEMENT; and judgement–especially when it involves brute candor–is off-limits in some circles.

So we find ourselves dealing with a charge that only makes sense if one denies the existence of universal standards.  The cultural relativist must realize, though, that treating everything as sacrosanct does not help ANYBODY.  Pretending that everything has comparable moral valence–and so must be treated with moral parity–is untenable. Some cultural elements ARE objectively better / worse than others; and the standard by which we determine this cannot itself be derived from how much stock any given party happens to place on them.  The notion that there can be no universal standards is not only inimical to cosmopolitanism; it is at odds with Reality.

Stating that something is part of someone’s culture is not to exempt it from judgement.  Civic responsibility demands that we assay which memes most conduce to the kind of society to which we all–as fellow humans–aspire.  This attains irrespective of whether the meme is from our own or another’s culture.  What we want to avoid is cultural CHAUVINISM: the idea that certain memes are better simply by dint of the fact that they happen to come from a certain (i.e. our own) culture.

We cannot pick the culture we were born into; but we CAN choose what we do with that culture.  There has never existed a culture that was pre-ordained; or a person that is tied by some etherial cosmic decree to this or that culture.  The idea, then, is not to compare cultures wholesale (as if any given culture was destined to be as it eventually came to be).  Rather, it is to compare analogous memes–on a case-by-case basis–on their own merits (rather than according to the culture with which they happen to be affiliated, which is–after all–merely an accident of history).  In doing so, it helps to bear in mind that there is nothing inevitable–or ineluctable–about a given culture.

The trappings of ethno-centricity can be found within every ethnic group.  Each culture deals with its own dysfunction in its own way…to varying degrees of success.  Suffice to say: There are pitfalls everywhere.  Those affiliated with any given culture can’t help but contend with the temptation to become self-absorbed; and thereby become smitten with maintaining both a sense of purity and of exclusivity (only WE are entitled to such and such).  It should be borne in mind that racial purity blurs into ethnic purity, which–in turn–blurs into cultural purity.  The prohibition of Cul-Ap entails championing a chronic parochialism…all in the name of “staying in our own lanes”. {23}  Think of all the scenarios in which we have heard some group decree: “Nobody else should be allowed to do this.”  Has such decree ever been issued for noble reasons?  Has it ever led to good things?  In the final analysis, much of the hubbub over Cul-Ap stems from a veiled sense of entitlement.

Indulging in a tribalistic mindset is the most expedient way out of the responsibility to think for oneself.  Meanwhile, whenever there is a preoccupation with the exalted status of the in-group’s rightful claims, the vile penchant for ethno-centricity is always lurking beneath the surface.  This is especially so when a high degree of parochialism prevails.  In the event that others fail to honor the exaltation of one’s own tribe, one can bask in a warm bath of one’s own crocodile tears…and thereby elicit sympathy for one’s veiled cupidity.  (Hubris is tolerated so long as it can be disguised as humility.)

There’s another problem with a program of memetic sequestration.  We short-change the people affiliated with a culture–ANY culture–by supposing they are incapable of overcoming their own cultural deficiencies; and embracing things that might not be indigenous.  As it turns out, we are all human, and so all possess the same capacities to recognize universals.  For, as human beings, we–every last one of us–have access to immutable principles.  Immutable principles, by definition, transcend any and all cultures.  (Immutable principles are NOT social constructs; whereas the elements of any given culture are ONLY social constructs…much as some might like to believe their own sacralized customs are somehow hardwired into the cosmic order.)  One only demeans an ethnic group by supposing its members are uniquely incapable of grasping what are categorically universal principles.  The denial of universals is sheer folly–the hallmark of that untenable epistemological blunder: relativism.

Cultural relativism, it should be noted, is not the same as multi-culturalism.  Multi-culturalism refers to an embrace of ethnic diversity–an embrace, mind you, that involves a sincere interest in learning about other cultures.  Cultural relativism, though, does not require one to know ANYTHING about–nor genuinely CARE about–ANY cultures.  Cultural relativism–like ALL relativism–is characterized only by a dereliction of intellectual integrity.

Happily, multi-culturalism–an integral part of cosmopolitanism, it should be noted–neither requires nor entails one to indulge in cultural relativism.  While discrimination between people is a bad thing (when predicated on anything other than merit), discrimination between memes is an integral part of deliberative democracy; and routine in a free (read: open) society.  Estimable cases of discrimination are invariably based on standards that are categorically universal.  Recognizing when one cultural element is more conducive to the commonweal than another is not a conceit; it is the mark of a discerning mind.

Cultural relativism  is a gross failure of intellectual curiosity–not to mention a complete abdication of rectitude.  (The same might be said of epistemic relativism and its demented cousin, moral relativism.)  It is also a mark of mental laziness.  After all, cognitive exertion is required to critically evaluate any given culture–especially one’s own; and then make judgements about any given cultural element according to universal standards.  (A modicum of perspicacity also helps.)  Note that doing so is NEVER about judging a culture wholesale; as each element must be assessed individually, on its own merits.  Being multifaceted, ANY culture is–invariably–a mixture of better and worse facets.  (A culture is not rendered null simply by modifying one of its constituent elements…or by introducing a NEW element.)

Here, as anywhere, relativism is a cop-out.  After all, mental discipline can be extremely difficult; especially when it requires one to contend with deeply entrenched biases, and overcome conflicts of interest.  For we ALL–every last one of us–have vested interests that sabotage even the most sincere attempts at objectivity.

But the key here is intellectual curiosity (that is: giving a shit about other cultures).  As we find upon even cursory scrutiny, those who level charges of illicit Cul-Ap have no sincere desire to effect inter-cultural comity.  (They don’t even have a genuine interest in learning about other cultures.)  Mutual understanding is not their goal.  Their primary objective is to cavil; and thereby earn brownie points from like-minded compatriots for “fighting the good fight” against those dastardly cultural appropriators.  But the fact of the matter remains: Engaging in an anti-Cul-Ap crusade has NOTHING to do with giving a shit about other cultures.

It is crucial to recognize the ideological distinction between multi-culturalism and cultural relativism if one is to understand Cul-Ap-phobia.  Multi-culturalism is the hallmark of cosmopolitanism.  Cultural relativism is inimical to cosmopolitanism.  This is a difference worth recognizing.  These two oft-discussed-yet-little-understood ideals, then, are unrelated both logistically and morally.  Alas, it is a common mistake on the part of both overt Reactionaries and those on the regressive “Left” (that is: covert Reactionaries) to conflate multi-culturalism and cultural relativism–an irony that is lost on both contingents.

One does not support a culture by refusing to be critical of it.  When assaying any given culture, we invariably find that both human wisdom and human folly are endemic to CULTURE PER SE.

Generally speaking, one should bring a critical eye to that which one most cares about.  (High standards show respect.)  “I think highly of you, so I expect more from you” is the spirit behind the adage: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”  This is why we are hardest on those we love / esteem.  Here, though, we are not referring merely to kin, or even to fellow denizens of a nation-State; we are referring to all humans…as FELLOW HUMANS.  We may not all share a family or nationality, but we all share our humanity.  And that fact must inform all interaction.

Thoughtfully critiquing X is indicative of–as it were–giving a shit about X.  Identifying the salubrious aspects as well as the dysfunctions of a given culture is something that ANYONE is capable of doing; as humanist standards are transcendentally prior to social constructs…which are, after all, just historical accidents.  We are all human, so we are all–pace those with mental handicaps and/or psychopathy–equipped with the requisite cognitive faculties AND moral intuitions to engage in such a critique.  Accident of birth does not confer upon anyone a unique Providential appanage.  For each one of us, all memes present themselves for audit.  (I explore this point at length in my essay: “Contra Identity Politics”.)

In sum: We want cultures to be HEALTHY, not just THERE.  One does a culture no favors by pretending every aspect of it is beyond reproach.  No culture is flawless; as every culture is a reflection of some combination of human creativity and human depravity.  The same West African can wear a beautiful kente cloth while celebrating female genital mutilation.  The same Pashtun can make a delicious pulao while forcing his wife to wear a burka.  The full range of human feats and human foibles are on display in virtually any culture that has ever existed.  It should not be considered “rude” to point this out.

In the final analysis, there exists no culture that needs to be either embraced or eschewed wholesale.  As humans, we are all entitled to assess whatever our fellow humans do.  So long as this is done on a case-by-case basis, we do not risk being unfair.  Coming to trans-cultural encounters from what is ultimately a HUMAN perspective entails that–in the midst of our appreciation for the resplendent variegation of mankind’s social norms–we are all in a position to judge.  Universal standards demand nothing less.  In doing so, it is up to us to employ sound reasoning; and to bring to bear the (universal) moral principles to which we all have access (that is: if we care to look).  Astute discernment requires perspicacity.

In the event that we find an ethical lapse in what we see, those who have a sense of civic duty openly denounce it.  When we really like what we see, we are apt to adopt it.  This process is called “being human”.

When we consider people of other cultures, we should come to the encounter with our shared humanity at the fore.  In other words: While appreciating our differences, it is important to be mindful of what we all have in common.

Cul-Ap-phobia only seems to make sense insofar as cultural relativism is seen as a prerequisite for (or corollary of) multi-culturalism.  That is: It is–like most neuroses–based on illusion.  The fact of the matter is that pluralism does not require relativism.  In fact, pluralism is enabled by the recognition of universal moral principles (that is: a shared vision of what constitutes a civil society).  After all, common purpose is the lifeblood of pluralism.

To conclude: A combination of narcissism and relativism underlies much of the hysteria surrounding Cul-Ap.  To be a Cul-Ap-phobe requires one to be both self-absorbed and oblivious to universal moral principles.  To cure this phobia, one must first address the myopia that underlies it.

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