The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

The Contorted Logic Underlying Cul-Ap-Phobia:

As mentioned, ignorance–and a smug embrace OF that ignorance–is at the root of Cul-Ap-phobia.  Upon hearing Cul-Ap-phobes rail against the “appropriation” of this or that cultural element, one can be quite certain that they do not have a keen grasp of what they are talking about.  One can also be quite certain that they have no genuine interest in learning the history of the culture-in-question, let alone in fostering pluralism.  As I hope to show presently, the rationalization for their grievance is utterly specious; and their attitude is antithetical to cosmopolitan ideals.  Their gripe only advertises an ignorance of what culture PER SE is; as well as a glib disregard for how any given culture forms (their own or anyone else’s).

Meanwhile, those of us who DO understand how culture works should not put up with such nonsense…let alone accede to unreasonable demands to never participate in exogenous cultures.  For unless one is a nudist, one is almost certainly engaging in Cul-Ap every time one puts on an article of clothing.  Lest one refrain from exhibiting ANY art, and playing ANY music, and eating ANY food, and dancing in ANY way, it is inevitable that Cul-Ap is involved in one’s everyday life.  We can say the same thing about the culinary arts or architectural / interior design or religious rituals or holiday celebrations or literature or film or countless other things that have become part of this or that culture…anywhere…at any time.  Indeed, a concatenation of cultural appropriation is what any given culture IS.

In a milieu roiling with Cul-Ap-phobia, avoiding charges of Cul-Ap requires cultural segregation–something that is antithetical to cosmopolitan ideals (and that is diametrically opposed to multi-culturalism).  For in order to prevent that which is deigns to prevent, we are forced to erect barriers between memetic enclaves.  Rather than involving the (intentional) segregation of PEOPLE, this involves the (de facto) segregation of behavioral norms.

Commissioners of this dubious municipal ordinance are not seeking to prevent people of different cultures from intermingling; they are simply positing a kind of (strictly circumscribed) collective meme-ownership.  What they prescribe is not DEMOGRAPHIC Apartheid; it is, instead, a kind of SEMIOTIC Apartheid.  It’s hard to know which is worse. <<

So what does cultural segregation entail?  It is, effectively, a regulation of deportment based on memetic inheritance.  The ordinance is: Indigenous memes only!  It’s as if by adopting–or temporarily partaking in–a cultural hallmark from outside one’s own culture, one is somehow engaging in some sort of meme-embezzlement.  Are those engaging in Cul-Ap somehow “taking advantage of” denizens of the (purported) source-culture?

So what of instances of Cul-Ap that ARE–arguably–exploitative?  Even then, the problem is the exploitation, not the Cul-Ap itself.  The fact is that virtually anything can be done with sneering condescension.  The key, then, is: What is BEHIND the act?  (Indeed, ANYTHING can be done in bad faith.  If I do X in bad faith, the solution is not to forbid X; the solution is to entreat people to do X in good faith.)  When creative exploration of other cultures transmogrifies into creative exploitation, we have a problem.  But the problem is the EXPLOITATION.

Should Germans feel exploited every time Yo-Yo Ma performs one of Bach’s cello suites?  Why not?  Because there is not exploitation going on; only Cul-Ap.

Cul-Ap-phobes call for a scenario in which each culture stakes its claim on a constellation of consecrated memes.  These are–by dint of this tacit claim–designated as memes that anyone else is prohibited from adopting, or even participating in.  They might be reminded that a cordoned-off culture is an insular culture.  Moreover, a hermetically-sealed culture is a culture held in stasis.  It seems that those who vilify anyone engaged in Cul-Ap would be content if all the world’s cultures were to languish in a state of enforced parochialism.  We should bear in mind that the entire point of pluralism is to eschew notions of cultural purity.

In reality, forbidding cross-pollination between the world’s cultures would bring all cultural flourishing to a halt.  The fact is that, when it comes to cultural globalization, trans-cultural diffusion is ubiquitous.  After all, that’s what happens when global human solidarity prevails.

Is the license to partake in a designated cultural element–insofar as the element can be discretely defined–transferable?  On who’s terms?  What would the conditions be for transferring such a license?  In positing this ersatz crime, one is forced to posit collective ownership of a meme (alt. monopoly power over a meme); which is nonsensical.

The constables of meme-sequestration aim to protect the declared inventory of memes like skittish security guards posted at a warehouse that has been put under quarantine.  They obdurately insist that each culture–insofar as it can be discretely demarcated–be cordoned off.  Such memetic cordons are necessary, we are notified, lest those of the dominant culture persist in their domination with impunity.

This a really, really bad idea.  Not only does it fetter the lifeblood of culture (memetic cross-pollination); it exacerbates cleavages–nay, FISSURES–along cultural lines, thereby engendering tribalistic mindsets.  This can’t help but lead to the fragmentation of a polis based on ENTIRELY ARTIFICIAL (read: un-necessary) boundaries.  Put plainly: Segregation of cultures leads to segregation of PEOPLE along cultural lines.

Some who clearly do not understand what culture IS or how culture WORKS have offered half-baked definitions of the dastardly Cul-Ap–typically having to do with TAKING something called “traditional knowledge” (a nonsensical term if there ever was one) or “cultural expression” without permission.  Permission from WHOM, exactly, cannot possibly be specified.  Such unauthorized-use-of-meme, we are notified, may include the illegitimate use of an exogenous culture’s music, dance, dress, cuisine, folklore, and LANGUAGE.

Wait.  Language?

What on Earth could this possibly mean?  We should bear in mind that language is part of culture.  So we engage in Cul-Ap whenever we make use of a term or phrase from any language that is not the lingua franca of our homeland.  (Call it lexical cooptation, something that every vernacular has done since the beginning of speech.)  English, for example, is an amalgamation of Norman (i.e. French) and Germanic vernaculars–with an infusion of Vulgar Latin, Koine Greek, and Old English.  Lexical cooptation has occurred with virtually every language that has ever existed.  So unless one speaks Classical Chinese, Sanskrit, Old Turkic, Avestan, Sumerian, Aramaic, Coptic, Koine Greek, Vulgar Latin, Old Norse, or Old Gaelic, one is engaging in Cul-Ap every time one opens one’s mouth.

Some Cul-Ap-phobes warn against taking someone else’s “cultural knowledge”.  But how can one “take” knowledge?  And what in heaven’s name is “CULTURAL knowledge”?  Does it mean knowledge ABOUT a particular culture?  It cannot possibly mean such a thing, as knowledge of other cultures is a GOOD thing.  In any case, as with any other knowledge, when one acquires it, one has not TAKEN it.  (Supposing knowledge can be “taken” requires one to traffic in epistemological nonsense.)

What, then, could this queer locution possibly mean?  Are we to suppose it is possible for a designated “culture” to OWN certain knowledge?  If knowledge can be said to BELONG TO a culture, then we are ascribing agency to an abstraction.  Shall we suppose that social constructs can have agency?

Progress is effected–in part–by allowing new (i.e. foreign) memes to penetrate one’s own memetic orbit.  An open society asks that people be willing to adopt an exogenous cultural element whenever doing so might–in some way–enhance their own culture. {6}  We might note that in an open society, such an eventuality is seen as unproblematic–even serendipitous.  After all, cosmopolitanism is predicated on the recognition that one’s own culture does not have a monopoly on all the good ideas; and that we are all better off when we embrace each-other’s attainments.

Naturally, riffing off of something that others take seriously will sometimes be taken as a kind of blithe devaluation.  In such cases, the designated culprit’s cavalier gesture–BECAUSE it is done cavalierly–is seen as an affront; or even as indolent.  Understandably, perfunctory emulation (the mercurial “just for the fun of it” mimicry that is an entirely self-involved exercise) can be seen as patronizing by those who have consecrated it (i.e. those who see it as uniquely THEIRS).  “We define ourselves by X; whereas you are simply trying X on for size.”  Hence the participant in appropriation is perceived as condescending.  (“It’s a triviality for you; but it is very important to THEM.”)

“You’re participating in–or temporarily adopting–X just for the heck of it; but X matters a great deal to us!”  Shall such disparity in valuation preclude all Cul-Ap?  No–for two reasons.  First: One party’s ability to enjoy the full sanctity of X is not undermined by another party’s cavalier treatment of X.  (The religious fundamentalist is not stymied in his doctrinal fealty by the casual observer of the same Faith.)  Second: In a ham-fisted effort to STYMIE stereotypes, one is forced to base one’s grievance on them.  To reiterate the point: All members of a society do not define themselves according to the same cultural elements.

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