The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

Unintended Ramifications
(The Misplaced Concern About Stereotypes):

The concern about being condescending toward a certain culture is understandable; but only insofar as one is playing fast and free with stereotypes.  By crying “cultural appropriation”, one commits the very crime that one deigns to prevent.  For one assumes a homogeneity amongst the people over which a designated culture supervenes–homogeneity that does not really exist.  Not every member of a given culture is equally wed to this or that cultural element; nor does every member identify with a particular cultural element in the same way (or even AT ALL).  The problem then is with stereotypes, not with a cavalier adoption of–or participation in–exogenous cultural elements.

Any given culture is not demographically homologous.  More to the point: How are we supposed to determine who the gatekeepers of each culture are supposed to be?  This conundrum becomes even more confounding given the fact that even those WITHIN any given culture cannot necessarily agree on what its signature traits might be.  A culture is rarely a homogenous block, as it contains a diverse assortment of constituents, each of whom emphasizes some of its aspects over others.  (Not all Americans identify with baseball and apple pie.)

Every frivolous charge of Cul-Ap is invariably predicated on a regime of “identity politics”  It is never a good idea to divide the world into insiders and outsiders–allotting entitlements and restrictions according to the demographic category in which someone happens to–ostensibly–belong.

The iron-clad demarcation of distinct cultural elements invariably runs into problems of definition.  Those who hem and haw about non-Japanese people eating sushi typically do not even understand what the term MEANS.  As it happens, the moniker is short for “sushi-meshi”, which simply means soured rice.  But wait.  The raw fish content with which “sushi” is primarily associated is actually “shashimi”; while the accoutrements (such as the seaweed wrap) are generally referred to as “neta”.  So is it the RICE with which these kvetchers are concerned?  Or is it the use of seaweed wrap?  Or is it the use of raw fish?  And does this vague prohibition include the dish’s predecessor, “funa-zushi”, which simply involves fermented fish (“nare-zushi”), which–as it turns out–can be found everywhere on the planet?  Would a prohibition against non-Japanese serving sushi include variants like “ura-maki”, “maki-zushi”, and “maki-mono”…none of which, it turns out, are exclusively Japanese?  So what are we REALLY talking about here?  Who draws the lines?  Can NOBODY eat uncooked seafood outside of Japan?  If so, does it need to be consumed separately from seaweed?  Or is the rule that it just can’t be WRAPPED IN the seaweed?

When non-Japanese diners do eat such things, can they do it while watching Gundam?

And by the way, “tempura” was taken from the Portuguese.  So shall the Japanese ALSO be prosecuted for illicit Cul-Ap?  By the same token, we might ask: When Scandinavians eat hummus, is there a reason for Levantine peoples to be thrown into a moral panic?  The repercussions of enacting strictures against Cul-Ap are rarely considered–especially if those strictures were to be applied to everyone (that is: applied consistently).

ALL of this assumes that there exist bright, flashing neon lines between cultures, each of which is a monolith of sacralized customs, belonging exclusively to itself…for all eternity  This is nonsense.  Cultures are AMORPHOUS.  They do not have rigid boundaries; they have hazy penumbras.  They don’t ABUT one another, they BLEED INTO one another.  They merge and diverge.  Lines are fluid and always blurry…which means that there really are no lines. Recognizing a definitive element of a culture is not the same as indulging in cheap caricature.

Moreover, cultures are not monoliths.  The virtue of any given culture is that it is NOT monochromatic; it is a melange of memes, incorporated into its repertoire at different times from different places.  This semiotic kaleidoscope belies the notion that cultures are homogenous blocs with clear-cut edges.  The exact position of the boarder between THIS culture and THAT culture is oftentimes illusory.  As Steven Lukes put it: “Cultures are never coherent, never closed to the outside, never merely local, and never uncontested from within and from without” (ibid.)

Haphazard cultural hybridization is what culture IS–indeed: what it has ALWAYS BEEN.  Culture could not possibly be anything else.  Lukes put it well: “The idea that cultures are wholes, rather than clusters or assemblages of heterogeneous elements with varying origins, is a systematic exercise in the reduction of complexity based on mythical thinking” (ibid.)

Cultures are effectively man-made (memetic) ecosystems, each with its own climate and landscape; each with a unique–and fluctuating–set of environmental conditions.  That is to say: Cultures are concatenations of elements originating from different places and times under different circumstances…for a variety of reasons that not immediately obvious to the adopters.  They are amorphous: more like a swirling kaleidoscope than a static mosaic.

The problem with demonizing Cul-Ap, then, is how one is to precisely demarcate the source-culture for any given meme.  For memes percolate up from the roiling stew that is the meme-o-sphere, crystalizing here and there (due to one historical accident or another).  Memes then shift from one cultural context to another in response to subsequent accidents of history.  It’s contingency ALL THE WAY DOWN.

A memetically-quarantined culture is a stagnant culture.  Worse: Demanding that everyone “stay in line” is tantamount to a mandate for cultural segregation.  We might note that such an attitude is nothing new: Progressives have always had to contend with Reactionaries who’ve insisted everyone “know their place”.

This is an unreasonable request in a globalized world–wherein people are eagerly interacting with one another, seeking to embrace anything that is new and appealing.  This should remind us that culture is amorphous–with blurry edges.  It mixes with other cultures and undergoes a metamorphosis–sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but usually in utterly innocuous ways.  The result is that what many perceive as an emblematic element of a particular culture is really not what they fancy it to be.

Due to the fact that cultures have fuzzy boundaries, proscribing Cul-Ap becomes an quixotic task.  Where cultures begin and end is not only indeterminate, but perpetually in flux.  Each culture is comprised of a fluid amalgam of myriad elements, any one of which might be shared with various other cultures.  As the numerous examples provided here attest, any given meme probably has a history that does not immediately announce itself.

Myriad things that are now found in the Muslim world were appropriated from non-Islamic cultures.  The “shura” council (a term used as the title of Surah 42 of the Koran) is an adaptation of the Turkic “khurultay”…which was itself taken from the Mongolian “Khooraldai”…which was Tengri-ist before it was Islamic.  This reminds us that cultures often blend into one another–nay: SEEP into one another.  And so navigating the interlaced border between MY culture and YOUR culture is a byzantine task.

Tying culture to a demographic is not just untenable due to the indeterminate nature of CULTURES; it is untenable due to the indeterminate nature of DEMOGRAPHIC GROUPS.  For who’s to say where any given group begins or ends?  In a world where one demographic blends into another, one is obliged to pretend demographics can be discretely defined.

In reality, the boundaries of a given group–however defined–are vague and in perpetually in flux.  One therefore encounters the same issues as when one tries to define phenotypic populations in terms of RACE.  That is: One is forced to concoct social constructs ad hoc, based on superficial criteria–criteria that have no discrete boundaries.  If red people are allowed to tap-dance but not blue people, then what about purple people?

So the notion of collective ownership of a meme–especially along demographic lines–is LOGISTICALLY untenable, as the designation of WHO, exactly, the (purportedly) rightful owners might be is impossible to pin down.  Stewardship is ephemeral, and forever elusive.

When one impugns those engaged in Cul-Ap by recourse to “cultural ownership”, one is in danger of not merely cultural essential-ization (insisting that cultural elements are INHERENT TO a certain population), but of ETERNALIZED cultural essential-ization (insisting that those cultural element must remain proprietary for all time).  This only seems to make sense if we forget that the constituent parts of any given culture are what they are by sheer accident of history; and that OUR culture is OURS by sheer accident of birth.  In the end, we’re all human; and so are all equally entitled to try the memes of the world on for size.

In any case, countenancing signature features of a culture is not stereotyping; it is simply acknowledging statistical reality (paying heed to a prominent element of a culture, or even paying tribute by amplifying one of its hallmark features). If one wants to call this a stereotype, then so be it. The point is that one does not CHEAPEN the portrayal of culture by blithely caricaturing it in a way that MIS-represents it.

To suppose Cul-Ap is morally dubious, one must also pretend that cultures are static, and discretely-defined.  In a clumsy attempt to deter stereotypes, the Cul-Ap-phobe ends up propounding them.  Insofar as the culprit may ACTUALLY be countenancing a stereotype, the complainant ends up VALIDATING the stereotype…even as he haughtily denounces the act of countenancing it.  (One is reminded of those who deal with a hang-over by imbibing.)

In many cases, the indictment of Cul-Ap focuses on any expression that SEEMS to countenance stereotypes.  This is an eristic complaint.  For the use of stereotypes is unproblematic so long as one is forthcoming about the fact that stereotyping is, indeed, what one is doing.  The “catch” is that it needs to be done without ill will.  Cheeky humor is not taboo in a free society; and we must be permitted to be impertinent when it is all in good fun.

It should be noted that the perpetuation of negative stereotypes works within the domain of satire–where snark is the point.  The only proviso is that, in order to be respectable, it must done in good faith.  While tongue-in-cheek, it mustn’t be mean-spirited.  As with parody, the point is to be open about the fact that the tropes that one is employing are, indeed, tropes; and are being used with a “wink and a nudge”, not with a scornful sneer; for didactic purposes, not to demean.  After all, event the most biting of satire seeks to rouse, not to quash.

Stereotype or no stereotype, one’s ethnic identity has no bearing on what one can and cannot do in a free society.  We should bear in mind that negative stereotypes are oftentimes perpetuated by some of the very people who are the subjects of those stereotypes.  That is to say: In some cases, many of the culprits are members of the group being (negatively) stereotyped; as they are unabashedly EMBODYING the stereotype rather than rebuking it.  Indeed, THEY are the ones who should MOST know better; and it is THEY for whom fellow members of the relevant group should reserve contempt.

At the end of the day, every human is morally obligated to assess every other human AS a fellow human being–based on standards that are universal.

To recapitulate: In order to get an indictment of Cul-Ap to hold water, the complainant is forced to countenance stereotypes.  Thus: Anyone engaged in behavior / speech that happens to superficially correlate with the countenancing of certain stereotypes is summarily accused of promulgating those stereotypes…with (perfidious) ulterior motives ascribed.  The thinking is as follows: “It is something that someone who actually is bigoted might do / say; so you doing / saying it makes you bigoted by association.”  The irony is that such an indictment is ITSELF born of perfidy.  It has the added effect of perpetuating the very stereotypes it (ostensibly) seeks to stymie.

Most of what is derided as Cul-Ap is simply an instance of nescient people propounding puerile caricatures of (certain parts of) a culture based on jejune stereotypes, typically in a sophomoric fashion–with a dismissive scoff–where the aim is to be derogatory.  There is much to be said about what is wrong with such instances, but NONE of it has anything to do with “appropriation”.  Let’s spell it out: The problem with the above is, well, propounding puerile caricatures of (certain parts of) a culture based on jejune stereotypes.  Doing so is callow; it is patronizing; and it is usually based on ignorance.

But suggesting Cul-Ap is the explanation for such problematic conduct only makes things worse.  It confuses the manifestation of the mean-spirited-ness for the cause of the mean-spirited-ness.  (The ill will itself cannot be reduced to the means by which it is conveyed.)  Vilifying those engaged in Cul-Ap because they are being jerks is not an indictment of Cul-Ap.  To ascribe the ill will to the Cul-Ap ITSELF is to miss the point.

Cul-Ap-phobes are not the stalwart defenders of good will they fashion themselves to be; for they are only stoking acrimony–by exacerbating tribalistic tendencies–with their censorious attitude.  It’s as if human solidarity could somehow be engendered via a program of inviolable cultural demarcation.

The frivolous charge exacerbates the very dysfunction it deigns to ameliorate, as it tethers cherished cultural elements to specific groups (which, as we’ve seen, are often racially defined by the complainants).  The repercussion of this is cultural segregation and–even worse–a reinforcement of STEREOTYPES: hardly a recipe for pluralism.

Even worse, in some cases, there seems to be an inadvertent racism undergirding indictments of Cul-Ap as unacceptable–another manifestation of the inconsistent standards already discussed.  Let’s look at some examples where racialist thinking seems to be operative.

According to the commissars of Cul-Ap, even attire must be allotted according to some ethereal license–rendering even wardrobes proprietary.  Sartorial restrictions seem to entail the most obvious reductio ad absurdum.  If a European man dons a turban, from whom is he appropriating: Berbers of the Maghreb, Bedouins of Arabia, Pashtuns of the Hindu Kush, Sikhs of the Punjab, Hindus of India, or ALL of them?  Isn’t it strange that we talk about “Arabs” when the Hashemites, Alawites, and Saudis so often despise one another?  Which one has the most credible grievance, then, when non-Arabs appropriate something that is considered “Arab”?

One might be tempted to respond: All of them.  But this is not the issue.  The point is: What would THEY think?  And, as it turns out, THEY will often tend to disagree amongst themselves.  For each constituency fashions itself as the truest and greatest representative of “Arab” culture.  They are all equally right; and so are all equally wrong.  Hence the reductio ad absurdum of the logic employed by Cul-Ap-phobes.

If a Palestinian man decided to wear tartan fabric whilst a Scottish man decided to wear a keffiyah, is this MUTUAL theft?  Can either of them claim to have been somehow “ripped off”?  Exploited?  In the meantime, can either of them wear a Mexican poncho?  According to Cul-Ap logic, even Latino culture must be divvied into cordoned enclaves; as anyone other than meso-Americans mustn’t don a huipil. If we are to take charges of illicit Cul-Ap seriously, we must suppose that these parties are smuggling memetic contraband. Cultural sequestration, then, would be the only answer: an ersatz solution to an ersatz problem.

The way Cul-Ap-phobes would have it, the cultures of the world would be rendered a network of memetic cordons, separated by impermeable membranes. But wait.  Is the charge of illicit Cul-Ap really about CULTURE?  Let’s pose a few other queries to see.  Can any woman who isn’t Japanese wear a kimono?  As it turns out, yes: any ASIAN women can without receiving much guff.  Can any woman who is not Ashanti wear kente cloth?  As it turns out, yes: any BLACK woman can without receiving much guff.  Can any woman who isn’t Navajo wear a manta?  As it turns out, yes: any NATIVE AMERICAN woman can without receiving any guff.

Suddenly, the true logic of anti-Cul-Ap fervor is revealed.  Cul-Ap-phobia, it seems, is NOT about culture after all; it is about phenotypic features.  For Chinese culture is very AT ODDS with Japanese culture, to put it mildly.  Africans, you say?  The Nubians, Oromo, Swahili, and Zulu are quite far from the Ashanti.  Native Americans, you say?  The Iroquois, Shoshone, Pawnee, and Sioux had little to do with the Navajo.  In many cases, these phenotypically proximal groups spent much of their history fighting and killing each other. (!)  So what’s going on here?  Rather than being based on genuine concerns about protecting the integrity of anyone’s culture, Cul-Ap-phobia seems to be based more on vaguely racialist criteria and categories specious generalizations…all of it concocted ad hoc to suit the purposes of the anti-Cul-Ap crusade du jour.

What of nationality, then?  Even that poses problems.  The Ashanti are Ghanan.  However even fellow Ghanans (e.g. Yoruba, Hausa, Mande, Akan, Fulbe, etc.) are culturally distinct.  YET…virtually no one who complains about Cul-Ap would give people a free pass simply because they have a shared nationality.  The free pass is ONLY given if there is RACIAL similarity.  We should find this standard very disturbing.  For the conditions are now no longer about culture, but about RACE.

Pointing out that a particular custom (be it a social norm or a tenet) is dysfunctional / immoral is not an act of bigotry.  This is true even if that custom happens to be a hallmark trait of a particular ethnicity.  Elements of a culture / creed can be–nay, MUST be–assessed in a way that has nothing to do with harboring contempt for any ethnic group with which that culture / creed may be affiliated.  The indictment of a particular custom (for being either morally-dubious or counter to the commonweal) is not a devious scheme to denigrate an entire community, however that community may be defined.  Being against gulags doesn’t make one anti-Russian.

Criticizing iniquitous practices / dogmas which happen to be rooted in this or that culture does not constitute a crime against humanity.  For one cannot be racist against a meme.  Why?  Because social norms are not humans.  Indeed, what makes us human is not the particular memes we happen to adopt; it’s that we have a choice.

Alas, p.c. aficionados would have us believe that simply noticing social norms within a society (i.e. the signature features of a culture) is somehow a matter of “stereotyping”.  This is erroneous.  Statistical realities are not generalizations; nor are they caricatures.  We might be reminded what makes stereotyping objectionable.  A stereotype requires one to engage in gross generalization, which behooves one to lend credence to a disingenuous portrayal of anyone who might be included in that generalization.  And THAT leads one to pre-judge (read: mis-judge) individuals, according to a fraudulent charge of collective culpability; which can then be used as an excuse for collective punishment.

Hence stereotypes are the lifeblood of prejudice.

But that isn’t what we’re doing when we apply a critical eye to MEMES.  Prevailing trends–insofar as they are recognized AS TRENDS–are not iron-clad laws of the universe; so there is no need to treat them as such.  Whenever an ethnic group happens to espouse this or that custom, it is an accident of history; not an indelible feature of that group.  It is not written in the stars that subscription to certain memes–whether rituals or doctrines–be the basis for any given community’s humanity.

It is worth acknowledging trends qua trends; and investigating how / why they came to be.  During the course of this investigation, moral evaluations are warranted.  Such evaluations are possible because they are conducted according to objective standards–that is: standards that TRANSCEND culture.  After all, moral principles are universal.

So what of gringos dancing the tango?  It’s not deemed Cul-Ap if LATINOS do the tango; yet the Tango is Argentinian.  So if Brasilians do the Tango, it is still technically Cul-Ap.  So shall the Tango be off-limits to all non-Argentinian Latinos?  Likewise, the Samba would be off-limits to all non-Brasilian Latinos?  This is, of course, preposterous.  Each Latin American country has notably different cultures.  (And, in this case, they don’t even speak the same language!)  Yet, according to the logic of Cul-Ap phobia, all Latinos must be considered a monolithic demographic bloc; so it’s fine for ALL Latinos to dance the Tango and the Samba; but maybe not gringos.  Again, we find the issue is more about some vaguely-defined notion of RACE, not about culture per se.  The reductio ad absurdum here should be obvious, as many Argentinians and southern Brasilians are white (mostly Germanic).  The logic implodes in upon itself.

The logic gets even more convoluted the more we inquire.  Can Japanese Brasilians dance the Tango?  Are they “properly” Latino?  Is it because of their Brasilian nationality that Japanese who also happen to be Paulistas get a free pass?  But wait.  Wasn’t the Tango originally Argentinian?  Or was it Uruguayan?  When it comes to who decides to practice this fine art, does it really matter?

Can non-Japanese artists create their own version of anime (geared to a non-Japanese fanbase)?  The use of Japanese-style animation in Kansas is no more meme-theft than is bukkake in Arabia or origami in Iceland.  How about manga for Latinos?  (Shall that be permitted only insofar as Japanese are “allowed” to dance the tango?  Is that a fair trade?)  Should sub-Saharan Africans be allowed to belly-dance?  Can non-Austrians do the Viennese waltz?  Can non-Andalusians learn Flamenco?

Are we to suppose that because a meme started in ONE place, nobody in any other place should be permitted to adopt it?  Or are we to suppose that ethnicity dictates which memes are off-limits to whom?  If Kiwi rugby players perform the Maori / Samoan “haka” prior to a match, are they desecrating Maori-tanga; or are they simply celebrating their country’s heritage?  Such queries can only lead to one conclusion: Anti-Cul-Ap hysteria invariably backfires, undermining the very cause its proponents claim to be helping.

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