Opinion: ‘Cultural appropriation’ – a horrible concept from progressives

 

A phrase progressives increasingly use in debate about language, behaviour, traditions, is ‘cultural appropriation’. The form is typically: “they shouldn’t do that, it’s cultural appropriation.” The basis is that a culture, race, or nation, can ‘own’ an idea, style, word, or language – and that others shouldn’t ‘appropriate’ it. The implication is that cultural appropriation is bad, and that if something involves cultural appropriation then it, too, is bad.

Let’s start at the beginning: without cultural appropriation most of us would still be living naked in caves. Rewind history and consider how detrimental to humanity it would be without cultural appropriation.

Imagine if all things like literature, philosophies, religion, art, clothing, jewellery, medicine, maths, farming – civilisation itself – had stayed only in the culture that developed them. The culture living in mountain caves would look down the valley at their neighbour’s new city and say “Damn, that’s a useful idea. Wish we had thought of that. We really need something after those guys over the river started agriculture. Still, at least we have child sacrifice – nobody can take that from us.”

The monstrosities of colonialism and cultural oppression that went with it cast a long shadow. Europeans pillaged the world of cultural artefacts at the barrel of a gun for centuries, and the anger of that and of continuing racial oppression in countries such as the USA is understandable. But it’s also true that European culture has developed a number of ideas that have transformed the world for the better: liberal democracy, Enlightenment vales and free-speech, the scientific method, modern medicine, evolution, Smithian free-market economics and Marxism. An argument that non-Europeans weren’t allowed to appropriate these ideas would be rightly slammed as xenophobic.

Some make a defence of the concept by talking about “defending their culture”. But this too is xenophobic because it assumes another culture doing a thing you started is demeaning or debasing, or will be the end of that thing.

Others defend the concept by talking about “power inversion.” Traditionally, the more powerful had more freedoms, and some argue that to correct this the less powerful should now have more freedoms. This means that, for example, white culture cannot appropriate from black culture but the reverse is OK. This can sound appealing, but is an obvious form of racism and is very logically weak. It would mean for example that it’s OK for Brits to appropriate from the Chinese and Japanese, but not from Mexicans and Nigerians; and also that we have to keep track of economic indices to follow a constantly changing power ranking. Indeed, the Chinese might well argue that this “you can only appropriate from less powerful cultures” concept seems suspiciously coincident with *them* becoming the largest global culture.

Although not as bad as being a world with no cultural appropriation at all, in a world with one-way-only cultural appropriation we’d better hope that the secrets of peaceful living, better forms of governance, more harmonious religions, are developed in the most powerful cultures – so they can be appropriated by the rest of humanity. We can only imagine the outrage if some country discovers these things, and then says “This is part of our culture, you can’t have it.”

The adoption of aspects of one’s culture by others should be viewed positively – even if it isn’t done with fidelity – and it should never require permission. Somehow we seem to have moved from thinking “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, to “imitation is massively offensive and disrespectful”.

Cultural appropriation in action is a form of cultural assimilation. Throughout history it has been xenophobic conservatives and traditionalists who have opposed assimilation and continue to do so. The widespread appropriation of black urban culture and music in the 1980s-90s was fiercely opposed by the white conservative establishment in the UK and USA, yet now the tables have turned and it is progressives who rail against such things. It’s time to wake up to the mistake we have sleep-walked into – let’s not hear progressives using this xenophobic concept as a debating tactic any more.

* Dr Mark Wright is a councillor in Bristol and was the 2015 general election Parliamentary candidate for Bristol South.

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38 Comments

  • Benjamin Mathis 23rd Mar '15 - 4:44pm

    I’ve not encountered the “cultural appropriation” concept out in the wild. It’s more something you read about in “You couldn’t make it up” articles about loony things that are banned on university campuses.

    As an idea, though, I would absolutely agree with Mark’s take on it. The idea that certain activities, ideas or styles of dress should be the preserve of particular groups is totally bananas – although maybe, since bananas are not native to the UK, I should say nuts. In fact it strikes me that it is the cousin of the equally racist and backward idea that we shouldn’t challenge or criticise misogyny, homophobia or abuse in certain places because “that is their culture.”

    Of course, when a fragment of culture – whether it’s hummus or hip-hop or Zumba dancing, it is good to be aware and acknowledge where it came from and how it came to be – mostly because that way you can get a deeper understanding of what you’re doing – and there are some instances of local culture being exploited and repackaged for (e.g.) the tourist trade that ought to make us all feel a little uncomfortable. But to extend that as the cultural left will into saying that I can’t listen to soul music because I’m white or order a salt beef bagel because I’m not jewish is deeply corrosive and smacks of nothing less than “separate but equal” in the American South.

  • I think that Mark Wright’s comments, while they have a great deal of truth in them, fail to be entirely fair to the other side; and I think this is a case where a balance needs to exist — as a moral, not as a legal matter — between freedom of expression and cultural sensitivity.

    The fact is that dominant cultures have often found it useful, in their attempts to manipulate the image of minority cultures (and especially to portray themselves as more civilised, more educated, more refined, more worthy of power) to reproduce aspects of those cultures in ways which distort, simplify, falsify, and mock them — in short, to reduce a complex and sophisticated culture to a handful of symbols and costumes. This plays into the notion that (say) British culture is the only one worth considering, and everything else is the play of ignorant children and savages.

    Of course culture has no natural boundaries, and people who make use of the artifacts, dress, music, body language, and so forth of another culture may be doing so as an honest homage, or sometimes without even knowing the origin of these things. But from a moral point of view, it is preferable that such “appropriation” (a term I find inappropriate) be done with respect, understanding and sensitivity, without mockery, simplification, or falsification, and, where necessary, with the guidance of someone who does understand the culture well.

  • paul barker 23rd Mar '15 - 5:36pm

    As a practising artist I totally agree with the article but I would amend Progressive to “people who think they are progressive”.

  • Nick Barlow,

    Is there an argument you would like to make? If you don’t like an explanation you could put your interpretation?

  • “Cultural appropriation in action is a form of cultural assimilation.”

    The whole point is that cultural appropriation is the term used for a dominant culture taking from a minority one – there is a context whether you’re ignorant of it of simply being disingenuous. At best, I’m with Nick Barlow. I wouldn’t really expect LDV to run an article like this.

  • There is a positive side; the influence of foreign cultures on our own and vice versa can be a good thing, as we see in terms of music, dance and much else besides.
    There is also a negative side. The attempt by the west to force Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya to become liberal democracies have been disastrous failures. At huge expense both in terms of money and people’s lives we have actually made things worse.
    We would not have made these mistakes if we understand these countries; their history and culture. then we try to impose on them what we think we know best. From a liberal point of view logically it should be best. Democracy and Human Rights is surely what everyone wants? Yet liberal ideas like these do not necessarily come naturally. In the UK these ideas evolved over many centuries and even now there is a great deal of cynicism. At the same time countries like China and Singapore have become role model countries for those of a more authoritarian outlook.
    So I would issue a warning; lets look at this in a balanced way. Many countries are not ready to accept western liberal values and perhaps never will.

  • I think David-1 (23rd Mar ’15 – 5:34pm) and Geoffrey Payne (23rd Mar ’15 – 9:09pm) are really referring to what has been generally referred to “cultural imperialist”, ie. the imposition of one culture’s norm’s on another; rather than the voluntary adoption which I think Mark is referring to.

    If we look back to the history of Christianity in Britain, we can see that the emissaries of this sect, made great use of “cultural appropriation” to incorporate many of the religious festivals and practises of the existing British population into the context of Christianity, thereby showing that Christianity wasn’t (totally) incompatible with existing beliefs and facilitating it’s adoption.

    Likewise we can look at more recent English history and the adoption of: tobacco, tea, coffee and more recently ‘curry’ to the extent that we have created a new ‘fusion’ dish: “Curry and Chips”. Here there hasn’t been a forced imposition on the British people, but a voluntary taking of something and melding it into something new. Something which we’ve been doing for centuries to make the English language one of the most widely used languages in the world today.

    Mark is right we need to be on our guard against those who on the one hand want to see greater diversity but on the other don’t want cultural transfer and blending to occur.

  • I’m actually thinking of things like speaking in a “Chinese” pidgin in traditional panto, where the entertainment arises from the wholesale mockery of a foreign culture.

    The use of concepts, patterns, artifacts, and activities from a foreign culture can be part of an educational experience that broadens minds and makes them more willing to accept diversity. However, it can also be used as a vehicle for barely-concealed racism, or simply be misleading if done without real knowledge of the meaning of the cultural phenomena.

    This is a different thing from cultural imperialism, though often allied to it. It isn’t about imposing one’s own values, but about twisting and misrepresenting the values of another culture to make it seem easy to dismiss.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Mar '15 - 11:17pm

    Mark Wright, an informative post. I agree it is a bad concept – although if people are making fun of other cultures then I wouldn’t like that, but if it is celebrating it then surely that is fine.

    I don’t know a lot about this topic, I just think you are onto something and I see people talking about this concept and ideas such as “power inversion” and it makes me almost afraid to find out more in case I get sucked into what looks like a pretty unproductive debate. 🙂

  • I fail to see how anyone could use this in a UK context, I’m rather surprised Mark Wright has come across anyone using it in normal day to day discussion in the UK (aside from a few people in a minority of university departments who spend their time trying to redefine words in the English language to suit their views).

    The response of most people to someone (on the vast majority of occasions) trying to use this concept in a discussion about the modern UK would be to regard the proposer as ridiculous.

  • With respect, I really think you need to brush up on your understanding of “Cultural Appropriation”.

    Moving to a particularly easy example, it is accurate to describe the approach of those in the US to the culture of Indigenous Americans as Appropriation – because the phenomenon is problematic when the novelty of the culture is adopted and the history behind it ignored/erased. This is particularly true when those appropriating the culture are also those who are responsible for the direct or indirect persecution of those who that culture belongs to.

    To use another example, there’s quite a reasonable argument to be made around appropriation with relation to specific parts of rap music. Again, this art form largely came about as a way of rejecting the music establishment and seeking an alternative, while at the same time being used to give voice to struggles particular to those of the race that “invented rap culture”. The adoption of this by popular white artists has led to music that adopts many of the same stylistic tools, but ignores the history of oppression underneath this.

    Minority culture and majority culture have different values. The majority can welcome others into their culture, because it’s one they own that exists in a society built to their advantage. Minority groups often adopt certain cultures as a defence mechanism, and in these cultures give voice/emotion to a shared history (and often a shared suffering) – the appropriation of the appearance of that culture to serve the majority’s popular interests erodes their ability to communicate this, but also their ability to have said safe space.

  • “The solution to it is actually to not ignore/erase the history behind the appropriation” – you see, this is why I’m suggesting you need to inform yourself on what the phrase actually means. To be fair, you’re certainly not the only one – a huge number of people use the term without really understanding it in order to sound “progressive”. I think this article will help: http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/

    Not all use of minority cultures by members of the cultural majority is appropriation. Appropriation is specifically, as I stated before, ignoring the subtext/history of the appropriated culture. Indeed, that is what the term means, and has always meant.

    St Patrick’s Day is a fantastic example of cultural appropriation – popular culture adopted the holiday ignoring the history and how it has been classically celebrated, to the point where the nature of the holiday itself has been changed by said appropriation.

  • “a number of ideas that have transformed the world for the better: … Marxism”

    Marxism has transformed the world for the better???

    I’m not sure that the victims of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot would agree with you on that one.

  • Nathan

    “St Patrick’s Day is a fantastic example of cultural appropriation – popular culture adopted the holiday ignoring the history and how it has been classically celebrated, to the point where the nature of the holiday itself has been changed by said appropriation.”

    I think you need to spell that one out in more detail, who is appropriating what from whom in this example?

  • Steve Comer 25th Mar '15 - 1:00am

    ….hang on a minute Mark didn’t Christians appropriate the winter solstice festival from the Pagans?

  • Mark Wright

    I’m going to eave the whole Marx (and your description of “Smithian capitalism”) thing well alone as I think that is rabbit hole from which discussion will never emerge.

    Nick/Nick Barlow (are you the same person?) & Nathan

    I think your reading of the original post is very different to me. I read this as a criticism of how a concept was being used by certain people. It sounds like a particular concept is being applied in ever increasing situations.

    The merits of the concept if applied to a very narrow set of circumstances is a different matter. I can see how it has some logic (I’m not saying it is right) if applied to those cultures that have been “swamped” like the native populations of America, Australasia etc where there is a chance of certain cultures disappearing.

    The example cited in the link is not at all convincing.

  • Steve Comer

    “….hang on a minute Mark didn’t Christians appropriate the winter solstice festival from the Pagans?”

    Sort of yes, which is kind of the point. Also why I was interested to understand the argument as to why St Patricks day was a “good example.”

    Actually “the Christians” for the most part were “the Pagans” who had converted. There were evangelists who were not native is Ireland who arrived and converted the existing Pagan population but for the most part they were local converts (/children/grandchildren of converts) so to suggest that they couldn’t change their Pagan Winter Solstice for a Christian winter celebration would be a rather odd demand. It was their tradition (culture) and they can evolve it as they like.

    A lot of this has a rather Byronesk romanticism about it. Rather than allowing life to change and evolve (as it always has) to meet the needs of those living there appears to be a desire to freeze or control certain parts of cultures. This is a very “negative” response to fears about threats to certain cultural aspects you are concerned with, but then the “positive” response is harder work and takes more time.

  • Stephen Hesketh 25th Mar '15 - 1:55pm

    Cllr Mark Wright24th Mar ’15 – 4:54pm
    “@Psi – we’ll be arguing about the “true meaning” of Christmas soon: given that practising Christians are in a minority now in the UK (and an increasingly powerless one; vis. gay marriage, etc), their have a fair argument that agnostics and atheists have appropriated and debased the true meaning of the festival.”

    Mark, I rather think that in relation to your ‘debasing’ point you might wish to look towards ever-increasing commercialisation and gross economic consumption first.

    This is probably common ground between us all!

  • George Potter 25th Mar '15 - 2:36pm

    Well this article is about as fact free and vacuous as others have already stated.

    Cultural appropriation is most definitely a thing and a problematic one. To give just one example, consider the fairly common occurrence of white Americans dressing up as “Red Indians” for Halloween.

    By doing so they reduce dozens of native American peoples and cultures to a single stereotype involving face paint and feather head dresses. That’s not appreciating someone else’s culture, that’s not showing respect for it, it’s just twisting it and reducing it to a costume to be worn for amusement. If you can’t see what’s potentially offensive and disrespectful about that then you’re beyond help.

    It’s also important to note that cultural appropriation takes place in the context of power. Native Americans continue to face discrimination in the US, suffer from entrenched economic disadvantages and die earlier thanks to the health consequences of these factors. The people who appropriate their culture are doing so from a position of power and privilege based on a history of oppressing and murdering the people whose culture they’re appropriating. That is very different from a native American deciding to, for example, dress up as Father Christmas. Context is everything.

    Another way to look at it is the context of a white British person deciding to wear a saree and to put a bindi on their forehead as a fun costume. Britain occupied India for generations and spent a lot of its time there suppressing the indigenous culture – at best by dismissing it as primitive and backwards and at worst trying to stamp it out. And given that a bindi has a specific religious meaning it’s especially offensive for it to be appropriated and used as a costume by people who have no understanding of its significance.

    Someone whose culture has historically oppressed and been dominant over others is effectively continuing that process if they appropriate elements of other cultures as “fun” costumes or accessories without even understanding what those elements actually mean or represent. That’s why it’s impossible to say that’s in any way the same as someone from a historically oppressed culture borrowing an element from another culture.

    Also, to claim that having objections to cultural appropriation means opposing certain people using certain instruments is a complete strawman argument. No one is arguing for that at all.

    But if Mark Wright had the intelligence to understand that nuance then I doubt he’d have written this ill informed article in the first place.

  • George Potter

    So let’s put the North American example aside for a moment.

    So the second example:
    “white British person deciding to wear a saree and to put a bindi on their forehead as a fun costume”

    Who decides when it is a “fun costume?”

    “It’s also important to note that cultural appropriation takes place in the context of power. […] The people who appropriate their culture are doing so from a position of power and privilege”

    So your “white British person” can’t wear this in the UK, but what if they are a not well paid immigrant worker in India? Is it ok then?

    “given that a bindi has a specific religious meaning it’s especially offensive for it to be appropriated and used as a costume”

    So presumably people not brought up in religious environments wearing Vicar Costumes at fancy dress parties is out? And strippers having them as costumes are beyond contempt?

    “Someone whose culture has historically oppressed and been dominant over others is effectively continuing that process if they appropriate elements of other cultures”

    To choose a different example, someone of Turkish decent couldn’t wear a costume of an Orthodox or Coptic Christian priest but could wear a Catholic or Episcopalian one?

    Or one step further can an atheist born to Catholic parents in Belfast wear a Catholic priests outfit as a costume but not an atheist born to Anglican patents Liverpool?

    There seems to be a lot of taking offence at actions when I’m not sure the actual situations have been thought through. Citing St Patricks day and claiming that a religious symbols from one culture are more protected than those of another suggest there is some well intentioned, but not at all clear, thinking behind a lot of these positions.

  • George Potter

    “But if Mark Wright had the intelligence to understand that nuance then I doubt he’d have written this ill informed article in the first place.”

    Well, as I stated above (though don’t know if I have correctly interpreted) Mark may have been commenting on the use of the term by some and may accept it in some more narrow application.

    I wouldn’t presume to speak for him but perhaps you shouldn’t assume his meaning either.

    I would also note that “nuance” is different from “deliberately ambiguous” currently no one looking to explain the concept (including you) has convinced me that it is the first and not the latter.

    Perhaps you should consider your own capability of explaining a concept before you attack someone else as lacking intelligence or being ill-informed because they don’t share your belief in the concept.

  • I think Psi is beginning to put the finger on this matter. The issue is that one group of an ethnic population are making a judgement call on the actions of others in the same ethnic population.

    It would not of surprised me if the pagans that didn’t get Christianity, looked down their noses and made derogatory remarks at those who adopted the new festival of ‘Christmas’ rather than sticking to the ‘traditional’ Winter Solace celebration. However, I expect the few Christian emissaries would of been happy that people were attending their church… However, now we are so much more civilised and advanced to those pagans, the put down can now be framed in a sneery PC way…

    Reading George Potter’s contribution you begin to appreciate just how much the ‘PC’ brigade have been messing around with people’s heads, rather than simply going with the flow. Interestingly, given the ‘PC’ brigade is a minority should the majority of the population adopt their customs? because surely that is just another form of ‘cultural appropriation’…

  • @George Potter

    “Another way to look at it is the context of a white British person deciding to wear a saree and to put a bindi on their forehead as a fun costume. Britain occupied India for generations and spent a lot of its time there suppressing the indigenous culture – at best by dismissing it as primitive and backwards and at worst trying to stamp it out. And given that a bindi has a specific religious meaning it’s especially offensive for it to be appropriated and used as a costume by people who have no understanding of its significance.”

    I think this is a really good example, but not because (as I guess George thinks) it is an obvious example of cultural (mis)appropriation, nor because (as I imagine others in this thread think) it is obviously not, but rather because it’s right on the edge and illustrates where some of the judgment calls have to be made.

    Certainly one can imagine someone wearing Indian traditional dress in a way that mocks or degrades the culture. Used as an item of fancy dress, particularly in circumstances where it would not be normal in Indian culture, e.g. at a nightclub. But is not the case that it would always be inappropriate, or that one can divide appropriate from appropriate by racial considerations.

    For instance, an Englishwoman (say) married into a traditional Indian family might want to or even be expected to wear traditional garb, at least on some occasions.

    Guests at a traditional Indian wedding, or another gathering whose hosts are of Indian origin, might feel it appropriate to wear traditional clothing, and might well be out of place if they chose not to.

    In addition, saris are worn world-wide now, because they are often considered beautiful and stylish garments, and I doubt very much if Indian manufacturers of sari cloth would like any limitations put on their use.

    As for the bindi, though it has had religious significance attributed to it, many people, including Indians, wear it exclusively for decorative value; just as some people Christians and non-Christians alike, wear ornamental crosses without thinking of them as religious symbols. It’s up to the individual, I think, to decide whether the religious associations bother them. Few Jews or Muslims would choose to wear crosses, but I doubt many Christians would be offended if they did!

    In this, as in many such situations, it is a combination of the intention and the execution that matters. Intention is often difficult to judge. Execution requires a degree of intelligence, knowledge, and sensitivity.

    I believe the best approach to such borderline situations is not to issue blanket statements saying “don’t do this because you could offend somebody,” but rather “think and learn before doing this.” Also, perhaps “understand other people’s sensitivities, and be prepared to do something else if objections arise.”

  • David-1

    I think you highlight the problem here. You have examples of behaviour where people are engaging in an alternative form of “blacking up” where they are deliberately trying to offend. But this hardly what seems to be what is being talked about.

    The other, more marginal cases that seem to be refered to are ones that appear to be based upon the “power and privilege” line which is used by some to advance all of there position and demand logic and evidence are not used against them.

    The “power and privilege” arguments are rolled out a lot but as they rely on some form of highly disputed hierarchy of oppression/disadvantage (sometimes purely historic) can hardly be taken seriously.

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