Cultural Appropriation II: The Postmodernist / Marxist roots of cultural appropriation

The concept of “cultural appropriation” has been making headlines more often in recent years, as social justice ideology becomes more mainstream. What’s the big deal about cultural appropriation? Is it really as bad as social justice activists claim it is? And, if so, how can it be addressed?

This is Part II of a six-part series (Part I here).

Underlying assumptions regarding cultural appropriation

The social justice definition of cultural appropriation explored in Part I has four underlying premises. These can be seen as criteria that have to be met, in some sense;

  • First, that you can steal or plagiarize ideas from another cultural group;
  • Second, that there is some kind of incentive or one-sided advantage for doing so;
  • Third, that this could reasonably be considered harmful to the culture being “stolen” from.
  • Finally, that taking other cultures’ ideas in this way maintains a structural power imbalance between dominant (oppressor) cultures and minority (oppressed) cultures.

To many, white people making burritos is just a natural consequence (and even a positive outcome) of multiculturalism. Being able to experience and participate in other cultures is surely a good thing, right?

However, if you accept the above four premises, as social justice activists do, opposing instances of cultural appropriation becomes a way of mitigating harm to marginalized cultures – and therefore an important component of activism.

It is important to note that there are examples where all four of these assumptions are reasonably satisfied. An example that will be explored in-depth later on is the case of Indigenous peoples in North America. However, outside of this example, accusations of cultural appropriation rapidly fall apart in coherence.

The philosophical roots of cultural appropriation

Like many concepts in social justice activism, cultural appropriation has its roots in postmodernist and Marxist philosophy. In this section, I’ve provided some brief excerpts from foundational philosophical works to illustrate why social justice activists think the way they do.

According to postmodernism, identity groups are constantly competing for power, and discourse between groups is a zero-sum “language game”

One of the core ideas of postmodernism is that culture is an arbitrary accident of birth, and that we are naturally inclined and incentivized to see our culture as “the best”.

In his book The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard claims that things such as “science” are actually just constructs of Western civilization. These “grand narratives” imply that such things like objective truth exist, and that humans can work towards it.

Postmodernists like Lyotard and Richard Rorty claim that the Western focus on things like “objective truth” and “rational discourse” is just one way of seeing the world, and that there are other philosophical/cultural points of view that are no better or worse:

When we consider examples of alternative language games – the vocabulary of ancient Athenian politics versus Jefferson’s, the moral vocabulary of Saint Paul versus Freud’s, the jargon of Newton versus that of Aristotle, the idiom of Blake versus that of Dryden – it is difficult to think of the world as making one of these better than another, of the world as deciding between them.

When the notion of “description of the world” is moved from the level of criterion-governed sentences within language games to language games as wholes, games which we do not choose between by reference to criteria, the idea that the world decides which descriptions are true can no longer be given a clear sense.

– Richard Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity) –

“There is no language game or genre or discourse which is able to encompass all the different discourses or genres, and there is a real differend in which no court or tribunal is able to decide what is best because there is no best way.”

– Jean-Francois Lyotard (in conversation – link) –

However, if you believe that different cultures have equally valid viewpoints, or that it is impossible to evaluate the merits of any given set of beliefs, this implies that the dominance of one culture is the result of their power to impose their “narratives” on others, not because of the natural superiority of their ideas.

This is better known by the term “cultural hegemony”, a Marxist concept invented by Antonio Gramsci. Essentially, cultural hegemony is the process where the ruling class manipulates and controls the culture of a society to justify the (oppressive) system.

Ideas and opinions are not spontaneously “born” in each individual brain: they have had a centre of formation, or irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion-a group of men, or a single individual even, which has developed them and presented them in the political form of current reality.

– Antonio Gramsci (Selections from the Prison Notebooks) –

It is from this perspective that social justice activists (and postmodernists, and Marxists) argue that the dominant culture of a society is not only arbitrary, but oppressive and self-perpetuating.

However, even Richard Rorty, one of the original postmodernists, provides the caveat that dominant cultures are not without benefit, and that perhaps some aspects of the dominant culture consist of genuinely good ideas.

“A large part of Foucault’s work – the most valuable part, in my view – consists in showing how the patterns of acculturation characteristic of liberal societies have imposed on their members kinds of constraints of which older, premodern societies had not dreamed.

He is not, however, willing to see these constraints as compensated for by a decrease in pain… my disagreement with Foucault amounts to the claim that this decrease does, in fact, compensate for these constraints.”

– Richard Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity) –

If culture is a way to perpetuate one’s power, then “multiculturalism” becomes theft

These philosophical underpinnings inevitably lead to claims by modern social justice activists that the multicultural Western society was only made possible by the exploitation and oppression of minority groups.

Moving away from dusty old tomes written in the mid-1900’s, here is a contemporary article talking about food.

“White folks have the power to torment, often without consequence; but the special thing about White people is that they also have the power to make a trip to your home country for a month or maybe twelve, get inspired, and dictate when your previously unpalatable dishes suddenly become socially acceptable, trendy, and profitable in the Western world. And inevitably, with the popularization of certain ethnic dishes, comes erasure.

I can’t help but wonder, what becomes of dishes when they are prepared for the white gaze – or in this case, white palate? What remains of food, after it’s been decontextualized? What are flavours without stories? What are recipes without histories? Why are people of colour forgotten, over and over again, while their food (also: vocabulary, music, art, hair, clothing) are consumed and adopted?”

– Lorraine Chuen (Food, Race, and Power) –

From Lorraine’s viewpoint, the success of our “multicultural” Western society was only made possible by the exploitation and oppression of minority groups, and the practice of cultural appropriation is a tool used by the dominant (Western) culture to pick and choose desirable elements from the cultures it destroys and assimilates – thus perpetuating its dominance.

Obviously, Lorraine’s claims contain a number of leaps of logic.

  • Does one need to know Japanese history to fully enjoy sushi?
  • Does being Chinese (or Mexican, or Example-ese) grant you a better perspective on culinary dishes of your culture?
  • Do caucasians have a magical power to snap their fingers and “dictate” when something becomes popular?
  • Is there a possibility that ideas catch on because they are genuinely good ideas, not because caucasians universally decide they haven’t caused enough harm to minority groups?

These shortcomings and questions will be explored in Part III.

Regardless, hopefully all of the concepts in this article explain why social justice activists claim that you can steal or plagiarize ideas from another cultural group, doing so creates a one-sided win/lose scenario, and should be considered harmful to cultures being “stolen” from.

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