Cultural Appropriation IV – Bamboozled again (by postmodernism)

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 IV of a six-part series (Part I, Part II, Part III).

In previous articles, I explored the philosophical roots and logical shortcomings of “cultural appropriation”. In this article, I will explain why social justice activists are able to level such compelling and devastating accusations against (white) people that adopt things outside of their own culture.

A philosophical sleight of hand

In a nutshell: social justice ideology, which perceives everything in terms of power dynamics, is (intentionally) misconstruing bad taste as immoral behaviour.

Boring Philosophy Definitions
  • Morality: principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior; the extent to which an action is right or wrong.
  • Aesthetics: a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art; the branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste.
The nature of cultural appropriation accusations

Philosophically speaking, the merits (or lack thereof) of a given cultural expression are not moral issues; they are aesthetic issues. What social justice theory has done is embed artistic criticism within a moral framework, and implied that acting in bad taste is actively harmful to people and cultures. This is a very clever argument, often based on claims of stolen economic opportunity, cultural dilution, or “decontextualization” – these were thoroughly debunked in Part III.

Accusations of cultural appropriation are often deployed by mobs of activists against artists and creators who are ill-prepared to respond effectively. When facing a barrage of public criticism, artists and creators accused of cultural appropriation rarely have the time or media training to understand the nature of the accusation, much less address it constructively.

This “mob justice” approach to artistic appraisal differs significantly from the traditional back-and-forth between critics and artists. The goal of activists, of course, is not to comment on artistic or cultural merit, but to remove cultural expressions they find offensive from the public sphere.

Authenticity is the real issue

As shown in Part III, many of the perceived injustices resulting from cultural appropriation are simply not true in most cases.

The remaining claim, that (white) people will inevitably dilute and erase cultures that they appropriate from, is really a complaint about authenticity (and to a lesser extent, cultural preservation).

“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) –

Authenticity is a concept with a couple of different meanings. For example, the question of whether or not a work of art is authentic (i.e real, not a forgery) could be a moral issue if someone is attempting to pass it off as the real deal. There is another meaning to authenticity, however, and this is whether or not a work of art is a genuine expression of what it claims to depict:

Whenever the term “authentic” is used in aesthetics, a good first question to ask is, Authentic as opposed to what? Despite the widely different contexts in which the authentic/inauthentic is applied in aesthetics, the distinction nevertheless tends to form around two broad categories of sense.

First, works of art can be possess what we may call nominal authenticity, defined simply as the correct identification of the origins, authorship, or provenance of an object, ensuring, as the term implies, that an object of aesthetic experience is properly named.

However, the concept of authenticity often connotes something else, having to do with an object’s character as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs. This second sense of authenticity can be called expressive authenticity.

– Denis Dutton, “Authenticity in Art” (essay link) –

This is a valid criticism – for example, if a chef makes a certain type of food, but radically alters the recipe and still tries to claim it as “traditional cuisine”, that’s inauthentic and in bad taste… but still not a moral issue. However, it would be quite reasonable for a critic to make the claim that people who are genuinely interested in food from that culture should steer clear of such a restaurant.

Exceptions that prove the rule

We shouldn’t be judging the morality of artistic expression on its artistic merits; instead, we should be judging morality with respect to intent and measurable outcomes. Since most examples of cultural appropriation generally do not harm others (no, aggravation is not really “harm”), we are left with intent.

I think it’s fair to say that artistic expressions that are created or enacted with the specific intent of wounding, ridiculing, belittling, or marginalizing an individual or group would be immoral to some degree. Similarly, expressions that ought to be known as likely to do any of these things would be immoral due to negligence.

Some examples;

  • Blackface (historically, used to ridicule and caricature maliciously; should be obvious that it is deeply hurtful due to this legacy)
  • Indigenous cultural appropriation (same as blackface)
  • Certain slang that has been re-purposed by genuinely marginalized groups (includes homophobic slurs, transphobic slurs, racial slurs)

A word on Motte & Bailey Doctrine

“Motte and bailey is a combination of bait-and-switch and equivocation in which someone switches at will between a “motte” (an easy-to-defend and often common-sense statement, such as “culture shapes our experiences”) and a “bailey” (a hard-to-defend and more controversial statement, such as “cultural knowledge is just as valid as scientific knowledge”) in order to defend their viewpoint.”

The Motte: “We need to be knowledgeable and respectful of other cultures when adopting and adapting their symbols, practices, clothing, food, etc.”

The Bailey: “[Insert almost anything here] is racist and oppressive! Cultural appropriation! Stop what you are doing, and apologize!”

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