The concept of “cultural appropriation” has been making headlines more often in recent years, as social justice ideology becomes more mainstream. The idea that you can steal parts of people’s culture may seem weird to most people, but being accused of cultural appropriation has begun to cost people their livelihoods:
- Two women in Portland were pressured into closing their burrito restaurant after being accused of recipe thievery and cultural appropriation.
- In early 2017, a couple of Canadian writers lost their jobs after an (admittedly poorly-calibrated) editorial defending cultural appropriation was published in Write magazine.
- Pop singer Katy Perry recently sat down with a Black Lives Matter activist to apologize and atone for all the times she’s borrowed aesthetic elements from other cultures during her performances.
- Erika and Nicholas Christakis, professors at Yale, resigned from their posts as residence community supervisors after widespread outrage over a letter Erika wrote about whether or not it is within Yale’s mandate to ban offensive Halloween costumes.
- Cloud Davidson, a restaurant owner in Oregon, was pressured into scrapping his tiki bar restaurant concept and rebranding after receiving hundreds of online complaints about his portrayal of Hawaiian and Polynesian cultural elements.
Clearly this is an issue that needs to be better understood – 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 I of a six-part series.
Part I: Defining Cultural Appropriation
In this article, I will provide a couple definitions of cultural appropriation, as used by social justice activists.
Part II: The Postmodernist/Marxist Roots of Cultural Appropriation >> link
Essentially, activists claim that exchanges of ideas between a dominant culture and a minority culture are characterized by a power imbalance. They claim that this power imbalance leads to the destruction of minority identities, and enables members of the dominant culture to plunder the collective intellectual capital of the cultures they assimilate.
These claims are core concepts of postmodernist and Marxist philosophy, which I will illustrate with quotations from both classic and contemporary literature.
Part III: The Shortcomings of Cultural Appropriation Theory >> link
Although the social justice definition of “cultural appropriation” works quite well in the context of North American Indigenous peoples, there are too many examples where cultural appropriation does not accurately explain the spread of cultural ideas between groups of people.
In Part III, I will expose the shortcomings of cultural appropriation theory by providing numerous examples of cultural idea spreading that social justice ideology cannot explain.
Part IV: A Philosophical Sleight Of Hand
After laying the necessary groundwork in Parts I-III, I will show that social justice ideology, which perceives everything in terms of power dynamics, is (intentionally) misconstruing bad taste as immoral behaviour. This means that activists are trying to solve the wrong problem, and are wasting their time playing a very unpopular, but clearly gratifying, game of whack-a-mole. I will also explore some of the underlying reasons for the blind spots of “cultural appropriation”. One of these reasons is the depressing postmodernist/Marxist zero-sum outlook on human relations.
Part V: In Search of Actual Solutions
Not only are social justice activists trying to solve the wrong problem, their modus operandi of public shaming and outrage isn’t helping fix anything. In the interests of actually improving our society, I provide two examples (one Indigenous, one European) of how “cultural capital” can be preserved for the benefit of the peoples who developed it.
Part VI: The War Against The West
Finally, I make the controversial claim that activists are intentionally misrepresenting the causes of cultural appropriation in order to advance their ideology. I claim that instead of being a concept used to achieve justice for underrepresented groups, cultural appropriation is being used as a siege weapon in the postmodernist and Marxist crusades against Western culture.
What is cultural appropriation?
One of the problems with cultural appropriation is that many activists will refuse to define the term or concept when asked. When social justice activists do provide a definition, it’s often hopelessly vague and subjective.
For example, this Jezebel article contains a definition which is coherent and mainstream enough that we can use it to begin exploring the topic.
[Cultural appropriation is] taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.
As you can see, this is an extremely broad definition that essentially includes any adoption of ideas from a culture that’s not your own. What constitutes ‘unauthorized’? Who can grant permission on behalf of a culture? Can a collective group even have intellectual property? Is there any standard to distinguish between unique elements of a given culture and something that’s entered the proverbial “cultural commons”?
This is the type of social justice buffoonery that opens the door to people’s burrito shops getting closed down, and mobs of angry students surrounding professors at Yale.
Also see Professor Gad Saad’s YouTube video where he provides written permission from many countries to adopt their foods and cultural practices, effective for the rest of his life.
More practical definitions of cultural appropriation
Thankfully, the Cambridge Dictionary provides a more robust definition of cultural appropriation as well.
[Cultural appropriation is] the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.
This seems to make more sense. Whereas social justice warriors talk about “harm” and “theft”, more mainstream definitions suggest that the real transgressions come from a lack of understanding, respect, and familiarity with context.
A number of celebrities have also discussed cultural appropriation, and Nicki Minaj’s commentary on Miley Cyrus’ use of twerking is a good example of the Cambridge Dictionary definition in practice.
“You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important?
Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.”
The last quote I’ll provide is from a Métis filmmaker, who illustrates the concept of cultural appropriation through a theoretical inverse.
“For me, the definition of appropriation originates in its inversion, cultural autonomy. Cultural autonomy signifies a right to one’s origins and histories as told from within the culture and not as mediated from without. Appropriation occurs when someone else speaks for, tells, defines, describes, represents, uses, or recruits the images, stories, experiences, dreams of others for their own. Appropriation also occurs when someone else becomes the expert on your experience.”
In Part II, I will explore the philosophical foundations of cultural appropriation.