Cultural Appropriation: A Detailed Reply to a Critic

Cultural Appropriation: A Detailed Reply to a Critic October 5, 2015

(Update: at editor request, I’m anonymizing the critic to whom I am responding. They have been renamed “John Doe” for purposes of this post.)

(Because this is a very long grinding point-by-point reply, I have also posted a more readable summary. Unless you’re interested in the gory details of this blogfight, or you really like my writing style when I ramble, you should probably read that summary rather than this. But since John took the time to summarize the controversy I thought he deserved a detailed response.)

Dear John Doe:

Dear Tom Swiss, Unlike Jason [Mankey, Patheos Pagan channel editor] I do not believe that we live in a country of “free speech.” If that were true, we could yell “fire” in a packed movie theater, and “faggot” when a punch is thrown, and Westboro Baptist Church could picket fallen soldiers funerals, and it be “free speech.” In truth the First Amendment about free speech applies to legislative bodies and to the press, and we see overwhelmingly how that is often wrangled.

Thank you for starting off honestly with a declaration that you do not believe in the value of free speech. I have to admit that it does take some courage to reject a fundamental Constitutional value of the nation in which you live. It puts the rest of our dialog in a clear focus: you have taken a stance in opposition to one of my own core values, something for which I might be willing to give my life.

Almost twenty years ago I wrote, “If the only thing that sets us apart from the other apes is an advanced capacity for language and communication, than any attempt to reduce our communication can only be seen as an attempt at forcible de-evolution.” I still believe that.

That suggests that you and I are unlikely to find rapprochement, and at best might come to regard each other as worthy adversaries. I think we both identify with the political “left” as we understand it, but yours is apparently an authoritarian left and mine a libertarian left. (A small-l libertarian, as in “civil libertarian”, not related to the sophomoric “Libertarian Party” in the U.S.)

That’s a large gap, and so any answers I give are unlikely to satisfy you. I suspect we both realize that we are mostly “playing to the gallery” here.

But I would suggest that you research Schenck v. United_States and how the “fire in a crowded theater” line comes from an argument used to convict anti-draft protesters during World War I. I don’t think you’ll want to use that phrase once you understand its history — and perhaps that will prompt you to reconsider some other things about freedom. We can, in fact, yell fire in a crowded theater. If there is a fire and we warn others about it, doing so can be heroic.

And thank you for giving me a clear set of points to address, for effectively summarizing the controversy. I will try to take them one by one.

These posts (this one and the summary) plus the original and my first reply will make about 10,000 words from me on the topic over the past week or so. So I think I’ve taken up enough of the air in the room for now. Rather than continue to repeat the same points over and over, once these are up I don’t plan to make any further public comment on the subject for at least the next two weeks.

I do hope that this controversy might inspire useful dialogue about how we can respect other cultures, deal with racial injustice, and promote the rights of all people; how we can build a genuinely inclusive and inviting movement for social justice and liberation, rather than a machine for personal criticism. Part of the reason I’m going to step back for a moment is to make space for that dialogue happen, rather than feeding that personal criticism machine — be it targeted at me, or at John Doe. Let’s yell at each other about ideas, not about people.

I’ve done what my Great and Good Lady Eris Discordia requires of me, and thrown the Golden Apple into the room; it’s up to the rest of the folks who care about this to decide who is the prettiest one.

Maybe I’ll move on to a nice safe topic. Like gun rights.

(A side note to the gallery: I don’t usually do this, but since my personal reputation is being sullied by baseless accusations I’m going to explicitly ask that if you find merit in this post, you share it on the social media platform of your choice.)

The right to question definitions and theories

1: Why do you feel you have the right to redefine what Cultural Appropriation is from noted scholars and marginalized and oppressed people?

I have to admit to being baffled by the premise of this question. I didn’t give any definition of “cultural appropriation”, so I’m not sure how I redefined it. Also I’m not aware that marginalized and oppressed people have all come together and agreed on a definition for this neologism, or that it’s a useful way to talk about the problems they face.

Here’s a useful definition quoted in Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao’s Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation: “the taking — from a culture that is not one’s own — of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowing”.

But as already discussed, “intellectual property” is viewed by many as a null concept. We don’t need a new word to describe taking artifacts, “theft” is quite sufficient. The idea that one can “take” history or ways of knowing away from someone else is questionable at best; if I learn the history of a different culture, it does not prevent a member of that culture from knowing that same information. So this definition illustrates the hodge-podge of problematic concepts in play.

Some scholars do believe that it is a useful theoretical construct, certainly. Some critics disagree. (You don’t think it’s just me, do you?) In fact, even as they seek to explore the idea, Ziff and Rao note “This simple description bristles with uncertainty.”

As for what gives me the “right” to question this or any idea, I find arguments from authority unmotivating. I believe we need to actually examine ideas themselves, that anyone has the right to challenge an idea and to have their arguments assessed through critical inquiry, not on status or authority. Yes, I will sometimes fall short of this aspiration (you might even catch me doing so here!), and there are practical limitations because we can’t hear everyone at once. We certainly need to do a better job of making sure people from marginalized cultures — and we need to include not just race and religion but class there — have the ability to hear their arguments heard! But my goal when doing philosophy or politics is equality for all before the processes of logic.

Now, with that comes the responsibility of everyone to make reasoned arguments, and not to claim to be exempt because of status — either high status or low status. Whether you are rich and powerful or marginalized and oppressed, if you make a bad argument it is still a bad argument. (Again, yes, I will sometimes fail to put this into practice.)

In short: I have the right to question the definitions and theories put forward by others because I am a human being, and all humans have that right, regardless of their status or the status of the one proposing the theory.


Not a helpful movement

And in doing so do you not see how this de-validates the entire foundation of a movement in the process and the work being done? Do you not see the impact that how being a public Pagan on Patheos directly affects the wider community.

First, I think that you are greatly overestimating the importance of Patheos Pagan. (Sorry, Jason!) It’s great and all and I’m happy to be here, but as a place to stand to move the world…let’s face it, I don’t think it has a lot of leverage. I suspect that vast majority of Pagans don’t even know we exist, much less read any of our blogs with any regularity.

More importantly I think you are overestimating the size and relevance of the “movement” of which you speak. I don’t think you realize that outside of the “social justice” (scare quotes intentional) blogosphere and the softer parts of academia, the term cultural appropriation is often something mentioned ironically, with a shake of the head.

And I don’t mean by reactionary conservatives, I mean by people with a genuine concern for justice and equality. I mean by people who understand and are ready to work against things like police violence and mass incarceration, the systemic racism in the “criminal justice” system (scare quotes intentional), voter ID law shenanigans that would make Nixon’s dirty tricks squad blush, the grinding poverty on Native American reservations, the way in which tribal governments have been cheated by the federal government…I could go on, there is certainly no shortage of real problems with a racial component.

But what these people see from your movement is bloggers shaking their finger at white people over personal choices that are irrelevant or at best minor sins. Yes, some of those real problems are cultural or have cultural roots, but yelling at a hippie over their hairstyle is not going to fix them.

I’m sorry but from here this does not look like much of a “movement”. If you’re trying to found a social justice movement on a shaky theory, it’s unlikely to get far.

And let me be clear — I want a movement that will help free the oppressed, lift up the downtrodden, and let all sentient beings live to their limits.

I don’t claim to be much of an activist, but I’ve gotten up from my comfy chair a few times. I demonstrated against Gulf Wars I and II, I risked arrest at Occupy Baltimore the night the police-announced deadline ran out, I broke federal law and engaged in civil disobedience when they passed the “Communications Decency Act” in 1996 (okay, you’re not concerned about free speech so maybe that one doesn’t matter to you), and this spring I marched for justice for Freddie Gray and other victims of police violence in front of the machine-gun-toting troops occupying Baltimore.

I’m sure as hell not in the vanguard. I know too many real activists to confuse these little actions with the real thing! But I am ready for a movement that will inspire America to be angelic, and I’d be willing to take a bit of risk for one, to do more than click and retweet, to get up on my feet.

But this ain’t that movement.

If anything, this gets in the way of it.

I believe that accurate and precise language is a precondition of useful work. (When we’re doing politics or philosophy, that is. In poetry and mysticism, of course, artful vagueness, clouds and water, the thrill of the moon half-hidden by trees…you know.) By confusing culture with property, the term “cultural appropriation” is not accurate. By displacing more specific terms like “misrepresentation” or “plagiarism”, it is not precise. So using this concept obfuscates things.

But more than that, there’s the way in which the sort of outrage storm we’re seeing here degrades communication. People are not joining your movement because they don’t want to be subjected to this sort of treatment.

I know that at least two Patheos Pagan writers found at least some iota of merit in my argument, but cancelled posts they were planning for fear of fanning the outrage. Making people keep silent out of fear of being yelled at is a poor recruiting tactic.

In short: in my humble opinion, you’re not helping.

Diversity of opinions

2: That in doing this act, you seemingly have taken no care or consideration for the marginalized population of readers and seekers?

I’ve found that people coming from marginalized backgrounds have a diversity of opinions. (Ahem. Take Ben Carson. Please.) That seems to be something missing from your considerations.

I presume that a reader from a marginalized background can understand something that I wrote and can form their opinion of my ideas, can say “This guy’s got a point” or “Asshole” and click the back button, just the same as someone from a privileged background.

I’m not sure what additional “care or consideration” you want for such readers. Perhaps it relates to your ideas about “dismissal” and “injury”, which we’ll get to below.

3: Have you considered how these writings effect colleagues/peers and the social implication of this, colleagues who not only share blog space with you, but are also fellow writers with you in other platforms. Both Crystal Blanton and I, as well as others, write for Immanion.

Did I expect this to go viral, and sit down and ask myself ahead of time “Gee, I wonder how this will affect other Patheos or Immanion writers?” Of course not. Asking the question now…unless you think that either company has built a market based on some narrow ideological focus, why do you think it has any effect?

Every publisher of significant size has writers whose opinions are at odds with each other. Jeez, have you looked at what’s on the other Patheos channels? We share a site with Bristol frickin’ Palin!

It seems odd to me that you’ve got no problem sharing a site or a publisher with people with radically different views about religion, but if someone disagrees with you about how to conceive of and discuss the problems of racism and oppression, that is somehow ruinous.

There seems to be in your questions a blankness regarding the fact that people have a diversity of opinion about these things. It seems as if you’re almost shocked to encounter someone not in lockstep and assume they must be evil.

“Calling out”, idiots, dismissal, and due process

4: When a rather aggressive article calls out something you wrote, instead of reaching out, say to me with “hey man…I think we have a misunderstanding?” lets connect” Instead you write another article. One that dismissed the marginalized population even further, and calls your colleagues “idiots”.

My second article was not directed at you or at any specific person.

And let’s please retire the phrase “call you out”. Call my bluff, by all means, if you think I don’t have the winning cards in my hand, but “calling someone out” is what precedes a gunfight in a Western. The common usage of this phrase in the “social justice” blogosphere is curious and concerning.

That said, I think you may need to re-read what I wrote about “idiots”:

But first: anyone who somehow read into that article some justification of bigotry, anyone saying “See? Racism isn’t really a problem!” — you’re being an idiot, and you may please leave now…. And on the other hand, anyone who thinks it’s acceptable to throw around baseless charges of racism? Anyone who thinks that if someone questions the best way to understand and fight the problem of racism and comes up with a different answer than you, they must be racist? You are also being an idiot, and you may please leave now.

Unless someone is either saying that “Racism isn’t really a problem!”, or thinks it’s acceptable to throw around baseless charges of racism, this does not apply to them. Unfortunately some commenters do seem to fall into those categories, and I wanted to express my extreme disappointment with that. It was not directed at any specific person or persons.

I hope and expect that it would not apply to any of my colleagues. But if it does? Bluntly, colleague or not, “idiot” is not strong enough censure.

In the original piece I called for the rebuke of misrepresentation, plagiarism, and insult directed at non-dominant cultures. I took swipes at imperialism, slavery, and people who think Confederate flags are cool. I honestly do not understand how you read into that “dismiss[ing] the marginalized population.”

Now, sometimes a specific complaint may be dismissed. In criminal law we don’t simply accept an accuser’s complaint that they’ve been a victim of a crime — we don’t let a complainant determine if a crime has been committed and its nature and its punishment and the guilt of the accused. Rather, we have a system of laws and courts (however deeply, deeply flawed!) to assess the complaint.

We do this because we care about the accused as well as the complainant. We understand that convicting an innocent person is a horrible thing.

Just so, we shouldn’t simply accept the complaint of someone saying they are a victim of a “social crime”, if you will: we should hear their complaint but carefully consider what constitutes such a crime and whether the accused in any given case is guilty. And sometimes that means the complaint will be judged not valid.

We need to understand that while someone may genuinely and honestly feel offended, that does not mean that an actual offense has been committed against them. That applies to, for example, religious conservatives who feel offended by gay marriage; it also applies to, for example, an African-American who feels offended by a white guy playing a Leadbelly tune.

And that’s not dismissing a person or a population. That is due process. I hope that’s a value you share — though I do find some on the authoritarian left to be willing to jettison it, and that’s scary.

“Agency” and obligation to reply

5: Several of your colleagues, reached out to you? Cat, Niki publicly in Disqus thread wanted an answer? Wanted some form of agency and were received with hostility or ignoring. Even Jason publicly was dismissed.

You are using the word “agency” very strangely. I don’t think it includes making someone reply quickly and agreeably to your comments. (If I write a note to a lady on OKCupid and she doesn’t respond as quickly as I want, can I claim she is denying me agency?)

One thing that I did learn from this is that when one is in the middle of a shitstorm of comments and counter-posts and people yelling for your head, it is difficult not just to find the things worth replying to, but also to find your calm center where you can decide what those are, and write your replies in a useful manner. It takes time to digest. Small bites are required. (Small bites of the shitstorm? Yeah, that is actually sort of apt.)

Now, as far as I know there is no rule of internet etiquette that says that someone who writes something you don’t like is obligated to read and respond to your criticisms at all, much less to do so in a certain time frame. I am replying because I do want to be as clear as possible about this, and I want to minimize any “bad blood” within Patheos Pagan. It seems that my timeline for this hasn’t been to your satisfaction, so let me detail it a bit:

I don’t follow every thread on Disqus or Facebook. (Your list of questions, the one to which I’m replying, jumped out at me only because you tagged me.) It wasn’t clear (to me, anyway) what a storm this was until Tuesday. At that time it seemed, from the small bites I’d taken, that some people might be misunderstanding the post because I hadn’t fully developed the thesis — I’d only linked to, rather than discussed, Stallman’s argument about so-called “intellectual property”. And also that some of the commenting was downright execrable — i.e., the “idiots” referenced above.

And yes, I also found — and still find — the whole response, the agreement and the attacks, wondrous and bemusing, inspiring many head-shakes and face-palms, and I took the opportunity to vent about that. So my writing time on Wednesday was spent on that second post. As I said therein, I planned to undertake a review of comments and counter-posts to find the useful ones and reply individually. It was my plan to start that Thursday night.

But I got a note from Jason that night about the behind-the-scenes situation at Patheos. After some discussion this more direct questioning format seemed the best way to proceed (and I do thank you for providing this set of questions), and I started this reply Friday.

And I’m taking my time with it, in an effort to be complete and accurate.

I know the web has made instant gratification the norm, and sometimes I do pop up quick pieces, but thoughtful writing takes time. That’s even more true when one is eating a shitstorm in small bites.

I at no point “publicly…dismissed” Jason. That’s just inaccurate.

Confusing “You said something about racism that (I think) is wrong” with “You are racist”

You might feel I “attacked” you. You might feel I called you a racist?

Were you the one who posted under the title “Tom Swiss, Are You A Racist”? If that was you (I’m asking honestly, I saw the title but to save my blood pressure did not read it (yet) and I don’t remember which thumbnail was next to it) then I would think I was justified in feeling that you called me a racist, yes. Or perhaps you did so elsewhere. I haven’t read everything you’ve written, after all.

I certainly attacked a white power thesis that leads to racism, which was evidenced by the comments from people is appallingly true.

I don’t disagree that some of the comments are leaning a bit racist. (I haven’t read them all, some of them may be appallingly so.) That’s why I made the first part of that “idiots” comment, to make sure it was 100% clear that bigots will find no support from me.

But labeling anything I’ve ever said or written a “white power thesis” is simply absurd. I request that you publicly retract that assertion.

If you want to say that what I’ve written is unclear and could be twisted by “white power” dingbats, or has factual errors about racism, or is poorly reasoned, or is insufficiently critical of the roots of oppression, okay, we could have a legitimate — if heated — debate about that. But using the phrase “white power thesis” here is, to be blunt, shockingly contemptible.

It seems as if you’ve confused “You said something about racism that (I think) is wrong” with “You are racist”. That’s a very serious confusion and I urge you to resolve it.

Right to autonomy, and remorse

What you don’t know is that up until your brouhaha piece, I supported your right to autonomy and agency to publish.

As I was writing my last piece, I had a section that stated as much…but you have yet to show any remorse.

So…now you don’t support my right to autonomy? Is that really what you’re saying, that ideological violators should lose their right to autonomy? I’m not sure what to make of that.

As far as the ideas in question here, no, I do not regret having or expressing those ideas. I do regret some failures of craft in the writing that seem to have led to confusion — though plenty of people seem to have grasped the point immediately. I certainly would have moderated the title a bit if I’d known how many people would, apparently, read only that and not the piece itself! Maybe something like “Deconstructing Cultural Appropriation”. (At least I didn’t go with my first thought for a title: “When I Hear the Word ‘Cultural Appropriation’, I Reach For My Revolver.” That little joke would not have gone over well at all.)

Charges of “capitalizing” and “deflection”

Instead you took the opportunity to capitalize and write about compassion through the lens of white people being shot in a school. I see that as deflection.

The race of the Umpqua shooter or any of the victims hadn’t made the news when I wrote that — and actually I still have no idea the racial makeup of the shooting victims. And if that’s really one of your top concerns about the incident…I can only shake my head sadly.

And capitalize? Do you really think that my reaction on hearing about a mass murder was, “oh, I can get some blog hits out of this. Woo-hoo, here comes a penny from Patheos!”?

(I’d like to point out that to date, my income from writing for Patheos is $0.00. I’m doing a lousy job of capitalizing! Though I think I get a tiny check from them this month for all these pageviews — a click-count fueled in part by all the outrage.)

As I said, I do a mediation lecture every month. (Some past ones can be found at my too-infrequently-updated karate blog, Sky Hand Road.) Writing that was not part of some plot to “deflect” the discussion, it was me going on with my life.

This reads as if you are upset that this blogfight is not consuming all of my heart and mind, that I took time away from it to respond to the world. I’m sorry to say this, but if that’s the case it actually, genuinely makes me sad and I think you might want to check your relationship with blogging. I hope I’ve misunderstood.

Conflating “injured” with “upset”

No accountability to the marginalized people you have injured.

John, the heart of the problem is this strange — indeed, twisted — use of language. This is about a blog post by somebody (yours truly) that almost nobody had heard of before all this, and who will fade back into obscurity when the outrage machine moves on. I didn’t punch anyone in the nose. I did not defraud or defame anyone. I attacked an idea, not a person. (Though I have since then attacked extreme and ignorant commenters, but not specifically by name, only by the ideas that they hold.)

“Injured” doesn’t come anywhere near what’s happened here.

If my post fulfills its intent, if it leads to clearer thinking and better discussion of misrepresentation, plagiarism, and insult, then we all will benefit as those behaviors decrease and people who are not actually doing anything wrong are not inaccurately accused of social crimes. I would expect that any such success would be marginal, of course; it would depend on someone much more influential than I picking up the idea.

But if I completely fucked up and it doesn’t accomplish that goal at all, it is not going to make things worse. No one will be injured. I am just not that powerful.

You seem to be conflating “injured” with “upset”. Yes, a number of people read the article and became upset, that’s certainly true! Some of them misunderstood what I intended to say; as with any such misunderstanding, some of it is due to what readers bring, but some is due to poor craft on my part, and I genuinely regret that.

Others are upset because they understood it but disagree with it. But there is a hell of a difference between “I read something I disagree with and it upset me” and “I have been injured.” It is very problematic and disturbing that some people seem bent on erasing this distinction. (Cf. the whole “trigger warning” discussion.)

Disagreement about most everything

Even Jason brokering these messages, giving you his ‘seal of approval that you are a good person with a [libertarian] bent” is about catering to you, the privileged…while the oppressed still read hate and racism on posts about how they don’t matter.

Jason’s job is to corral his writers. He would be giving his “seal of approval” to any Patheos Pagan writer who was being targeted for criticism. I got a chuckle out of how his wording implies that valuing liberty is a character flaw — he and I have had a few political arguments over the years. But he really is someone who bears ill will to none and tries to put the best face on all of us.

I’ve never posted that oppressed people don’t matter. I’ve specifically said that people putting comments on my posts along those lines are idiots. In the original post I explicitly called for people to “speak out against [intellectual laziness, dishonesty, and plagarism in dealing with ideas from cultures other than our own], encourage [their] friends to avoid the mild versions of such failures and roundly castigate social and political leaders who commit serious versions of them” and very plainly stated that those failings are “not ok…not cool.”

I’d love to get rid of hate and racism. I’m trying to do that the best I know how, by calling on people to denounce actual instances of them, by promoting clear thinking and clear communication, by saying that we need to kick unhelpful concepts to the curb.

I think the ideas you’re promoting don’t help solve the problem and actually might make it worse. You think the ideas I’m promoting don’t help solve the problem and actually might make it worse.

And so, John, I think we find ourselves in disagreement about most everything relevant to this conversation.

I do thank you for giving a good example of the sort of thinking I set out to criticize in my original post, and for helping me clarify my thinking.

With thanks,

Tom Swiss

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