The “Cultural Appropriation” Brouhaha

The “Cultural Appropriation” Brouhaha October 1, 2015

Oh, you wacky Internet.

“Hi interwebs! I spent years writing a deeply-researched book that puts the Neopagan movement in a new historical and spiritual context!

“Yawn,” says the interwebs.

“Hi again! I wrote a piece on theology and ontology that tries to close the gap between atheism and religion. Some cool people have said it’s not bad!

“Lol wot? Tl;dr.”

“Hey! I took a go at rebutting Plato’s Cave. And argued with a Zen priest about psychedelics in Buddhism. And I wrote a sort of humanistic Pagan funeral ritual.”

“Yawn. Zzzzzz.” The interwebs are all but comatose.

I think the idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ isn’t a useful way to talk about thorny issues regarding the cross-cultural movement of ideas.”

***OMG!!!1!*** Everyone look at this! YES! NO! YES!!! NO!!! Agree! Disagree! Shame on you! No, shame on YOU! **** BLOGFIGHT!!! **** Fire up the outrage machine!

<facepalm>

Oh, you wacky Internet.

 

I could blog, or I could just hit myself in the head with this mallet some more. Some days its kinda the same.
I could blog, or I could just hit myself in the head with this mallet some more. Some days its kinda the same.

And thus I find myself in the center of a whirlwind of compliments and insults over that post. I actually got an e-mail this morning from a total stranger saying “I really think people are on a witch hunt here, pun intended…I hope you are holding up well.”

Thanks for the concern, stranger. When faced with baseless accusations (and for my sins, I’ve been in enough Pagan politics to have dealt with them before) I try to remember Dr. McCoy’s excellent reply to some bullshit in the Star Trek episode “Friday’s Child”: “What the Klingon has said is unimportant, and we do not hear his words.”

Two other relevant quotations come to mind:

“This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” — “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell

“A person belonging to one of more Order [of Discordia] is just as likely to carry a flag of the counter-establishment as the flag of the establishment–just as long as it is a flag.” — Principia Discordia

Anyway. I guess I ought to say a few words of my own about all this.

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. (Imagine me pointing to a door off to the right somewhere.)

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. (Imagine me pointing to a door off to the left somewhere. Separate exits. Don’t want you running into each other in the Patheos lobby and fighting it out.)

Okay. Now that we’re left only with those interested in an adult conversation (only a handful of us, I fear, but so it goes), perhaps some additional context might help.

I have to admit that I wasn’t writing that post for an audience of tens of thousands of strangers, but assuming my usual 100-300 hits from folks with a nodding acquaintance with my writing. So, mea culpa for maybe not being as complete as I should have been. If you read the post in question, you noticed a reference to “the broken idea of ‘intellectual property'” and a link that…yeah, you probably didn’t click, and so I might have given some clarity by summarizing it.

The founder of the “Free Software” movement, Richard M. Stallman, has written how the idea of “intellectual property” is “distorting and confusing”:

It has become fashionable to toss copyright, patents, and trademarks—three separate and different entities involving three separate and different sets of laws—plus a dozen other laws into one pot and call it “intellectual property”. The distorting and confusing term did not become common by accident. Companies that gain from the confusion promoted it. The clearest way out of the confusion is to reject the term entirely.

The term “intellectual property” is at best a catch-all to lump together disparate laws. Nonlawyers who hear one term applied to these various laws tend to assume they are based on a common principle and function similarly.

Nothing could be further from the case. These laws originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues.

This idea is fairly well-known the tech and free culture communities. And you won’t just find it on TechDirt and in the IEEE’s collection of papers; famed film director Jean-Luc Godard has said that “intellectual property” does not exist.

There is copyright, there are patents, there are trademarks, but they are distinct things. There is not a valid and useful merelogical sum, no separate and more general phenomenon “intellectual property”, even though that term is in wide political use. The term carries inaccurate (or at least very questionable) assumptions about the specific cases involved, and using it causes us to take on those assumptions and so distorts our thinking. We’d be well-served to drop it and use only the more specific terms so that we can think more clearly about the issues involved.

And as I watched another thread of poorly-informed vitriol against white folks with dreadlocks go by, and tried to separate legitimate complaints about racism and colonialism from valuable cross-cultural exchanges from pointless or silly complaints about other people’s personal choices, it struck me that there was a parallelism to Stallman’s argument.

There is misrepresentation of other cultures, there is plagiarism, and there is insult — let’s call this the “MPI model”. We can empirically observe unquestionable instances of each of these. But there is not a valid and useful merelogical sum, no separate and more general phenomenon “cultural appropriation”, even though that term is in wide political use. The term carries inaccurate (or at least very questionable) assumptions about the specific cases involved, and using it causes us to take on those assumptions and so distorts our thinking. We’d be well-served to drop it and use only the more specific terms so that we can think more clearly about the issues involved.

And that’s the idea at the heart of the post that launched a thousand social media shares.

You may, of course, disagree in part or in whole with this conclusion. You can argue that I’ve made an error in reasoning, or have overlooked important cases. Heck, you can even call me hardheaded or dim-witted and I won’t call that out-of-bounds in a spirited debate.

But if you’re leveling charges of racism over it, as some are, that is so baseless that it strongly suggests that your interest isn’t entirely about fighting racism, but at least in part is about experiencing the warm glow of self-righteousness — even as you damage the cause you say you’re fighting for.

There have been far more comments and replies than I’ve been able to keep up with. I will try over the next few days to dig through and see what valid criticisms and questions have been raised. But there are two points I’d like to make now.

First, putting aside the ontological question as to the existence of “cultural appropriation”, this flamewar is evidence that it’s not a rhetorically useful construct. If you want to change people’s behaviors and opinions you have to communicate in a common language, and this brouhaha shows that “cultural appropriation” is not part of that language. Even among those championing the idea that the concept is useful I see significant differences in claims about just what it’s supposed to mean.

If we want to speak about against misrepresentation of other cultures, plagiarism and failure to credit, and insults, it would be more effective to speak specifically in well-understood terms than to tell someone, “I can explain your sin to you after you go read this article.”

Second, a few folks have pointed up the issue of unequal power. While I used the examples of colonial powers misrepresenting colonized peoples and of music publishers exploiting African-American musicians in the early 20th century, examples where there was obviously unequal power, I wasn’t explicit about that dynamic.

So let me state it more clearly: cross-cultural misrepresentation, plagiarism, and insults are problems mostly when the perpetrator is in a position of power. In the U.S. that usually means a white perpetrator. (If we looked long enough I’m sure we could find a handful of exceptions and edge cases, but the general rule holds.)

But — to bring it back to the case that started this all — a person styling their hair into matted locks is not thereby exercising power over anyone. It’s very much an example of “my body, my choice”.

There are some interesting power dynamics around hair. People may have to choose their hairstyle to deal with others exercising socio-economic or political power over them, from African-American woman feeling forced to straighten their hair to Japanese boys legally forced to cut off their top-knots in the Meiji restoration. We see kids getting suspended from schools for having the wrong haircut; we see Chelsea Manning being forced to adhere to hair standards for male prisoners (and I would assume she is not the only trans woman to be so treated); we see Sikh and Rastafarian prisoners being forcibly shorn of their locks.

And that’s bad and sad. But telling someone that they can’t style their hair in a certain way because “cultural appropriation! Shame on you!” doesn’t make any of those people more free.


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Postscript: For a fuller reply to the controversy, please see The Cultural Appropriation Controversy: A Summary Reply.

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