Cultural appropriation has come up a few times in conversations in the past few weeks and I thought I’d try to tackle it here. It is a murky and nuanced issue and I will inevitably cock it up. Regardless, I feel that it is important enough that I must try.
For those who haven’t heard the phrase before, cultural appropriation is the acquisition of some aspect of another culture into your own. Also, it makes some people very very angry.
Well, it isn’t always done with the finesse and consideration that one might hope for. Rather, historically, it was done by invading a new territory, claiming it, and then bludgeoning the local culture until candy fell out. In many cases, the bashing continued in hopes of more candy, leaving the indigenous peoples shattered and subjugated.
It doesn’t require full force-colonial brutality for cultural appropriation to be problematic. Imagine taking a historically and emotionally significant piece of iconography and having it massed produced as a sex toy (nsfw). It’s not hard to imagine how someone might be hurt by the lack of consideration being displayed by their fellow human beings.
So that’s pretty much it; don’t take things from other cultures without permission because it’s inconsiderate and potentially hurtful. Unfortunately it’s a whole lot more complicated than that.
Cultures don’t exist in isolation; they mingle, they interact, they bleed into one another and they change. One idea inspires another and many great things come from the joining of ideas. Also, if one culture has a brilliant idea or tradition, it would seem beneficial to humanity at large to have that spread around. Imagine if the greeks got pissy about people using the scientific method. It was a greek that came up with it, it’s theirs by right.
There we have a problem. Taking aspects of other cultures is bad, but so is refusing to share. The fairly obvious solution, and one I’ve seen suggested, is to ask permission.
Asking permission sounds good, but how the hell do you ask the permission of a culture? That is obviously impossible. Clearly one would have to turn to a representative of that culture. That though, assumes that everyone in the culture agrees upon what is sacred and what is public domain. Having met several humans, I am fairly sure that getting a group of more than about three to agree on what is precious, offensive, or tasteless is a hopelessly lost cause. To make it even harder, there is a little ignorance paradox wherein the person asking permission may not know enough about the relevant culture to discern what a good representative might be.
Okay, new angle. What cultures can we take from without all this hassle? I have been given two answers to this: take from your own, or the dominant culture. Your own culture seems obviously safe, except that most cultures aren’t some pure, monolithic thing. They are typically a chimera of adopted, adapted, bought, borrowed and stolen memes from other cultures with no obvious owners or clear guidelines as to when the copyright expires and the initial offence might be forgiven. This is particularly troublesome for people in cultures like mine, that is, non-existent.
I do not have much of what you might call a traditional heritage. My ancestors are a motley crew of European emigrants that came to Canada to escape the poverty, persecution and oppression of their home nations. They abandoned or purposely rejected the culture of their heritage and intermingled and intermarried with each other and the native population of Canada, diluting any remnants of their ancestral traditions beyond the point of recognition. This means that I don’t have a culture of my own on which to draw. Those like me are necessarily pulling from the cultures of others for our inspiration.
That leaves pulling from the dominant culture. That, of course, is a vexed endeavor as well. The dominant culture in North America is an indecipherable stew of cultures. It’s difficult to pick out what is a home grown goodness, what is a butchered bit of someone else’s choice morsels, and what is exotic seasoning offered freely for the enjoyment of all.
What am I actually advocating for here? It would seem that I’m trying to say that nobody should ever do anything or make anything artistic or ceremonial because you might offend someone. Well that’s silly. Pretty much anything you ever do would offend someone. What might be a good start might be to make an effort to be aware and considerate of the issue and make an effort to be informed about what you emulate.
I am slightly concerned that paper cut-out bean people are a closely held tradition of a culture of which I am unaware.