On cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion -

In Tablet Mag­a­zine, Claire Lehmann ex­plains “how vic­tim­hood be­came a moral cur­rency de­pen­dent on defin­ing and polic­ing the bound­aries of hu­man iden­tity.” Read “The Evils Of Cul­tural Ap­pro­pri­a­tion” in full at http://bit.ly/2KRflTW. Here’s an ex­cerpt.

For many, no de­fense or con­dem­na­tion of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is re­quired, be­cause such com­plaints are al­most be­yond the realm of com­pre­hen­sion in the first place. Without cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion we would not be able to eat Ital­ian food, lis­ten to reg­gae, or go to yoga. Without cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion we would not be able to drink tea or use chop­sticks or speak English or ap­ply al­ge­bra, or lis­ten to jazz, or write nov­els. Al­most ev­ery cul­tural prac­tice we en­gage in is the byprod­uct of cen­turies of cross-cul­tural pol­li­na­tion. The fu­ture of our civ­i­liza­tion de­pends on it con­tin­u­ing.

Yet the con­cept was not al­ways so per­plex­ing. Orig­i­nally de­rived from so­ci­ol­o­gists writ­ing in the 1990s, its us­age ap­pears to have first been adopted by in­dige­nous peo­ples of na­tions tainted by his­to­ries of col­o­niza­tion, such as Canada, Aus­tralia and the United States. Un­der­stand­ably, in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties have been pro­tec­tive of their sa­cred ob­jects and cul­tural ar­ti­facts, not wishing the ex­pe­ri­ence of ex­ploita­tion to be re­peated gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion. … Even the most tough-minded skep­tic should be able to see why in­dige­nous peo­ples who have his­tor­i­cally had their land and ter­ri­to­ries taken away from them might be un­will­ing to “share their cul­ture” un­con­di­tion­ally. Par­tic­u­larly when it is ap­plied to the co-opt­ing of a peo­ple’s sa­cred and re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy for the base pur­poses of profit-mak­ing, the con­cept of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion seems quite rea­son­able.

Nev­er­the­less, the con­cept quickly be­comes baf­fling when young Western­ers … use the term as a weapon to dis­rupt the nat­u­ral process of cul­tural ex­change that hap­pens in cos­mopoli­tan so­ci­eties in which cul­ture is, thank­fully, hy­brid. When con­tro­ver­sies erupt over hoop ear­rings or som­brero hats or sushi or braids or cannabis-themed par­ties, the con­cept of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion ap­pears to have de­parted from its for­merly un­der­stood mean­ing — that is, to pro­tect sa­cred or re­li­gious ob­jects from des­e­cra­tion and ex­ploita­tion.

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