Against “cultural appropriation.”

I recently read an article that was written in response to a conflict between two professional athletes about the nature, the problem, and even the hierarchy, of “cultural appropriation.”  My thoughts upon reading about this frankly ludicrous conflict were basically the same as my general reaction to all accusations of “cultural appropriation,” and they are more or less as follows:

“Congratulations!  You are clearly and irrefutably safe.  Indeed, you are clearly and irrefutably among the safest creatures ever to grace the surface of this hazardous planet.  You have adequate, clean water, you have abundant food, you have superb shelter, you have protection from predators, from attackers, and from invasion, and you have a lifestyle that provides you such abundant and luxurious free time that you can invent problems about which to be outraged.”

The irony is that, while the whingers about cultural appropriation are among the most “privileged” people the world has ever seen, there are nevertheless real problems—even in the developed world—to which they could be addressing their apparently overabundant energy.  These outrage mongers are, obviously, relatively educated people; only those with a moderate degree of education could possibly think to invent the pseudo-complaint of “cultural appropriation.”  Just as obviously, these people want, at some level, to do—or at least to be—good.  So, why do they not address themselves to real issues, issues of consequence, like climate change and its denial, the deterioration of public education in America, the horrible spectre of the War on Drugs, the incarceration of a full 1% of our adult population, largely because of that War (with clear and irrefutable racial inequality in the way that War and incarceration are carried out), the incompetence and malfeasance that abounds in our local, state, and national governments, and the ironic and baffling apathy of the public in the face of the failure of their elected officials?

The trouble with all of these problems, I suspect, is that to address them requires real effort and real thought.  It requires one to interact intelligently, to have adult conversations, sometimes even with people who don’t share one’s personal virtue signals.

But really, let’s try to be clear.  Culture is not something that belongs to any individual, or even to any subgroup.  Culture is something that happens.  It’s shaped by historical contingency, by interaction between peoples, by the cross-pollination of art, and literature, and music, and clothing, and all other aspects of human behavior, and it evolves constantly, especially in a truly global civilization such as the one in which we live.

I’m not defending anyone who deliberately mocks some particular cultural artifact, who uses it in a derogatory fashion, with the intention of putting down another person or group, or as an expression of bigotry (which is one of the worst failures of reason to mar our species).  But in the vast majority of the cases in which people are accused of cultural appropriation, they are simply taking on some article of culture because they happen to like it.  In other words, if anything, it’s a compliment.  It’s a cliché to say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I certainly have my doubts about the “sincere” part, but surely if one dons a mode of dress or styles one’s hair in the image of another person, it is an expression of admiration.  What’s more pertinent, though, is that donning some particular fashion, or incorporating a style of art, does not take anything from anyone else.  If I do my hair in the same way you do, your hairstyle doesn’t somehow magically disappear.  You have lost nothing at all.

I think the most appropriate response to someone who hurls accusations of “cultural appropriation” is simply to say, “Fuck you,” and go on about your life, but you can leave out the expletive if you prefer not to use it, and can simply meet the accusation with silence.  There are too many real, honest problems in the world to dignify what amounts to the whining of spoiled children.  There is real bigotry in the world, there is real victimization, and there is real violence.  We don’t need to coddle toddlers who are upset because someone else happens to have chosen the same flavor of ice cream cone that they have.

Maybe, someday, when we have solved all the rest of the manifold true problems in the world, it will be reasonable to give time and energy to the “problem” of cultural appropriation.  But by that time—if it ever comes—I think we will have reached a stage of development where such trivialities don’t concern anyone.  I certainly hope that’s the case.

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