A Handy Guide to What Is and Isn't Cultural Appropriation
What isn’t cultural appropration:
• Trying/eating/making a culture’s food
• Listening to that culture’s music
• Watching that culture’s movies
• Reading that culture’s books
• Appreciating that culture’s art
• Wearing that culture’s clothing IF in a setting…
I’ve been slowly considering this matter for some time. Fortunately, someone with presumably more experience dealing with it wrote something better than I am capable of doing. First and primarily read the original post, I am going to ramble about a sort of philosophical argument against cultural appropriation- not that in the cases dealt with here any is necessary beyond “you are attacking the culture of other human beings for cheap laughs.” But, given that there are cases where taking the cultural practice of others is acceptable (a Toga party is likely immoral for all sorts of reasons, but cultural appropriation is not one of them) and in some cases destruction of cultural traditions is necessary, such as the removal of Human Sacrifice from various cultures, or the substantial modification of the culture of Passion plays as Christians began to reject antisemitism. And there are entire professions with considerable internal culture that we might think it acceptable to have vanished- the fact that Alchemists are not still around does not seem tragic to us, or that we wish to vanish- such as professional torturers and extraordinary interrogators.
Starting from the most general level: it seems to me that humans are fundamentally oriented towards certain kinds of goods. In general and in youth, we seek bits of knowledge to satisfy our curiosity, friendships to satisfy our need for companionship, cool stuff to look at because it amazes us, and so on. But if we reflect on the matter, we begin to recognize certain basic characteristics of these things which relate them together. For example, we see how curiosity is best satisfied by certain kinds of holistic explanations that hold together with contradiction, how others provides the best companionship as we are bound by a mutual bound, not bound via something else primarily, we see how things that amaze us are superior when they reward multiple viewings or hearings that cause us to shift when we observe or participate in them. We could go on, but in short, we that there are goods that transcend and underlie the individual objects of our immediate desires, and that we best serve those desires by seeking the more complete, rather than the more incomplete manifestations. (I owe this description in large Part to John Finnis, though I believe he would disagree with my analysis of beauty, everything else is his thoughts in my words).
However, if we pursue the more complete versions of these goods, we need the support of others- both materially in providing that what we lack, prudentially in making sure we are oriented properly towards the end, and in some cases normative- making sure that we are acting in accord with the rules of the activity. While I can make a rule that is binding for myself, I can also repeal such a rule- so for any form of goodness that requires fixed rules (chess as a particular and interesting kind of play, for example, and a good deal of scientific language use) is best served by a community capable of observing if I have made an error and pointing it out, so the rule is binding for me regardless of my immediate desire or will in virtue of participating in the activity. (The debt to MacIntyre and Brandom here is a conscious one)
So, A normatively guided activity has two aspects, first it is oriented towards some basic human good, and second that there is a community engaged in it that can say whether a given act in pursuit of that good is acceptable or not acceptable. (combination of Finnis and Macintyre).
(a diversion, so traditions can be critiqued if they fail to pursue any basic goods, or if their norms make things acceptable that are always non-acceptable. A tradition of human sacrifice can be legitimately critiqued from the outside on this basis. To a more limited extent, inter-religious critiques are also acceptable, though since religious traditions are often more all-encompassing, blanket criticism and annihilation is in virtually all circumstances immoral for reasons that will be sketched below).
And here is the issue, when I use another cultures stuff, I am doing so without any connection to the normative community it originated in- I have no responsibility for the meaning of it. To use an example that occurred recently, a company used traditional tattoos on a pair of tights- the people who wear those tights have no connection whatsoever to the proper use of those symbols in their original context- they are not responsive to the norm.
This is important, because when we use the symbols of a particular tradition without participating in its normative universe- we do two things. First, we make the world of discourse confusing in some sense, we have some people who are using the same symbols in two very different ways. Obviously, this is not a huge problem (and is in fact the basis for much comedy) when there is no power differential between the groups- the fact that I almost certainly mean something somewhat different than the average physicist when I talk about Space and Time is not an issue- partially because there is a reasonably well-defined relationship between the physicist conception and my own that imposes certain normative rules between them (namely, that I am certainly wrong about the overall structure, but the physicist has to either help provide an explanation for my phenomenological experience of space and time or cede that domain to some other discipline, most likely some combination of the two.).
However, when there are not well-defined relations, or huge power disparities- the potential for the dominant cultures misuse of norms to overwhelm the original meaningful use is high, something which was powerful for members of a culture might gradually become numb and meaningless as they see it repeated around them ad nauseum without any real understanding.
But this not the primary reason; the primary moral issue is that very little is value-relative- in our culture a great deal has become disconnected from any very clear values (though some vague and often incoherent commandments remain in all of the traditional realms, we simply do not notice most of the time). But in other cultures that is not so, a piece of clothing or a tattoo plays a particular role in a practice oriented towards human goodness. To participate in that is to accept those obligations- just as when I use a word in the declarative sense, I am committing myself to its truth. But since we are not participants in that normative community, we probably lack the material resources of others (the role they play in the practice we have tried to self-induct ourselves into, when very often such practices require someone else to bring us into them and others to engage in the practice with us), we lack their prudential resources (we have no one to give us clear guidance about what good the practice is aimed at, and are thus likely to use it for whatever purpose we happen to like, divorcing it from its original meaning, and flaunting its norms), and finally, we lack their normative resources, we have no one to tell us when we make a misstep, when we include something that should not be included or forget something that should not be forgotten.
I wish to close with a substantial modification of an example from Brandom. Imagine someone heard of playing Chess, and had watched a few games from some distance, and then took the chess set home with him and played according to his understanding of the rules. However, in the games he had watched, the only time the king and the rooks had moved, it had been during castling, or any number of other odd cases, and he generalized those in his version. Then, he started teaching his friends his modified version of chess, and they became devout advocates, despite the game being noticeably inferior to actual chess, playing because it was cool and aesthetically pleasing to them. Surely, the world is poorer if chess becomes extinct and in its place all that it is left is the bad copy, or if the original version is held in disgust, and this inferior copy is lifted up? This is what happens when people self-join traditions, even sincerely- they do not know things about the tradition, and likely pollute people’s understanding of the original tradition- as noticeably happened with Buddhism in the United States. They destroy the original normative structure, and replace it with something that has no purpose beyond their own satisfaction- taking away a path to participation in goodness for pleasure.
But why should we care about this? Why should the destruction of paths to goodness be something that matters to me at all? I am responsible for my own fate, and my own satisfaction. But if what I’ve said is true, this cannot be the case at all- I am dependent heavily upon the sustaining of my own traditions for the pursuit of any complete form of the values- and cannot rebel against those. And as member of that tradition, I must advocate adherence to the rules of the tradition by those who practice it, I in some sense must be just both to others and myself to be a member- this is a requirement of any tradition.
But it seems like, for any tradition that I acknowledge the acceptability of its existence, I cannot attack it without being unjust- If I know certain acts are value-bearing, I should not commit myself to them without intending to endorse their value. If I cannot, I should remain silent in word and deed.
Even for traditions that I might wish to cease- in general I have no right to appropriate their resources- the fact of their inferiority to other options does not grant me leave to make use of them, because they remain normatively binding even if they are inferior ways to pursue a good.
If I am of the opinion that something is evil, then I should not associate myself with it, the thing remains normartively binding, and presumably we should aim at the removal of evil norms, not endorse them. (an exception here exists when a minority group takes aspects of cultural oppression and defangs them- defanging an evil norm is acceptable, but this is quite different from mindlessly attaching one’s self to it).
Extinct traditions are a final interesting topic. Since the normative universe that supports the aspects of those traditions has collapsed, they are free for the taking in some sense- there is no one for anyone to be responsible to in the use of them, so there can be no misuse.
However, we should still be aware of value-bearing that those collapsed cultures might have for extent cultures, and that should limit the extent of our use.
I hope this is interesting for some, but more, I hope you read the original article.