A revised definition of “cultural appropriation”

Generally, as we approach Christmas, I try to keep off controversy. It is the season of goodwill, after all. But …

Yes, of course there is a “but”. I’ll try to keep this one short, though.

I have, on numerous occasions on this blog, been scathing about the concept of “cultural appropriation”, arguing that adopting elements of other cultures, far from being reprehensible, is desirable, as the alternative is to create cultural ghettoes. (I won’t link to the various posts in which I argue this case: a quick search reveals them quite easily.) But recently, I’ve been hearing that “cultural appropriation” is not at all about taking things from other cultures: it is about wilfully disrespecting elements of other cultures.

Now, this seems to me revisionism. If “cultural appropriation” is about disrespecting other cultures, then it would have been termed “cultural disrespect”, or something similar. “Appropriation” means taking something that does not belong to oneself, usually without permission from the owner. (I think any dictionary would confirm that.) So when anyone speaks of “cultural appropriation”, I naturally take it to mean appropriation in the context of culture: that does seem to me a reasonable interpretation. And, indeed, all the various manufactured controversies relating to “cultural appropriation” seem to assume this interpretation also: visitors to an art gallery invited to try on a kimono, pop stars wearing sari and bindi, etc. – none of them involving any disrespect at all, and yet all resulting in large numbers of people quite apoplectic with rage. All very comical, frankly, were its implications not so sinister.

However, let us, for the sake of argument, accept this revisionist definition: “cultural appropriation” is not really about appropriation of culture (that would be too simple, apparently), but about disrespect of culture. About disrespect of elements of a culture that have symbolic value for adherents of that culture.

Well, I slept on that for a bit, and it still doesn’t make much sense to me. The most obvious point is that not all elements of all cultures are worthy of respect. Many, clearly, aren’t. The culture I was born into, for instance, has many fine things in it, but it also has this thing called “caste system”, which is culturally very significant. And Brahmin men are supposed to wear around their necks a sacred thread, as a mark of their high caste: it is a significant cultural symbol. Some sixty or so years ago now, my father respected this significant cultural symbol by chucking away his own sacred thread. He did not deem it worthy of respect any more than I do. But that it is a cultural symbol of deep significance is beyond doubt, and the injunction that we must not disrespect it, especially if we weren’t born into the Hindu religion, seems to me arbitrary at best, and, at worst, completely bonkers.

No, I’ll revise that. At worst, sinister and dangerous. For how is much-needed reform to come if that which needs reform is mandated as worthy of respect? How, indeed, can we prevent that which should be reformed from becoming even further entrenched, if it is mandated to be exempt from criticism and disrespect?

And who does the mandating anyway? Who decides what is worthy of respect, and what isn’t? Who are the gatekeepers here, and on what authority?

So really, as far as I’m concerned, if anyone wants to disrespect any aspect of any culture, then that’s fine – disrespect away! Yes, in the course of all this, I am sure that certain things that I myself revere may also end up being disrespected. But don’t worry about that – I can take it! Honestly, I can! And if I can’t, that’s my problem, and not anyone else’s. All this talk about “respect” merely puts me in mind of The Godfather films, I’m afraid.

For consider the implications of even this revised definition of “cultural appropriation”: the worst elements of our cultures become entrenched, thus rendering reform even more difficult; rigid boundaries are set between cultures, with self-appointed gatekeepers; all humanity itself becomes fragmented beyond repair. This is what, it seems to me, many people really want. I, personally, don’t.

Now, I did say at the start of this piece that I will keep this rant short, and I hope I have kept my word. All my posts between now and the New Year will be full of brightness and joy and festive cheer – I promise!

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Linda on December 11, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    Spot on.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Chris Jennings on December 11, 2018 at 11:04 pm

    Another pretty much unanswerable post, Himadri, at least from my point of view. Many of these baffling ideas originate, of course, in American universities and then find their way into the UK – all the more quickly now in the age of socal media. Here’s an American professor who has been fighting this nonsense for years. She is regularly “no-platformed” and routinely referred to as a “white-supremacist” (actually she just thinks English courses should teach Shakespeare and Milton, not left-wing politics):

    Reply

    • Hello Chris, sorry about the delay in responding, but I really have been very tied up these last few days. I haven’t had time to see this clip yet, although, I must say, Fox News doesn’t really inspire much confidence when it comes to promoting racial harmony.

      I keep returning to that line by Tagore I quoted in a recent post: “Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin.” How can something so tolerant and so enlightened as this be disputed? Some people have charged me with “betraying my culture”, whatever that means. I quote this line by Tagore to them, and tell them Shakespeare & Milton & Wordsworth are my culture.

      What is frightening is the speed and the alacrity with which these crazy ideas are accepted outside the campus. It is quite common now for people who have nothing to do with college life speaking of “cultural appropriation”, taking it for granted that it is a Bad Thing. For obvious reasons, I object strongly to racism; but how does one get the point over that absorbing other cultures isn’t racism? That, indeed, it is the very opposite?

      Reply

      • Posted by Chris Jennings on December 18, 2018 at 10:50 am

        I think it’s yet another example of wrongly prioritising politics over everything, and so viewing everything in political terms. Whereas the usual approach is to see culture as to some extent a-political, or at least free-floating, in the sense that it is available to all, in ‘cultural appropriation’ it is viewed instead as an extension of political identity. I see it as a very unconvincing attempt to find in cultural exchange a parallel to the conquests – or ‘land appropriations’ – of the past, in which there were genuine oppressors and genuine victims.

        Neil mentions below that it is a daft fad, and it is; but though the latest application of these ideas can be faddish, with a faddish phrase to accompany it – ‘white privilege’, ‘intersectionality’, and so on – the ideas themselves are certainly not a fad but are firmly entrenched in many US universities and are becoming more widespread. There’s not much to do really other than to keep pointing out the inconsistencies and silliness of some of these ideas, for, as you imply, someone like Tagore would have had no problem at all with his own work being ‘appropriated’ – as what writer wouldn’t want more readers?

      • Hello Chris,
        Yes, that’s what worries me. These ideas, no matter how daft they may seem, do take hold. This is why it’s all so upsetting.

        There are certain things that can understand can be seen as offensive; certain things at which I take offence myself. But one can take offence without demanding it be banned. I actually take offence when people don’t adopt my culture, as that implies my culture is not worth adapting. It’s all very strange…

        All the best, Himadri

  3. Great post as usual. I strongly agree with you. I have been critical of the whole cultural appropriation thing myself. You also make a great point that not all aspects of a particular culture might deserve respect.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, and thanks.
      All cultures have aspects that one may not like; and which one may therefore, choose not to respect. I just wonder who the gatekeepers will be who determine what one mat respect, and what one can’t…

      Reply

  4. Some UK universities are just as bad as the US ones for this daft fad. A couple of years ago Bristol University banned a production of the Elton John musical of Aida, on the grounds that white students would be playing Egyptians and Ethiopians. One might agree with the ban on musical grounds (they should have done the Verdi version!) but of course the idea is totally loony. I’d like to laugh it off, but I am somewhat fearful of where this will lead. Will we not be able to see Madama Butterfly or Turandot unless there’s a Japanese or Chinese singer in the title roles?

    Anyway, I’ll take this opportunity to thank you for another year of excellent posts, and wish you a happy Christmas and all the best for 2019.

    Reply

    • Hello Neil,
      And of course, it should work the other way round too. Imagine the great Leontyne Price restricted to only singing Aida! But it doesn’t work the other way round, which, frankly, is just as well: Don Warrington’s recent performance as Lear (the DVD is on my Christmas wish list!) is one of the finest Shakespearean performance I have ever seen from anyone, and it would have been such a shame if he hadn’t been cast as King of Britain on account of colour!
      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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