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Cultural Appropriation

I was asked recently if something they did was cultural appropriation. And I instantly replied, "I don't believe in cultural appropriation. It's bullshit." Having had a moment to collect my thoughts here's why.

The dictionary definition of "cultural appropriation" is roughly "the adoption of any aspect of culture of a minority group by a majority group". This is considered highly disrespectful by some and a total non-issue by others. Is this the only flow of culture that is prohibited? In other words, cultural exchange (and appropriation if you distinguish) between minorities or from a majority group to a minority group is allowed? I suspect that flow between minority groups is rare. And a majority group culture is imposed upon minority groups anyways so I don't think this is an issue. By process of elimination we see that appropriation (flow from minority to majority) is the only possible concern.

Any why? I suspect that the there is a larger issue at hand. In other words I don't think that aspects of a minority culture being used by someone that doesn't understand them, redefined or used superficially would really be offensive if there wasn't unprocessed acts of injustice by the majority group. Now there are plenty of injustices one can commit, some common (racial bias) and some uncommon (outright mockery) but I suspect that the injustice that is triggering these reactions is not cultural appropriation but cultural theft. This I place above cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Minority groups are often at the mercy of the actions or policies of majority groups. And more often than not majority groups take the good ideas of the minority group as their own, incorporate, implement or otherwise use them while continuing to secure their place of power. I've seen this in office settings, educational settings and in government/society. And I've seen this in socioeconomic, racial and gender domains.

I think if we address the larger issue of theft then the objection to cultural appropriation will abate and subside. If we don't then in order to make second wave political correctness stick will require a patchwork of changes to our society that will be not only unwieldy and cumbersome but downright damaging.

The most obvious of these is free speech. The expression of ideas and art must be allowed to continue. Arbitrarily picking and choosing who can and cannot say things a) is completely unenforceable and b) would allow anyone with ill or unjust intention to manipulate the rules of free speech and bend them to their desires at the expense of everyone else. Immanuel Kant's maxim comes to mind here: "Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

Perhaps the most damaging is that of self imposed segregation. Segregation is not required to be imposed by a majority power group. By stipulating that only a certain group can partake in certain speech, use or ownership of objects, or participation in certain activities you in fact segregate those who are allowed to partake. Think of it as segregation in the other direction: by excluding others you are in fact giving exclusive access to things that others cannot have.

Thirdly, and maybe not as important but one I find completely disappointing, is that the thought that the American melting pot is crumbling. The original collage, the original mashup, the original remix, is being declared dead. For a very brief time the old notions of trend and fashion were starting to crumble and the idea that all eras, trends, fads and fashions were legitimate and not just legitimate but completely eligible for combination with other ideas and open to experimentation is declared illegal and now allowed in the name of cultural appropriation.

I will mention that we do need to remain sensitive to some things. Particularly for those who are still grieving over massive injustices. In all other matters we need to be mindful by offering a show of respect and dignity for others. I think we can find justice and tolerance.

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