[The concept of “cultural appropriation,” the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture, is an idea that’s gained some currency lately, causing some acrimony among some who consider that their customs are being coöpted by those with no standing to use or even understand them and defensiveness by others, especially artists from many fields, who feel their creativity and free expression is being curtailed and impeded by shortsightedness in our multi-cultural society.
[I’m presenting two articles about this phenomenon—not that cultural appropriation is in any way new: no less a figure than William Shakespeare practiced it half a millennium ago (consider Othello and Shylock)—from different publications. First comes a discussion by Cathy Young from the Washington Post, posted to its website on 21 August 2015. (This article was referenced in an editorial from the National Coalition Against Censorship, “The War on Cultural Appropriation,” which I posted in “Fighting for Free Expression” on 5 February 2016.) This will be followed by a recent New York Times op-ed article by journalist and author Lionel Shiver.]
“TO THE NEW CULTURE COPS, EVERYTHING IS APPROPRIATION”
by Cathy Young
A few months ago, I read “The Orphan’s Tales” by Catherynne Valente. The fantasy novel draws on myths and folklore from many cultures, including, to my delight, fairy tales from my Russian childhood. Curious about the author, I looked her up online and was startled to find several social-media discussions bashing her for “cultural appropriation.”
There was a post sneering at “how she totally gets a pass to write about Slavic cultures because her husband is Russian,” with a response noting that her spouse isn’t even a proper Russian, because he has lived in the United States since age 10. In another thread, Valente was denounced for her Japanese-style LiveJournal username, yuki-onna, adopted while she lived in Japan as a military wife. In response to such criticism, a browbeaten Valente eventually dropped the “problematic” moniker.
Welcome to the new war on cultural appropriation. At one time, such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art — work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th-century minstrel shows or ethnological expositions, which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages. But these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.
To take just a few recent examples: After the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry was criticized for dressing like a geisha while performing her hit single “Unconditionally.” Last year, Arab American writer Randa Jarrar accused Caucasian women who practice belly dancing of “white appropriation of Eastern dance.” Daily Beast entertainment writer Amy Zimmerman wrote that pop star Iggy Azalea perpetrated “cultural crimes” by imitating African American rap styles.
And this summer, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been dogged by charges of cultural insensitivity and racism for its “Kimono Wednesdays.” At the event, visitors were invited to try on a replica of the kimono worn by Claude Monet’s wife, Camille, in the painting “La Japonaise.” The historically accurate kimonos were made in Japan for this very purpose. Still, Asian American activists and their supporters besieged the exhibit with signs like “Try on the kimono: Learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” Others railed against “Yellow-Face @ the MFA” on Facebook. The museum eventually apologized and changed the program so that the kimonos were available for viewing only. Still, activists complained that the display invited a “creepy Orientalist gaze.”
These protests have an obvious potential to chill creativity and artistic expression. But they are equally bad for diversity, raising the troubling specter of cultural cleansing. When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.
The concept of cultural appropriation emerged in academia in the late 1970s and 1980s as part of the scholarly critique of colonialism. By the mid-1990s, it had gained a solid place in academic discourse, particularly in the field of sociology.
Some of this critique was rightly directed at literal cultural theft — the pilfering of art and artifacts by colonial powers — or glaring injustices, such as white entertainers in the pre-civil rights years profiting off black musical styles while black performers’ careers were hobbled by racism. Critics such as Edward Said offered valuable insight into Orientalism, the West’s tendency to fetishize Asians as exotic stereotypes.
But the hunt for wrongdoing has run amok. The recent anti-appropriation rhetoric has targeted creative products from art to literature to clothing. Nothing is too petty for the new culture cops: I have seen them rebuke a Filipina woman who purchased a bracelet with a yin-yang symbol at a fair and earnestly discuss whether it’s appropriation to eat Japanese, Indian or Thai food. Even Selena Gomez, a Latina artist, was assailed a couple of years ago for sporting a Hindu forehead dot, or bindi, in a Bollywood-style performance.
In some social-justice quarters, the demonization of “appropriative” interests converges with ultra-reactionary ideas about racial and cultural purity. I once read an anguished blog post by a well-meaning young woman racked with doubt about her plans to pursue a graduate degree in Chinese studies; after attending a talk on cultural appropriation, she was unsure that it was morally permissible for a white person to study the field.
This is a skewed and blinkered view. Yes, most cross-fertilization has taken place in a context of unequal power. Historically, interactions between cultures often took the form of wars, colonization, forced or calamity-driven migration and subordination or even enslavement of minority groups. But it is absurd to single out the West as the only culprit. Indeed, there is a paradoxical and perverse Western-centrism in ignoring the history of Middle Eastern and Asian empires or the modern economic and cultural clout of non-Western nations — for instance, the fact that one of the top three entertainment companies in the U.S. market is Japanese-owned Sony.
It is also far from clear that the appropriation police speak for the people and communities whose cultural honor they claim to defend. The kimono protest, for instance, found little support from Japanese Americans living in the Boston area; indeed, many actively backed the museum’s exhibit, as did the Japanese consulate.
Most critics of appropriation, including some anti-kimono protesters, say they don’t oppose engagement with other cultures if it’s done in a “culturally affirming” way. A Daily Dot article admonishes that “an authentic cultural exchange should feel free and affirming, rather than plagiarizing or thieving.” A recent post on the Tumblr “This Is Not China” declares that “cultural appropriation is not merely the act of wearing or partaking in cultural symbols & practices that do not belong to you, it’s a system of exploitation & capitalisation on cultural symbols & practices that do not a) originate from b) benefit c) circle back to the culture in question.”
It makes sense to permit behaviors that encourage empathy and genuine interest while discouraging those that caricature or mock a sampled-from culture. But such litmus tests leave ample room for hair-splitting and arbitrary judgments. One blogger’s partial defense of “Kimono Wednesdays” suggests that while it was fine to let visitors try on the kimonos, allowing them to be photographed while wearing them was a step too far. This fine parsing of what crosses the line from appreciation into appropriation suggests a religion with elaborate purity tests.
What will be declared “problematic” next? Picasso’s and Matisse’s works inspired by African art? Puccini’s “Orientalist” operas, “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot”? Should we rid our homes of Japanese prints? Should I take offense at other people’s Russian nesting dolls?
And while we’re at it, why shouldn’t a wide range of cultural minorities within Western society demand control over access to their heritage, too? Can Catholics claim appropriation when religious paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary are exhibited in a secular context, or when movies from “The Sound of Music” to “Sister Act” use nuns for entertainment?
Appropriation isn’t a crime. It’s a way to breathe new life into culture. Peoples have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated and reinvented from time immemorial. The medieval Japanese absorbed major elements of Chinese and Korean civilizations, while the cultural practices of modern-day Japan include such Western borrowings as a secularized and reinvented Christmas. Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences — and the rapid Westernization of the elites in the 18th century. America is the ultimate blended culture.
So don’t let anyone tell you that there is art, literature or clothing that does not belong to you because of your racial, ethnic or religious identity. In other words: Appropriate away.
* * * *
“WILL THE LEFT SURVIVE THE MILLENNIALS?”
by Lionel Shriver
[Shriver’s essay comes from the Op-Ed page of the New York Times of 23 September 2016. In response to this column, one reader asked, “Why can’t the taking on of symbols of other cultures . . . be considered a tribute, not a mockery?” I have the same question.]
Midway through my opening address for the Brisbane Writers Festival earlier this month, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese-born Australian engineer and 25-year-old memoirist, walked out. Her indignant comments about the event might have sunk into obscurity, along with my speech, had they not been republished by The Guardian. Twenty minutes in, this audience member apparently turned to her mother: “ ‘Mama, I can’t sit here,’ I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. ‘I cannot legitimize this.’ ” She continued: “The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonizing with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question. ‘How is this happening?’”
I’m asking the same thing.
Briefly, my address maintained that fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction — thus should not let concerns about “cultural appropriation” constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own. I defended fiction as a vital vehicle for empathy. If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir. Honestly, my thesis seemed so self-evident that I’d worried the speech would be bland.
Nope — not in the topsy-turvy universe of identity politics. The festival immediately disavowed the address, though the organizers had approved the thrust of the talk in advance. A “Right of Reply” session was hastily organized. When, days later, The Guardian ran the speech, social media went ballistic. Mainstream articles followed suit. I plan on printing out The New Republic’s “Lionel Shriver Shouldn’t Write About Minorities” and taping it above my desk as a chiding reminder.
Viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the identity-politics movement — in which behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs is par for the course — is an assertion of generational power. Among millennials and those coming of age behind them, the race is on to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved — who can replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand.
When I was growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s, conservatives were the enforcers of conformity. It was the right that was suspicious, sniffing out Communists and scrutinizing public figures for signs of sedition.
Now the role of oppressor has passed to the left. In Australia, where I spoke, Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to do or say anything likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate,” providing alarming latitude in the restriction of free speech. It is Australia’s conservatives arguing for the amendment of this law.
As a lifelong Democratic voter, I’m dismayed by the radical left’s ever-growing list of dos and don’ts — by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. There are many people who see these frenzies about cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and safe spaces as overtly crazy. The shrill tyranny of the left helps to push them toward Donald Trump.
Ironically, only fellow liberals will be cowed by terror of being branded a racist (a pejorative lobbed at me in recent days — one that, however groundless, tends to stick). But there’s still such a thing as a real bigot, and a real misogynist. In obsessing over micro-aggressions like the sin of uttering the commonplace Americanism “you guys” to mean “you all,” activists persecute fellow travelers who already care about equal rights.
Moreover, people who would hamper free speech always assume that they’re designing a world in which only their enemies will have to shut up. But free speech is fragile. Left-wing activists are just as dependent on permission to speak their minds as their detractors.
In an era of weaponized sensitivity, participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught out for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity, that many are apt to bow out. Perhaps intimidating their elders into silence is the intention of the identity-politics cabal — and maybe my generation should retreat to our living rooms and let the young people tear one another apart over who seemed to imply that Asians are good at math.
But do we really want every intellectual conversation to be scrupulously cleansed of any whiff of controversy? Will people, so worried about inadvertently giving offense, avoid those with different backgrounds altogether? Is that the kind of fiction we want — in which the novels of white writers all depict John Cheever’s homogeneous Connecticut suburbs of the 1950s, while the real world outside their covers becomes ever more diverse?
Ms. Abdel-Magied got the question right: How is this happening? How did the left in the West come to embrace restriction, censorship and the imposition of an orthodoxy at least as tyrannical as the anti-Communist, pro-Christian conformism I grew up with? Liberals have ominously relabeled themselves “progressives,” forsaking a noun that had its roots in “liber,” meaning free. To progress is merely to go forward, and you can go forward into a pit.
Protecting freedom of speech involves protecting the voices of people with whom you may violently disagree. In my youth, liberals would defend the right of neo-Nazis to march down Main Street. I cannot imagine anyone on the left making that case today.
[Shriver, who resides in the U.K., is the author, most recently, of the novel The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. She’s written for the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Economist, and the Guardian. Her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005, was adapted into a 2011 film of the same name starring Tilda Swinton.]