Framing is the thing where you change how you describe something, and it alters how people perceive it, even though it’s the same thing. Like, if you replace “10% chance of dying” with “90% chance of survival”, people treat them very differently.
So, here’s a cool one. Say I hate your culture because it is Not Mine, and therefore horrible and strange. I could eradicate it over time by simply prohibiting members of your culture from teaching their Foolish Heathen Ways to anyone else. You can have your culture, we’re not interfering or anything, but keep it to yourselves. It’s horrible for you to corrupt other people with your crap.
Would you stand for that? I bet you wouldn’t.
But framing is magic. Consider what happens if I point out how beautiful and amazing your culture is, and how it should be protected from pollution. For instance, we don’t want your culture corrupted by other people learning its ways. If they do that, it’s like they’re stealing your culture! Your beautiful, pure, culture will be lost. You must keep it for yourselves exclusively, always.
People apparently stand for this. I am mystified. The name of the game remains keeping your Strange Culture Which Isn’t Mine from being influential or changing other people. It’s about reducing the number of people who will learn those traditions or participate in them, because as soon as we are allowed to draw lines and say “it’s fine if a few people do this, but only these people, not others”, those lines are gonna get narrower and narrower until one day there’s just that one person and the news stories are all about the attempts to write down everything they remember from being a little kid. Mission fucking accomplished.
There is such a thing as misuse of cultural things, and it sucks, and it can be offensive. But never let anyone trick you into thinking that you are doing your culture any favors by trying to keep other people out. Sharing is good. Finding that someone, somewhere, has a word for what you’ve experienced is a glorious thing, and being told you can’t have a word for your experiences because you were born in the wrong place and have the wrong color of skin is not a glorious thing.
I’ve always raised an eyebrow for some of the appropriation stuff, for various reasons, but I never thought of it from a “purity” perspective.
There is definitely a balance you have to strike between cultural identity and cultural survival. I don’t think there’s going to be a cut and dry answer. Focus purely on surviving traditions? Die. Focus purely on trying to survive at the cost of your identity as a people? Die.
There’s got to be a happy medium out there. Something where you can open up and share with each other without losing your identity. But you’d have to ask someone else where that is.
I actually think the answer is probably: There isn’t. Culture changes over time. We grow. We adapt. We combine things and change them, and this is okay. So insofar as my identity is tied to a particular culture… It’s gonna change, or be lost, and I am not sure how to tell those two things apart.
You know where I hear the most complaints about cultural appropriation? Video games and comic book nerds complaining about fake geek girls. Look at those not-us stealing our traditions and stuff?!? They don’t actually appreciate them correctly! If we let them use these things our culture will change!
Yeah, they’ll change. I betcha that, 50 years from now, sci fi geeks and comic book geeks and video gamers will not have a culture in which women are decoration and macguffins. The culture I grew up with will not really still exist; it will have changed into a new culture. I am fine with that. And the US is no longer as focused on one man, one woman, and two point three children as a “family”. And that’s a change, and people are outraged about it, but fuck them.
Think of it like genetics. The way you preserve your genes isn’t to carefully avoid ever mixing them with anyone else’s; that’s called being culled. The way you preserve them is you get them out there in the gene pool, mixing and matching with other genes, and hope that they convey advantages which result in the offspring who carry them doing well. And it’s true, those offspring won’t be clones of their parents, but that is okay. This is why cultural imperialism is so damn effective — it’s pushing the culture out there where everyone else can have it, whether or not they want to.
The problem (and I think a big part of the reason why people get so angry about cultural appropriation) is that the playing field is unequal. White culture is demonstrably larger than many of the other cultures it’s trying to mix with, and it’s backed by economic and social advantages they don’t have. We still have a lot of imperialistic practices that rig the game so that instead of cute little dragonflies flying around mixing our genes together, white culture is more like a bed bug, traumatically injecting its cultural genes where they don’t belong. And taking anything that looks shiny and turning it into an out of context fashion accessory, which isn’t really bedbug behavior but I’m still waking up so that metaphor kind of got away from me. XD;
Oh, there’s definitely problems there. But the proposed alternative, that if something might be at risk of turning into an out-of-context fashion accessory, it’s better to do our absolute best to make sure it turns into nothing but a footnote in anthropology texts, is not an improvement.
So you end up with people who want to level the playing field somewhat by giving their culture some protection, so it’s harder to wreck or steal it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this (or if there is something wrong with it, I don’t think it’s the place of people who don’t belong to that culture in any way to decide when they’ve gone too far.)
“Wrong” is not the relevant criterion, though. Mostly, I just think it’s depressing that people are so easily suckered into doing something that they would be absolutely unwilling to tolerate anyone else doing to them.
But there is a thing that’s wrong, and that’s the thing where people start coming down on other people for adopting a thing which has meaning or value to them. That’s a problem, because it’s abusive. It is not my place to tell people who want to come to comic conventions that they don’t value the comics enough, or in the right way, to participate. If someone who’s not otherwise a part of my religion wants to just yank one little bit of it and use it, even use it poorly, well. I might not like it, but it’s not my place to tell them they can’t, because I don’t have exclusive ownership of the cultures I participate in.
Part of the nature of communication is that, if you communicate stuff, people are allowed to receive that communication. If you tell people that you believe a thing, and they say “wow, I never thought of it that way, but that is so obviously true”, you don’t get to say “well, you’re not allowed to believe it.”
And other people are allowed to share something even if you don’t personally feel like it. I have the right to choose not to share my obsessive love of comics with someone. Heck, it’d be stupid, but I have the right to refuse to do so simply because I don’t like girls. But I don’t get to tell other people they can’t choose to share their love of comics with girls, and I don’t get to tell girls they can’t really love comics.
Same thing applies. My Buddhist friends are welcome to decide whether or not they want to talk to me about Buddhism. They don’t have the authority to tell me I can’t decide I want to learn more about it, or to tell other Buddhists not to talk to me. And if they don’t like my use of Buddhist imagery or terms to refer to things, they can argue with me about it, but that’s as far as it goes; they don’t have the authority to tell me I’m not allowed. (Not that they would. They are all enthused about my plans to use a bodhisattva in a story.)
I agree in theory, but this still ignores the gross inequalities that occur in real life.
I’m not ignoring them. But they don’t change things.
The issue here isn’t that non-white cultures are choosing not to share (in nearly all cases I’ve heard about where white people approach other cultures with a sincere and respectful desire to learn, other cultures have no problem with sharing) it’s that white people are barging in and taking things with no regard for what they might mean to the original culture.
See, that’s a rude thing. But this is tumblr, where any vague approximation of a good heuristic turns into an absolute, ironclad, rule.
The thing is, it’s not that people have a problem with sharing their own cultures. It’s that random bystanders jump in and accuse someone of “cultural appropriation” any time they use words, phrases, clothing, or anything else associated with… well, that gets complicated. But it’s used very aggressively even in cases where there is no indication whatsoever that the victim did not learn something sincerely and respectfully.
It’s like the difference between baking cookies for the entire neighborhood versus someone walking into your house uninvited and taking a cookie. You might even have been happy to share with them if they’d asked, but they didn’t, and when you try to tell them that you’re upset they just shrug and say that it’s only one cookie, and they liked how it tasted, so what’s the big deal?
That’s not quite a fair analogy, though, because in that case, you lose the cookie that someone took. I don’t dispute that lack of respect is a problem, but I am not sure it rises to the level of a problem that makes it okay to push other people around, either.
It’s not so much a matter of authority as respect. When white people (or other imperialistic cultures, of which we are only one of several) erase or appropriate other cultures, we’re showing a lack of basic respect for their beliefs and traditions.
Right. But not all adoption of things that come from other cultures is done without any respect. And tumblr is full of people who assert with absolutely no limitations or qualifications that anyone white who uses anything from another culture is always guilty of “appropriation”. And that it is by definition a lack of respect.
Those cultures have, as you said, no authority to make us stop, so instead they rely on social tools such as shaming and ostracization. The downside to this approach is that innocent people who just wanted to learn something new may now be denied access (now nobody in the neighborhood gets cookies, for example) but the injured culture was just trying to protect itself.
Which is where it’s useful to point out that it’s hurting innocent people, and does not actually protect the injured culture. It’s not just that it does harm; it’s that it does not actually have the intended benefit.
Like you said this isn’t a perfect solution, since if a given culture closes itself off too tightly it’ll die out (though this would vary depending on how large that culture was in the first place) but I don’t think the fault here lies with them, since closing themselves off was a reaction to somebody else’s harmful action.
If your reaction to somebody else’s harmful action doesn’t actually help you, and also hurts other people, then that is a fault. It is not “the” fault, but there’s no such thing as “the” fault. “Other people are at fault” and “I am at fault” are not mutually-exclusive claims. The point is, the “no one else is allowed to adopt this, only these people can ever use it” thing is not merely harmful to others; it’s ultimately even more harmful to the people being “protected” by it. The question isn’t just whether they are justified, or whether someone else caused them to do it, but whether it will actually benefit them in any way.
I’m not so much making a moral argument here as a pragmatic one. If the goal is to defend a culture, yelling at anyone and everyone who adopts any of that culture’s teachings or practices for “appropriation” is absolutely not going to attain that goal.
Okay, but this argument doesn’t work as a pragmatic solution either because people are still being hurt.
I didn’t say it was a solution to the problem. I’m just pointing out that the thing all the tumblr “social justice” people are doing isn’t preventing people from being hurt. It’s hurting even more people, but it’s not making things better. It’s not even a tradeoff. It’s not that it’s making things better, but some people get hurt. It’s just hurting people.
I’m not suggesting that, if they stopped doing it, the original harm would go away; just that it wouldn’t be being compounded by even more harm.
Culturally significant items are being used as fashion accessories and traditions are being forgotten, while the people who actually know how to use those items and traditions properly are targeted by racists.
Yes. But the thing is… It’s happening worse/more/faster in communities where the “white people can’t ever use this” meme has gotten a foothold. Because, well. The people who are trying to learn how to use those items and traditions properly are, in fact, being targeted by racists.
Non-white cultures lose either way, but they’re still losing more than us because at the end of the day, we’re still going to have our culture and the things our ancestors stole. They stand a chance of losing everything that was theirs.
Yes. I do not deny that this is the case. I do not deny that it sucks. I merely deny that making it worse makes it better.
True pragmatism would be cutting off access in the short term, so they can consolidate their position as the keepers of their particular strain of cultural traditions, and then start gradually letting people back in.
It is always a dangerous sign to identify one particular thing as “true” pragmatism. Especially when it’s a thing which hasn’t been shown to be workable. And frankly, it isn’t possible — there’s no way to “cut off access” that would actually work. The world is too connected. So even if it would work if it could be done, it’s irrelevant because it can’t be done.
Furthermore, humans being humans… There’s no “in the short term”. We’re back to Martin Luther King’s most excellent point about how it’s always in the future that things are supposed to improve. You can’t pick a clearly defined point at which the “right” people are adequately consolidated as the keepers of a set of cultural traditions, and then it’s okay to start let people back in. I mean, even if you could, that time would always be after just a little longer, because once people have power, they do not generally willingly let it go. And even if they were willing to let go of that power, you can’t “gradually” let people have access to culture. If it’s out there, it may spread unexpectedly quickly or slowly. You can’t control all the people.
So that’s not “true pragmatism”, or even pragmatism at all, because it’s not a thing which can be done, and it’s not at all obvious that it would have the desired effects even if it were possible.
Simply reminding people to be respectful doesn’t work because a sizable, vocal group has established that it doesn’t care about that.
It doesn’t “work”, but then, nothing “works” in the sense of meeting all the goals that are basically reasonable.
Yes, there’s also a very loud, disrespectful group working in the other direction as well, but who is actually doing more damage here?
“Who is doing more damage” is not a useful question unless you have the power to unilaterally force them to stop. Unless you have that kind of power, the only question that matters is “are my actions doing damage?”
The dogmatic rule that only people with a given genetic background can use a given word or phrase is doing damage. It will never stop doing damage. It is a direct and effective advancement of the goals of the people who want the marginalized cultures eradicated. That it is being done out of presumably good intent to try to protect or preseve doesn’t change the effects it has; it has the effect of further-marginalizing and shrinking the things it supposedly wants to protect.
The only time that “X doesn’t work, we have to do Y” is a useful argument is if Y works. The dogmatic “no X can ever use this word” rule doesn’t work. It doesn’t even work a little; it actively undermines the goal it’s nominally intended to serve.
I am all for trying to find a solution, but the fact is, if someone’s badly burned, even if I don’t have any burn ointment handy, I am at least going to start by pointing out that setting them on fire more isn’t going to help.
Well, this post blew pretty much all of my arguments out of the water. I think I need to do some more thinking and reading before I can come up with any new suggestions, since…yeah, you’re right. Dogmatic rules aren’t going to cut it, regardless of the intention in making them.