On cultural appropriation

Over the last few months, I’ve come across this concept of “cultural appropriation” several times. I don’t claim to get it completely, but I think I understand it enough to comment about it.

Going by Wikipedia, cultural appropriation

is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture

The list of celebrities who’ve been accused of cultural appropriation runs way too long to list here, but it’s basically a popular topic of outrage among the modern left, commonly described by their detractors as “social justice warriors” (SJW).

In any case, my attention to the topic was drawn by a recent essay on the topic by philosopher Kenan Malik. In “In defence of cultural appropriation“, first published in the New York Times, Malik writes:

But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.

In fact, reading the rather long essay, it was hard for me to disagree with him. In fact, it started to make me wonder why cultural appropriation is a matter of debate at all – controversial enough that at least three editors who defended it have lost their jobs (per Malik). In fact, Malik himself was victim of significant online abuse and trolling following his article.

So thinking about this topic during a work break the other day, I found compelling evidence about why the concept is bullshit – basically, it’s one-sided.

The whole concept of “cultural appropriation” hinges on there being a “superior community” and a “marginalised community”, with members of the former not allowed to adopt practices of the latter. This is a one-way street – if you turn the argument around and say that a person from a traditionally “marginalised community” should not adopt cultural practices of a “superior community”, you’re essentially being racist or casteist or whatever.

Consider this, for example – “Dalits should not recite the Vedas because by doing so, they are appropriating the culture of caste Hindus“.  It is unlikely that any self-respecting SJW would condone this statement. But turn the communities around, and the outrage on cultural appropriation become legit!

This makes the entire concept problematic, since it rests on a prior of certain communities being “marginalised”. In other words, it rests on a prior of a partial ordering of “communities”, with some considered more advanced than the other. Take away any such ordering or hierarchy, and the concept of cultural appropriation falls flat.

To me, the outrage about cultural appropriation smacks of a sort of “white man’s burden” among SJWs in an attempt to seemingly protect seemingly marginalised communities. All this achieves, as Kenan Malik mentions in his essay, is to empower the self-appointed leaders of these marginalised communities.

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