Cultural appropriation is the new gluten free

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Cultural appropriationLike food fads, political fads wax and wane as the gnat-like attention span of their followers gets diverted by the Next Big Thing. Political Correctness has of late given birth to Cultural Appropriation just like the gluten-free food fad gave rise to lectin-free food fad.

All such fads are fuelled by the earnest desire of some people to avoid thinking and follow the crowd over the intellectual cliff. They’re not about analysis, research, and objectivity: they’re about being on the Latest Thing bandwagon.

All fads teeter on a basic misapprehension; sometimes it’s a fabrication, other times a misunderstanding, and other times simply a con. Anti-vaccination faddists, for example, believe that vaccines cause autism. You can present reams of evidence that debunks their core belief, but they won’t get off their bandwagon to investigate, let alone change their erroneous belief. You can ridicule chemtrails, flat earth, alien abductions, angels, ghosts, homeopathy and Bigfoot all you want – it won’t shake the faith of the true believers. Just look at the uber-wingnut Food Babe and her gormless followers…

Like food fads, political fads are steadfast until they aren’t. But in the interim, people get pleasure out of pointing fingers and accusing others. Shaming and name calling. Such is the state of the Cultural Appropriation fad: calling out those who deliberately or even inadvertently “appropriate” another culture has replaced the accusations of bigotry, racism, bullying, cyberbullying and misogyny among the Upright Politically Correct Watchdogs for Cultural Appropriation Violations (UPCWFCAV).

Wikipedia tells us that Cultural Appropriation is:

…the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1] 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.

If you even so much as think of rolling seaweed and rice together and you’re not Japanese, watch out: the UPCWFCAV will have you skewered on social media or through indignant letters to the editor. If you dare pluck a balalaika and you’re not Russian, think of getting a Chinese-character tattoo and you’re not Chinese, make a taco and you’re not Mexican, wear dreadlocks and you’re not Jamaican, or admire a totem pole and you’re not First Nations… watch out. The UPCWFCAV will be on you in a flash.

But the UPCWFCAV aren’t made up of Japanese, Russian, Jamaican, First Nations or other natives protecting their culture from exploitation. They’re mostly white, urban (and suburban), leftish Westerners with too much time on their hands and hankering for a suitable cause in which to sink their well-maintained teeth and inject some meaning into their lives.

Cultural appropriation
Now it doesn’t matter to the UPCWFCAV if you meant any disrespect. It doesn’t matter if you were sincerely trying to show your respect. It doesn’t matter if it never occurred to you. It doesn’t matter if you actually like tacos and sushi and used an original recipe. If they say you appropriated someone else’s culture, then you must suffer the consequences. There is no trial, no debate: you’re going to Political Correctness Hell on their say so.

In Collingwood, for example, in preparation for the Canada Day celebrations, the downtown BIA has (as it has in the past) sponsored the painting of numerous Adirondack chairs (or Muskoka chairs if you will) with various designs and artwork. One artist had painted one in a style similar to West Coast totem pole designs. And, attempting to be inclusive of First Nations, someone had donated a painted totem pole to stand innocuously on the podium during the ceremonies. Just two of many items on display during the event.

Well the local UPCWFCAV got wind of this affront to human dignity and went ballistic. Two of their vocal harridans – neither of them from a First Nation – immediately penned scathing emails to the BIA and council threatening to make a stink should the town not immediately remove these offensive items. No one from any First Nations seemed to have commented that they were in any way offended or distressed by them items. But the town and BIA caved in like a Saltine cracker under a tire.

Now if a First Nations person had made their discomfort known or taken umbrage with these objects, most people would have respected their concerns and removed them. There might have been a discussion on the use of the art and symbols,on using native artists and on the difference between West Coast nations and those from Ontario. There could have been some education and some exchange of ideas. But there wasn’t. The BIA scrambled to get the items removed because two white folk whined. (Brave Margot Trott put these items in her store window as a protest to caving in – kudos to her.)

Culture, however, isn’t what the UPCWFCAV seems to think it is. It isn’t an object, or anything solid. It’s not a painting or a plate of food or a headdress. It’s not something you can hold or contain. It’s way too nebulous for that. Live Science has this to tell us:

Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.
The Center for Advance Research on Language Acquisition goes a step further, defining culture as shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs and understanding that are learned by socialization. Thus, it can be seen as the growth of a group identity fostered by social patterns unique to the group.
The word “culture” derives from a French term, which in turn derives from the Latin “colere,” which means to tend to the earth and grow, or cultivation and nurture. “It shares its etymology with a number of other words related to actively fostering growth,” Cristina De Rossi, an anthropologist at Barnet and Southgate College in London, told Live Science.

Culture isn’t genetic either: it’s taught. It seeps into people through peers, teachers, parents, churches, languages, music, ceremonies, religion, streetscapes and landscapes. Simply because I have Scottish heritage doesn’t mean I can make haggis or play the bagpipes. Culture is viral: it spreads and grows without much concern for its original host.

Culture gets shared and spread and explored and remade outside any artificial boundaries, particularly now thanks to international relations and trade, and the internet. Without that sharing, English would still be Chaucerian – without any of the wonderful words from French, Latin, Russian, Japanese, Indian, German, Italian and Chinese it has picked up since. Without it, we’d never have the flavours of spices, curries, and most of the world’s vegetables and fruit. We wouldn’t have Motown, jazz or blues, we wouldn’t have sushi or pizza or tacos or butter chicken without that sharing. We wouldn’t have Madame Butterfly or The Mikado, or The Last of the Mohicans or Show Boat or Star Trek or Othello or a million other works unless the artists had challenged themselves to go beyond their own culture and explore.

You can’t put each cultural aspect into a box and say only its originators can use it. Ideas don’t work like that. Creative people naturally explore, synergize, expand, experiment. Sibelius, Stravinsky, Britten and many other early 20th century composers incorporated folk songs and tunes into their music, weaving them into a larger work. Without that sharing, we wouldn’t have their masterpieces. We wouldn’t have margaritas or likely ANY spirits, since distillation is an Arabic invention. There would be no translation of books or poetry – English readers would have no Dante, no Machiavelli,, no Tolstoy, no Murakami, no Lao Tzu, no Bible.

You wouldn’t have concrete Buddhas or angels or even gnomes in your garden. No Hallowe’en or hip hop or reggae. No song covers, no tribute artists. No tea, no coffee. No Bollywood unless you’re Indian. You better not wear a Hawaiian shirt if you can’t trace your ancestry to the original people there.

We wouldn’t have our internet and smart phones and cars, either, because they trace back to the Industrial Revolution which goes back to the Enlightenment then to the Renaissance – all movements of shared culture and ideas that spread beyond borders. We probably wouldn’t even have democracy because it is the cultural appropriation of a Greek city state.

And religion? You certainly wouldn’t have Christianity because it appropriated every pagan festival and symbol it could find. Islam appropriated from both Christianity and Judaism. Buddhism appropriated from Hindu practices. And so on. We wouldn’t even be allowed to speak the names of other gods because they are scared to someone’s culture. Whole vocabularies would be verboten. And those Tibetan bowls you bought on eBay? That resin sculpture of Ganesh decorating your mantle? The angels in your favourite Facebook meme? Your yoga teacher? Meditation guru? Tai Chi director? Acupuncturist? Cultural appropriator!

I’m Canadian. Is it cultural appropriation for me to say “sod off” and call someone a “blighter”? I’m in Ontario. Is it cultural appropriation for me to eat poutine? I’m in a small town north of the city – is it cultural appropriation for me to refer to Toronto as the “Big Smoke”? Where does it end? Cultures are not defined solely by political boundaries.

Think of historical re-enactments: Brits dressing up as Romans in front of Hadrian’s Wall. Canadians dressing up in Civil War costumes. Think of young people all over the world playing the ukulele (itself culturally appropriated from the Portuguese). They’re all guilty according to the scripture of the UPCWFCAV. For them, everything is contained in little boxes and nothing can travel from box to box.

If the watchdogs rule, then there will be no martial arts by Westerners any more. No Australian Mel Gibson playing Scottish William Wallace. No English Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi or Derek Jacoby playing Claudius. No Jude Law or Jeremy Irons dressed up as the Pope. No Mel Brooks as an Indian chief. No actors would be allowed to play outside their narrow origins. And certainly no parodies or lampoons at all because humour is so insensitive to cultural boundaries. No Peter Sellers’ skits about Indians.

Culture is too fluid, too plastic to be constrained by these myopic, would-be protectors. Cultural exchange, cultural sharing is not a bad thing. It allows our world to expand, our horizons to broaden. It lets us be multicultural.

A university erupts in angst over undercooked sushi: mediocre food preparation is turned into a political battlefield over “cultural appropriation.” Yet, as noted in The Atlantic,

The dining hall is serving cheap imitations of East Asian dishes because all college campuses serve cheap imitations of all dishes––they’re trying to feed students as cheaply as possible, and authentic bánh mis, never mind sushi, would cost much more. And, of course, East Asian students are hardly alone in being served inauthentic versions of foods they grew up eating.

A food truck in Portland is shut down because the tortillas are made by two white, American women – who spent months going to Mexico and the American Southwest to learn their trade from traditional tortilla makers. But then they stand accused of Cultural Appropriation.

Gustavo Arellano wrote in the OC Weekly:

What these culture warriors who proclaim to defend Mexicans don’t realize is that we’re talking about the food industry, one of the most rapacious businesses ever created. It’s the human condition at its most Darwinian, where EVERYONE rips EVERYONE off. The only limit to an entrepreneur’s chicanery isn’t resources, race, or class status, but how fast can you rip someone off, how smart you can be to spot trends years before anyone else, and how much money you can make before you have to rip off another idea again…
To suggest—as SJWs always do—that Mexicans and other minority entrepreneurs can’t possibly engage in cultural appropriation because they’re people of color, and that we’re always the victims, is ignorant and patronizing and robs us of agency. We’re no one’s victims, and who says we can’t beat the wasichu at their game? And who says Mexicans are somehow left in the poor house by white people getting rich off Mexican food

“Stop shaming the culture appropriation of food,” says the headline of a piece on Red Alert Politics:

To be clear, no one “rightly owns” a “tradition or culture,” just as much as no one owns the image of a yellow smiley face or the song “Good Morning to All” otherwise known as the “Happy Birthday” song.

Yes, the site offers a right-wing apologist view, but despite the ideological claptrap that makes my leftist eyes water, some of the statements are still true. Another right-wing article on Zero Hedge echoed the sentiments:

Cultural appropriation is a bizarre concept when you think about it. It demands that you treat every culture like an animal in a zoo. You can admire them from afar, but don’t you dare touch.
It’s also a sign of severe cognitive dissonance among leftists. They claim they want everyone in the world to mix and live in peace, but they snap at people who dare to share another culture.
Ironically, it sounds an awful lot like regular old racism. It used to be that liberals fought ideologies that segregated races and cultures. Now these people are fighting for the same thing that racists in the past fought for; which is to maintain the purity of certain races and cultures. And just as it was in the past, this deluded belief is ruining lives.

There’s a superiority being voiced here. The self-styled protectors of cultural integrity see other cultures as too brittle, too fragile to survive without their protection in the milieu of modern society. In effect they want other cultures turned into fossils we only see in museum cases. Hands off, untouchable, each with a little typewritten card noting its provenance and when it died. It’s pretty arrogant to think those cultures or people can’t stand up for themselves, to think they can’t withstand the exposure to a wider world without the watchdogs hovering over them.

In a similar vein, the Washington Post quotes Krishnendu Ray, associate professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University:

“If you pay attention to the food and to the language and to their lives, that is not a colonizing act,” Ray told The Washington Post’s Lavanya Ramanathan. “I, in general, do not think appropriation is a bad thing. There’s all this discussion about cultural appropriation. Should we all be imprisoned in our little holes, with our cultural walls, completely closed off to others? If you are eating another’s food, engaging with their lives, engaging with their ways of conceiving the world, that is a welcome engagement. That is how newness enters the world.”

We’re not talking about misappropriation for a nefarious racist or xenophobic cause or to ridicule and disrespect. We’re not talking about stereotypes or costumes and outdated stereotypes that perpetuate the hatred. We’re not talking about mocking or degrading. We all get it: that’s not right. We need better education that teaches people the difference between respect and ridicule. I realize it’s a tough sell in the selfie-generation era that’s all about me-me-me, but that’s what we need to discuss. Blowing up over every perceived slight doesn’t make it better, especially when it comes from outside the group whose culture you’re accused of appropriating.

The UPCWFCAV isn’t serving up social justice by their intolerant shrieks: they’re just feeding the growing social polarization and divisiveness. And they’re smothering free speech and artistic creativity.

By pressuring us to treat every expression of culture outside our own as sacrosanct and inviolable, they are forcing us away from embracing other cultures. Making us afraid to extend ourselves to explore them and discover lest we be social-media shamed. André Alexis wrote in the Globe and Mail:

“I can’t help feeling, though, that as we celebrate Canada 150, we have devised an idea—‘cultural appropriation’—that runs the risk of hiding Indigenous Canadian culture, not preserving it.”

To share, to explore, to appreciate, to delve into artistic possibilities, to experiment with other foods and flavours, to incorporate new words into our language – why is that wrong? It’s been happening for millennia. In fact, early homo Sapiens likely took some of their tool making techniques from Neanderthals some 70,000 years ago. You can’t walk into a mall or along a main street without seeing it a dozen times over in shops and restaurants. Open a magazine and look at the ads, the stories, the photos.

It will continue despite the fervent but petty efforts of the UPCWFCAV to lock us in little boxes.

Let’s discuss it. Let’s debate it. Let’s churn up social media and editorial pages with carefully considered, reasoned arguments and considerations. But let’s stop pointing fingers, threatening and shaming because it isn’t resolving this debate. Let’s stand up to the UPCWFCAV and tell them to stop whining.

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