Friday, June 7, 2019

Cultural appropriation vs. spirituality: a thorough dissection

Since my recent thrift-store luck in connection with an upcoming event has provided opportunity for a good accompanying photo for the topic, now struck me as the right time for a few things I wanted to say about cultural appropriation, specifically the concept’s salience within the context of what might broadly be called spirituality.

Sections of this entry:

Note: this wound up being insanely long even by this blog’s already-unreasonable standards - hence the jump cut below - so if you are mainly here for the spirituality-related content and find lengthy dwelling upon the concept of cultural appropriation to be tedious, feel free to skip down to the last section, as that’s where I get to the point that I’ve least seen people talking about elsewhere when cultural appropriation comes up.

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Two definitions

Cultural appropriation

In contemporary far-left usage, I think it is reasonable to define cultural appropriation as the idea that when a more-powerful culture decides it likes some aspect (religious, aesthetic, culinary or etc) of a less-powerful culture, and then takes and popularizes this aspect separate from its original cultural context, the less-powerful culture is thereby harmed.  

The nature of harm asserted varies with the exact borrowing involved, but usually entails at least one of the following:
  1. Treating the less-powerful culture as if it has no agency or jurisdiction over its own cultural products, producing a sense of having been violated;

  2. Members of the more-powerful culture being rewarded with wealth and status due to association with the appropriated thing, while members of the less-powerful culture remain poor and disadvantaged, producing a sense of unfairness;

  3. Perceptions of the less-powerful culture becoming distorted in the eyes of the public due to the more-powerful culture’s usage of their cultural property, e.g. loss of distinctness via conflation with other “similar” cultural groups, inappropriate sexualization, etc.;

  4. Desecration of sacred objects via their removal from their original location and original context.


What I am referring to in this entry as spirituality I will here define as an approach to answering one’s personal existential, philosophical, ethical and metaphysical questions that puts “the self” at the centre, i.e. the testing of “truths” against personal experience and the corresponding tendency to reject traditional authorities and institutions. 

This definition of spirituality may sound to some like it is just "more of that Satanism-related stuff," but I intend “spirituality” to refer to a broader range of beliefs and practices than that.  That is, people who are “spiritual” vary widely re: some are more other-worldly-oriented vs. some are more this-worldly-oriented, some come to believe that justice is somehow “built into the universe” vs. some reject this, some believe in “gods” while others believe in “forces”, etc.  However, under the umbrella of “spiritual,” all of these types will fit the pattern I just described re: their worldview is to some extent a sampling of multiple pre-existing traditions combined primarily according to individual taste and what “works” for oneself, rather than according to what “should” be done according to an external authority figure of some kind.

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A brief defense of the validity of the concept of cultural appropriation

In my mind, there is a spectrum of cultural appropriation cases, such that the more one can make a case for the four harms I listed above being present, the more there is a problem with the appropriation in question.  Thus, the most strongly “how about don’t do that” case is the sort where:
  1. The culture appropriated-from is an Indigenous group who’s already gotten super-fucked-over by history, only to now have yet another thing taken without their permission;

  2. The appropriator makes money while life on reserves remains shitty;

  3. The appropriator gets seen as some kind of expert on the culture when they in fact have only a shallow understanding and thus are misleading people;

  4. The whole thing hurts more inasmuch as the object in question was a sacred one of great importance, not just a mundane, everyday, casually-used sort of item.

Let us be clear at the outset then that this is not one of those “cultural appropriation is bullshit – appropriate away!” –type articles that you often see on the Internet these days on “free thought” –oriented sites, as I actually do think the concept can be applied usefully in at least some circumstances and should thus not be dismissed entirely.

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Difficulties with the concept of cultural appropriation, I: Issues with assessment of alleged harm caused

Re: issues with assessment of alleged harm, here are some things I think are worth thinking about in response to each of the claims 1-4 presented above:

Re: Issues of agency

While some groups are in a sufficiently disempowered situation that I can see how appropriative gestures can feel predatory to them, I think that not all groups are in this position, and acting as if they are has the unintentional effect of exaggerating the importance of What White People Think. 

I personally come from a long line of Asians whose method of dealing with racism has always been very “racists are stupid people – fuck ‘em!,” the implication for present purposes then being along the lines of, for instance, “who cares if some dumbass round-eyes put on some cheesy burlesque show that conflates Chinese and Japanese cultures – that kind of shit is why we laugh at them!” 

To deny the possibility of this kind of response is, in my mind, handing over one’s personal power to The Herd via excessive concern about what The Herd thinks.  Not that one is entirely free to dismiss the power structure present in society, but my point is that excessive preoccupation with What White People Think seems more likely to wind up reinforcing that power structure than challenging it.

Re: Issues of unfairness

Capitalist arguments about the fairness of rewarding first-to-market entrepreneurship aside, I actually do just think the profiting-at-another’s-expense thing is an issue, i.e. if you benefit materially from having taken such material to market, morally you should give back to those who enabled you to thus benefit. 

For example, if you borrow ideas from an obscure music genre and then wind up becoming famous, please at some point share the specifics re: artists & songs that inspired you.  This kind of thing strikes me as being good for everyone inasmuch as then, everyone gets to discover more cool things.

This aside though, when “profit” is less about money and more about who gets to be in the public eye being talked about, who is seen as an expert and that kind of thing, this bleeds both into the issue above (i.e. does getting hysterical about What White People Think wind up granting idiots more power than they deserve?) and the issue below.

Re: Issues of perception

When some non-Indigenous idiot goes on a weekend spiritual retreat and then pretentiously goes around calling themselves a traditional shaman or the like, I find this as distasteful as the next leftist does. 

However, I think that especially within the spiritual context, but even outside of it too, there are many people who dabble in content from other cultures who are fully aware that what they are doing is in an obvious sense “not traditional,” and who thus never made any claim to be “an expert” or to be “authentic.”  (My own spiritual affinity with Tezcatlipoca is the kind of thing I would put in this category.) 

What I then see happening is that there are certain SJWs who go around policing the issue of cultural appropriation with the assumption that claims of expertise/authenticity are automatically intrinsic to any White person’s participation in anything.  In other words, they assume everyone is that pretentious shaman-wannabe-guy, when a majority of practitioners may well be more circumspect and modest than that about what they are doing and therefore do not deserve this judgment. 

A parallel that may further illustrate what I’m getting at here: many people are irritated by the kind of person who goes to a few “ethnic” restaurants and then goes around talking like they’re “the expert” who knows where to find “the authentic stuff.”  But I think what really is objectionable there is the pretentious attitude, not the consumption of the food in and of itself.  So then, if a lot of people were going around just eating that kind of food, only to be yelled at for being that pretentious asshole when all they did was eat the food and not talk about it that way, this discourages people from eating the food for the sake of fixing an overstated problem-with-assholes that had nothing to do with those people. 

It thus seems to me that some of what people label as “cultural appropriation” problems are actually problems to do with being an arrogant hipster (motto: “this thing I’m into is really authentic, so you probably haven’t heard of it”), not problems to do with the sheer fact of having interacted with something from a different culture. 

Re: Issues of desecration

Re: theft and desecration of spiritual items, this is again something I am pretty sympathetic toward re: don’t do it.  (Do chaos magic instead – it’s both easier and cheaper than chasing down “the authentic.” ;)) 

That said though, I think it is worth noting that in some contexts, the exclusivity of the culture’s sacred items or knowledge is tied to what I would frankly call patriarchal bullshit, i.e. a bunch of fussy old dudes not wanting any girls in their spiritual clubhouse.  And while I’m not saying it’s necessarily okay then for some Western person to swoop in to try and save-the-feminist-day by “liberating the forbidden knowledge to share with all people equally” – i.e. maybe let the women in that culture take that issue on, instead of deciding for them – it is a bit difficult for me to side fully with preserving the traditional norms when I belong to a religion that holds that Eve eating the apple at the Serpent’s urging was a good thing. 

In short, then: physical desecration of sacred land, objects or etc. is to me a fairly obvious wrong to be avoided, but if the claim “that’s sacred” is being used in a way that preserves problematic hierarchies within the culture, I feel leery about demands for that kind of sacredness to be always granted absolute respect.

Summing up re: harms: is it really all bad?

Something that’s often been said against the concept of cultural appropriation is that the normal course of things is that cultures grow and develop over time precisely by appropriating from one another.  And while there are a lot of shitty editorials out there that make this point in an annoyingly-breezy way that is often neglectful of issues faced by Indigenous groups in particular, I do nonetheless think there is something to be said for it.

I mean, if one culture makes something awesome, and others take it and make it more awesome (consider, for instance, the African-American -> European -> Asian continuity of musical-influencing-and-borrowing required to start from blues, go through rock and metal, and eventually arrive at amazing oriental metal bands such as Tengger Cavalry or Chthonic), yes one can technically say that appropriation has occurred. 

And yet, that appropriation need not entail the harms that the far left associates with cultural appropriation, and seems to instead bring gains to multiple cultures involved in at least some cases - e.g. in the musical example just mentioned, all of those genres contain awesome music.  Why then is this a problem?

This type of thing then is why, when a small group of people going around talking as if all cultural appropriation is bad, a silent majority rolls their eyes or makes sarcastic remarks about how I guess you have to stop doing math now because it’s an appropriation of Arabic and Indian cultures. 

People react that way not simply because they are right-wing troglodytes (though some are) but because upon consulting their own experience of the human condition, it really does just seem to them that the way the far left acts about this issue is out of touch with the reality of porous borders between cultures.

In fact, one might even go further and argue that when the far left gets too up in arms about cultural appropriation, it is in fact guilty of the very sort of Romanticist-Orientalist fallacy that it ought to be critical of: the fallacy that only the West changes/progresses over time, whereas all other cultures are frozen in the past and should be preserved in that condition so that they remain pristine. 

This then dovetails with that thing where people who call themselves “progressive” will defend regressive cultural customs (typically to the detriment of women and queer people) while talking as if any non-white person who does not uphold X’s traditional culture (e.g. ex-Muslims) must somehow not be a “real” X. 

I’m approaching a slight tangent from cultural appropriation in getting into this though, so to sum up this section: when cultural appropriation causes clearly identifiable harms, then it is a problem that needs to be talked about; not all appropriation in fact causes the harms in question though, and when people act like it does, this results in reactionary consequences. 

Among those consequences are three touched on above, and a fourth I’ll now add based on remarks I just made: i) acting as if the world revolves around What White People Think; ii) failing to recognize that it’s possible to engage with another culture’s material without being an arrogant hipster asshole; iii) protecting traditions that may themselves be contrary to liberal values; iv) negating complex realities by acting as if cultures as such are, or at least should be, static, compartmentalized and unchanging in nature.

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Difficulties with the concept of cultural appropriation – side-effects when wielded by the overzealous

In addition to the criticisms of cultural appropriation I’ve made above, there are an additional three concerns that I think are worth raising about the politics of who puts forward the charge of cultural appropriation and what consequences may follow from the charge.  Basically, the argument I’m making in this section is that overemphasis of the concept of cultural appropriation can produce negative effects upon three parties in particular: i) the culture situated as in need of protection from appropriation; ii) the culture guilty of appropriation in the past that may now be trying to change for the better; iii) people whose cultural belonging may be ambivalent due to their being of biracial heritage.

Issues re: the appropriated-from culture: the flattening of diversity

If a culture complains on its own behalf that it is being appropriated from, there may be circumstances in which this claim is being made by members of the culture who are representative of the culture’s more conservative end and/or motivated by the prospect of increasing their own power, status, etc. 

Western progressivism is then handing those members the ability to define whoever in their culture does not support the appropriation charge – e.g. in some instances, members who want to Westernize / modernize / etc. – as somehow not-as-genuine members of the culture. 

This outcome creates an impression that the liberal-conservative spectrum is only really found in the West, vs. all “real” members of other cultures support a single traditional view.  

Yet more obnoxious than this situation, however, is the one in which progressives complain about appropriation on a group’s behalf, in some instances without consulting the group itself as to whether it shares the concern. 

This can lead to situations in which outsiders are overriding the agency of the group by speaking “for” it – i.e. the same sort of violating gesture that progressives associate with cultural appropriation itself, one might note – and even bitching (probably on Twitter) about how any member of the group in question that isn’t as mad about the appropriation as the progressives themselves are could only have been brainwashed by imperialism or some such thing.

In both of these instances, when the discourse of cultural appropriation comes into play, the outcome seems to be that whatever diversity may be present in the appropriated-from culture gets paved over; instead of acknowledging that there might be differences in how individuals understand and interact with their own cultures, with some being more open to hybridization and others less so, all complexity on that front gets reduced to a simple binary of “mad” (the “us” claiming that cultural appropriation is a problem) vs. “bad” (the “them” who, by not agreeing it’s a problem, is thereby accused of being on some sort of enemy side). 

Thus, when the “free thought” sites complain about the far left being hostile toward “viewpoint diversity,” it is not just some kind of cover for “alt righters have the right to annoy people with their stupid racist bullshit” – rather, what I have just described is just one example of suppressed viewpoint diversity that one would think a sane left ought to be able to see as indeed being a problem.

Issues re: the appropriating culture: denial of resources that might actually help make things better

Regarding this point, I find myself thinking about an academic article I once came across in which the author made arguments about the problematic content of Western philosophy (e.g. Plato) corrupting Christianity in such a way as to enable sexist, homophobic and racist/colonialist outcomes, thus putting Black Christians in a position of upholding their own oppression as a consequence of clinging to their faith. 

The article then goes on to suggest that if Black Christians were to turn away from the Western philosophical tradition toward indigenous-African religious traditions, and use these as a resource to reshape their understanding of Christianity, this would be beneficial as far as overcoming oppression and healing historical wrongs without having to just give up on their faith entirely. 

So far, so good – but then, the article starts hand-wringing about how the Western philosophical component is “more intrinsic” to the White Christian tradition than the Black Christian tradition, and suggesting that, for that reason, it may not be possible for the White Christian tradition to be “redeemed” in the way that the Black Christian tradition could be.

Now, think about what that logic could be taken as implying: skin color limits us in such a way that we are only “allowed” to draw upon resources from some cultures but not others?  And if, then, a culture guilty of historical wrongs wants to mend its ways, and there are good resources for rethinking its religious tradition out there, it is “not allowed” to play with those ideas and give that a try… because wrong color?  Like, really? 

As per everything I said above, I do understand how one might find it distasteful if “play with” manifests as “read some half-baked thing and then go strutting around like an expert on that topic.”  But talking as if a culture is not allowed to use another culture’s spiritual ideas to improve itself for the better, even with an attitude of humility, strikes me as really not constructive. 

In fact, if this attitude manifests as “everything White culture has ever done or will do is irredeemably terrible and any White borrowing from other cultures is always inevitably a new imperialist racist gesture,” I would argue that this is the very “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of proposition that encourages people to just tune out the far left entirely. 

I mean, why submit yourself to the judgment of people who put you in a lose-lose position where you cannot do anything except feel guilty, instead of just writing those people off as not being reasonable or constructive and hence not worth engaging with?

Now, that last question is not just rhetorical: it is one I am still asking myself, given the pit I fell into over the last few years, and at this time I do not yet have answers for myself that I feel fully satisfied with re: how a formerly proud and headstrong person like myself gets so deeply drawn into this stuff that suicidal depression becomes a problem. 

I would thus also add that this kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition can easily morph into “I am complicit in terrible things due to factors that I have no control over (e.g. birth into a particular group), and nothing I could do to address that will ever be good enough, so maybe the world is better off without me” –type thinking in a person with suicidal depression.

This then suggests that the overpolicing of cultural appropriation can be bad for individuals who feel they need some kind of redemption as well as for cultural groups in that position.

Issues for biracial people: breaking the intersectionality calculus

The current environment with regard to the far-left’s self-righteousness about cultural appropriation has created situations in which White individuals have gone up to half-White-half-Asian individuals dressed in Asian-style clothing and interrogated said person as to whether they really thought it was appropriate for “a White person” to be “dressed that way,” at the same time as no concerns or objections were raised by any Asian persons present at the event.

This is not hypothetical, as it is a real anecdote that a young person of my acquaintance disclosed to me a couple years back.  I myself had increasingly been feeling like wearing my Grandmother’s Chinese dresses out in public could be a potential source of drama on account of my looking White to most people, and hearing that someone else had actually experienced an incident of that sort was demoralizing at the time… but nowadays, is vindicating of my opinion that there is a problem here that I think is in bad need of being talked about.

The cultural appropriation issue with regard to biracial people in essence is as follows: if you are a biracial person who looks White, you nowadays get to deal with self-righteous (self-lefteous?) people who are so sure about their ability to assess vice and virtue according to the intersectional calculus, and so mired in the social-media-driven apocalyptic urgency of needing to issue a judgment about what is in front of them right this second, that you are basically called upon to prove your ethnicity to them any time they perceive you as engaging in something “ethnic.”  

One thus has the urge to perhaps remind these people that i) “don’t go around acting like you know everything” tends to be good advice for any and all human beings, and ii) there are still going to be “Nazis marching in the streets” whether you give that biracial person the third-degree about their clothes or you don’t; you thus do not need to police everyone you cross paths for the sake of “fighting the Nazis.” 

I suppose it should also be pointed out that if “need to fight Nazis” is your excuse for giving mixed race people a hard time, well… let’s just say that I strongly suggest that you maybe stop and think harder about how you are living your life.

Summary: “Wielded by the overzealous”

Re: this set of criticisms, one might observe that many of the problems discussed here can be boiled down to overzealousness on the part of certain far-left individuals.  It is, one could argue, out of excessive passion for “the good” that we wind up with people i.a) failing to see how their ideology can cause harm in the hands of people whose goals are ultimately antithetical to liberalism; i.b) overriding the agency of the very group they are trying to stand up for in the course of speaking on their behalf; ii) being so preoccupied with the calling out of evil that they are not willing to make any compromises that might actually better foster the eventual transformation of evil into good; and/or iii) being so preoccupied with the calling out of evil that they fail to reflect on the possibility that they themselves might on some level be contributing to it.

These ultimately are not so much issues with the concept of cultural appropriation itself, but rather issues with the ideology within which the concept of cultural appropriation is one element among several that are actually valid and useful when not in the hands of zealots.  This then potentially leads into other issues that I’ll likely address in other politics-related entries on this blog further down the line.

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How all this is relevant to spirituality

Okay, so finally, after all that, on to the implications of the far left’s take on cultural appropriation for spirituality and spiritually-inclined people:

As mentioned in my definitions above, spirituality is strongly characterized by a DIY pick-and-choose attitude, i.e. the individual is treated as the authority over their own experiences and is thereby empowered to seek out and incorporate whatever works for them personally into their own beliefs and practices, such that the majority of people who identify as “spiritual” will to some extent be adherents of syncretistic worldviews.

I think there is, then, a pretty obvious clash between that type of mentality and the type of mentality that insists on locking up cultural material in boxes and policing whether or not one is of the correct group to be permitted a peek inside. 

In fact, one could even go so far as to argue that if you accept the far-left’s account of what cultural appropriation is and the harms it causes in full, the “stay in your own lane” sentiment accompanying this then implies that spirituality is actually not a valid way of life at all, period, because it is entirely based on appropriation. 

I personally find that a pretty chilling conclusion, as I feel that is a massive undermining of personal autonomy inasmuch as it’s a case of “you are not allowed to investigate and try on ideas and practices for yourself – you must stick within these specific boundaries that we have identified for you, or else you are a terrible person.” 

Now, the intelligent far-leftist can of course draw on the criticisms I have made above to counter that “no one is saying you are not allowed; they are just saying don’t be a hipster dickhead in the course of doing it.”  And that is a fine sentiment that I agree with. 

However, the problem I see is that there are a whole bunch of SJW’s out there who have set way too low a bar for being judged as a hipster dickhead – the bar in question being, basically, all White people are automatically hipster dickheads.  

In fact, I have actually chanced across articles on the Internet whose whole sentiment was along the lines of “that whole pick-and-choose-from-different-cultures thing is so colonialist, OMG, who does that other than White people?” and I find it kind of hard to read something like that without being under the impression that “in a better world, nobody would do this” is an intended implication.

I think there are also a fair number of SJW types who feel almost instinctively that the sheer presence of books, objects, etc. pertaining to other cultures’ spiritual beliefs and practices in Western stores is “problematic.”  I expect that these folks are then apt to then implement a double standard I’ve noticed among many SJWs where something (in this case, say, owning a dream catcher) is a sign of open-mindedness and support of diversity if they or their friend does it, but a rage-inducing example of cultural appropriation if they glimpse it in the possession of some stranger who does not have an already-known status of “woke.” 

Somehow it does not occur to these people that nothing stops other woke folk who do not know them personally from drawing the same negative conclusions about them that they themselves regularly draw about strangers, and that maybe that whole scene would then be better off abandoning this urgent-need-to-judge-by-immediate-appearances-right-now thing that they seem so addicted to – i.e. as per my remarks above about the policing of biracial people.

Anyway though, I guess what I worry about most is the prospect of young people who might now be going through what I was going through in my late teens and early twenties as far as a spiritual searching goes, being made to feel as if no matter what they’re drawn to, there’s something wrong with it, i.e. either it’s associated with Western culture and therefore inherently tainted with patriarchal imperialism, or it’s not associated with Western culture and you ought not to appropriate it. 

It seems to me that this creates a situation in which one is systematically trained to downplay one’s own judgments/instincts/values/etc., so as to instead go around with the self-congratulatory view that one has thereby succeeded in serving justice by orienting oneself toward others instead of being “selfish.”

Really though, this faux-respectful “keeping one’s hands off others’ things” does not in any material way make life better for the marginalized others in question (i.e. maybe go volunteer and do something positive for other real people in real life, instead of referring to the mere navel-gazing overanalysis of the consumption patterns of yourself and your little group of friends as “activism”) and more constitutes a social gesture of “I’m doing nothing wrong – please don’t turn into a mob against me” directed toward one’s own peers. 

In other words, from where I’m standing, it looks an awful lot like herd conformity is the endgame here. And you cannot then expect a Satanist like myself to endorse a world that looks like that.

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Finishing off for now, since this stupid thing is somehow nine-pages long in the application I use when drafting these entries:
  • Yes, there are instances in which cultural appropriation is a problem, and I would not want people feeling like those conversations should not be had.
  • In my mind though, there is a whole long list of problems with the way the concept is used by the far left that I really think should be reckoned with more honestly.
  • I would not argue that “implies that spirituality is irredeemably problematic, thereby driving people away from something I’ve found to be of great value and significance in my own life” is in any objective sense the “top” item on this list of problems.
  • It does, however, happen to be a problem that I personally, as “a seeker of wisdom and power, fearless and proud in my pursuit of divinity,” have a pretty significant beef with.  And given all that I’ve articulated above, I do feel that I’m within my rights to have the concerns that I do.