Without social justice warriors we wouldn’t have any social justice. But every once in a while these moral crusaders get a little carried away. A case in point – well, at least on the surface – is the current crusade against cultural appropriation. Apparently, as a white woman, my wife shouldn’t be putting her hair in dreadlocks or wearing a sari. Presumably then neither should I, as an Ashkenazi Jew, be making curry or eating pizza. Neither should I have learned to speak Italian. And certainly we shouldn’t have a second home, as we do, in Italy.
This isn’t just stupid. It’s life-threatening. English cooking is inedible. That’s why, as soon as India and Pakistan became independent, the number of former subjects of the ‘brown’ persuasion the English allowed into England was greater than the number of blacks they once shipped from Africa to the Americas. But inedibility is a mere inconvenience. Jewish cooking is downright lethal. My leaving home at seventeen was a simple matter of survival!
It’s cultural appropriation for a white woman to put her hair in dreadlocks, or to dress in a sari, but it’s not cultural appropriation for an Indian man to wear a Western suit. Apparently this asymmetry has something to do with recognizing the injustice, and therefore the asymmetry, of colonialism. Of course this requires that we forget that most colonized people – the Arabs for example – were themselves once colonizers, and apparently pretty brutal ones at that. But apparently pointing this out is considered in bad taste.
Now personally I’m not convinced that colonialism as such need always to have been an injustice. I’m guessing that many if not most Zimbabweans would much prefer the return of the British over Mugabe. But even supposing colonialism is never a good thing, and even supposing we accept the notions of collective liability and entitlement, I’m still a tad unsure about the reasoning being deployed here.
- Brits are white.
- Brits were colonialists.
- Colonialists shouldn’t appropriate the culture of the colonized.
- Finns are white, therefore
- Finns shouldn’t appropriate the culture of those colonized by the Brits.
That is, even supposing we accept (1) through (4), I’m not sure how these get us to (5).
But to be fair, perhaps there’s a more defensible line of argument. I think it would go something like this:
The wrongness of cultural appropriation lies not in any real or imagined past malfeasance on the part of the appropriator or her ancestors, but rather in the simple fact that offense is often taken by those whose culture is being appropriated. So however historically innocent she might be, if the Finnish woman wearing a sari nevertheless reminds an Indian man of British colonialism, and if that memory is hurtful to him, that should be reason enough for the Finnish woman to find something else to wear to the party. It’s the same reason why Al Jolson ought not to have put on blackface, or why white children ought not to dress as Indians or Arabs for Halloween. It’s not that these kids are trying to mock Indians or Arabs. In fact in their desire to identify, they might, in their minds, be honouring them. It’s that many Indians or Arabs feel themselves being mocked. And when it comes to feelings, ‘rightly or wrongly’ makes no sense.
Let me be even fairer. I’m one of those Jews who take less-than-entirely kindly to converts to the faith. Why? Because to me being Jewish is being the inheritor of thousands of years of racial history, and one’s racial history is not something that can be acquired by taking some ritual bath. But I accept the asymmetry here. An Indian has a moral right to try to assume the cultural identity of a European for the same reason a Jew had a moral right during the Shoah to try to pass as a gentile. But if in the process the Indian becomes a European, or the Jew becomes a gentile, that’s something to be lamented, not celebrated.
So trust me when I say I get it. I get why some Indians complained when Ben Kingsley was assigned the role of Gandhi. I get why some North American aboriginals now reject the Christianity with which they were indoctrinated in their residential schools precisely because of the circumstances under which they found themselves in those schools.
But what does my getting all this get me? That it’s only because there’s no history of Jews oppressing Italians that I’m morally entitled to learn Italian? But because of Jew-on-Arab atrocities like Sabra and Shatila I shouldn’t learn Arabic? No? Why? Presumably language gets a pass on the charge of cultural appropriation. But not always. What do we think of the privileged white kid from the suburbs trying to speak Ebonics?
Okay, so cultural appropriation is complicated. It has something to do with history, but we’re not sure exactly what. It’s significantly modified by pragmatic considerations, like not wanting to return to the conditions of a stone-age people. So we get native drummers performing in heated university auditoriums, even though in many cases not one of them knows what he’s drumming, or that he’s not just making it up as he goes along. The Blackfoot hunted the buffalo on foot until they became an equestrian culture on the backs of horses brought to the Americas by Spain. So to the degree that the Indian Wars, by which the West was won, was fought on both sides on horseback, what grounds do we have to believe that the vanquished would have been less oppressive had they instead been the victors? So is cultural appropriation a charge that can only be brought against a victor? And at that only with respect to components of the vanquished culture not implicated in its defeat?
Look. No one wants to live in the world we would still be living in if no two tribes had ever met. When tribes meet, regardless of the circumstances of that meeting, occasionally worse ideas from one tribe displace better ideas in the other. (The residential schools were probably a case in point.) But more often than not better ideas replace worse ones. (Curried lamb is a much better idea than rolled oats in sheep gut.) That’s just how memic evolution works. That’s how we got from the cave where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, to the rainbow of hairstyles and dishes that grace our heads and our dinner tables. They’re the spoils of victory and of defeat.
So tell ya what. You don’t ask my wife whether you can read a copy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and she won’t ask you if she can imitate the way you braid your hair. Deal?