I’ve heard a great deal of talk lately about the idea of Cultural Appropriation. To be honest, it’s a concept that I’ve struggled with somewhat, and I remain entirely unsure just where I stand, or if I even understand at all.
Defined in its simplest terms, Cultural Appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture (Link).
Based on this definition, Cultural Appropriation would seem to be an inevitable and positive occurrence, in which the finest contributions of each culture are co-opted for the betterment of all. This isn’t always the case however. In particular, when elements of a minority culture are being used by members of a majority culture, it’s often interpreted as stripping the minority culture of its identity in an oppressive or colonial manner.
This is especially true when said cultural elements are being used in ways which are not faithful to the original meanings of that culture. In short, it is seen as a sort of violation of intellectual property rights at best, or at worst an intentional disrespect of the minority culture.
This remains a concept I struggle with, and I’d be happy to see any of my better informed or more experienced readers share their opinions in the comments below. In general however, I tend to feel that cultures—and society as a whole—is beholden to this process, similar in many ways to the evolutionary process by which our very species has come into being.
The best must always be preserved, no matter its source. If one culture—even an extreme minority—has something unique and beneficial, then I feel whole-heartedly that not only is it ok for other cultures to adopt and gain from this knowledge—it is in fact imperative that they do so.
To exist in a vacuum is to deny the inherent potential offered by our natural variety, and variety—not only the metaphorical ‘spice of life’—is in fact the impetus behind all progress and adaptation.
Now certainly, this can be done in an inappropriate or disrespectful manner, and there can be no doubt that hollow imitation—or worse, heartless parody—is an unbefitting and shameful practice. Few thinking people would encourage actions as heinously disrespectful as ‘black face’ makeup, or so many shameful sports team mascots. Such caricaturized and identity-effacing displays are inarguably rooted in a place of abject disrespect if not open mockery, and there can be no place for such misguided ignorance in any civil society.
And yet, where would we be if not for the number ‘0’, which is understood to have been taken from the work of ancient Babylonian cultures. Or what about democracy itself—often dated back to ancient Athens and the culture of the Greeks? So many of societies great forward leaps—from understandings of astronomy, to physics, to science, to basic survival techniques and knowledge of edible foods vs. poisonous threats—have come from such a wide swath of cultures that it would be next to impossible to sort out ownership or acknowledge intellectual property rights.
Nor does this seem the best course even if it were feasible. ‘Claiming rights’ should never be placed above the growth and betterment of society, and the world as a whole—and humanity within it—would likely be much better off if all knowledge and skill was shared without question or condition.
I see little benefit to (for example) lambasting university students who practice Yoga—and if their understandings of its source or intentions are limited, this will likely be better solved through positive education and further sharing, rather than the bitter withholding of a potentially positive cultural contribution.
In the end, all sharing and social interaction must come from a place of respect and mutual benefit—to live together in this world, it is essential that we assure the equal opportunity for all to contribute and benefit from the cumulative knowledge of human history. In order to continue to grow and move forward, we must ultimately focus on approaching a new, blended culture which provides for and respects all of its members. I see little benefit from self-exclusion in the name of fighting for the relics of the past. Culture should be evolving, taking the best aspects of the old and merging it into the new.
All cultures must be able to take pride in their past, but to hold specific elements as sacrosanct and approachable only to members of that culture may run the risk of it dying out—and thus humanity as a whole losing out on a valuable concept or source of knowledge. As the world continues to globalize, culture must keep up. We must share our greatest accomplishments and learn to cherish not the exclusivity of the contribution, but the mutual benefit it brings to all.
Of course, this is a lofty and high-minded ideal, and one which is particularly difficult to achieve in a world which is so thoroughly divided by cultural tensions and national boundaries. Our civilization exists at all times in a precarious balancing act—claiming to appreciate all of humanity while standing ever at the ready to destroy anything different. So how can we accomplish the growth necessary to shift towards a more inclusive global society? We’ll cover that and more issue in next week’s article.
-Brad OH Inc.