Freddie deBoer spends time on Twitter so you don’t have to, and thinks independently instead of being a herd creature (which doesn’t let you off the hook.) Today in his post The Sublime Narcissism of Getting Offended On Other People’s Behalf he tears into the faddish accusation of cultural appropriation and other efforts to condemn behavior on behalf of someone else who shows no sign of being offended:
A few months back I got into a Twitter argument about the uselessness of complaints about cultural appropriation, in particular a muscular form that takes it as offensive to consume the goods of cultures to which one does not belong — food, clothing, music, and so on. I pointed out the usual problems with this thinking. All culture is hybrid; there is no place where legitimate appreciation ends and shameful appropriation begins; a world without cultural borrowing is a bleak and terrible place; and as I’ve said many times, saying “you should only consume that which comes from your own culture” is functionally identical to the efforts of white supremacists to keep the people pure.
Maybe most importantly, given that cultures are always large, diffuse, and made up of lots of different people, the idea of appropriation has to inevitably posit some ideal member of the group, when in reality all cultures are made up of many people. I had very earnest Twitterers telling me that American Chinese food is appropriation, not seeming to grasp that it was Chinese people who spread their cuisine in the United States, in order to make a living. In much the same way, thought white people doing yoga has been attacked as cultural appropriation, it was in fact a concerted effort by Indian people to spread the practice that has caused it to become an economic juggernaut in the West. Certainly members of those cultures can get mad at the other members of the cultures who spread these things. But they can hardly do so by claiming cultural appropriation on the part of those who they disagree with. Nor can any of us from outside those cultures rightly decide who’s an “authentic” member of the Chinese or Indian culture. But in order to make these complaints, you have to: you are, by definition, asserting a right to define the authentic for a culture you don’t belong to in order to claim that the authentic has been somehow corrupted.
This doesn’t mean that a person who is deeply knowledgeable in a culture other than their own is not allowed to point out deficiencies in how it’s portrayed or used. We’re free to note with amusement how tragically awful Hollywood was at depicting, say, African tribal culture in early movies. But those were not intended to be instruction manuals for diplomats. If all portrayals are to be examined for authenticity, most of our cultural production would fail. Which is beside the point: a story is told for values other than perfect fidelity, and if there’s a good-faith effort not to unfairly demonize another culture, that is better (no matter how flawed) than no attempt to bring in other cultures at all.
Some other recent “appropriation” controversies:
J. K. Rowling’s Pottermore extension of wizarding lore to the New World and Native Americans, attacked for insensitively using Navajo Skinwalker beliefs: Indian Country Today, N. K. Jemesin’s criticisms. Rowling is accused of doing “real harm” by fitting a modified Skinwalker belief into her fictional magical lore — in other words, she has committed heresy — or what would be heresy if she were Navajo. If Skinwalkers were central to her story, there might be some concern, but it’s a colorful detail which no one with any perspective would take seriously. Magic isn’t actually a real thing, and neither are skinwalkers. No one outside Navajo religious practice is required to do deep research to mention it in passing.
Two members of Bowdoin College’s student government to be impeached for holding a party featuring tiny sombrero hats. Realizing how foolish they looked, Bowdoin administrators have since backed down, but the knee-jerk accusations wasted everyone’s time and damage credibility when real issues might need to be addressed. Who would listen to such fools? The birthday party was set up by students, invitations sent out by a student of Colombian descent. Actual Mexicans and Latinos were not offended, any more than they would be by a Taco Bell.
One student of Guatemalan and Costa Rican heritage, freshman Brandon Lopez, pronounced the whole kerfuffle “mind-boggling” and called the disciplinary consequences a “travesty,” especially in light of the dining hall’s Mexican night a week later. (Lopez was invited to the party but could not attend because of baseball practice, he said.)
Freddy’s point is that this “concern on behalf of others” is itself condescending and betrays a belief that the other cultures are so weak and their adherents so helpless that sensitive progressives must come to their aid and appoint themselves judges of proper behavior toward the “lesser cultures.” And I will add this point about virtue-signalling generally (from a Facebook comment on his post):
It’s condescending to the individuals of the culture involved. It’s also most commonly intended to signal that the offended-on-behalf-of one is not only enlightened, but enlightened in an uncommon way so that those who don’t share their insight can be deprecated. Aimed at nearby tribal enemies. Which is why it doesn’t satisfy to condemn evils of greater magnitude that everyone deplores, like FGM and throwing homosexuals off buildings. “More empathetic and sensitive than thou.” A corollary sin of pride.