Good arguments against “cultural appropriation”

[Origi­nally posted to Face­book.]

I’m col­lect­ing steel-man ar­gu­ments that the con­cept of “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion” de­scribes a real prob­lem. Below are three ar­gu­ments that seem some­what rea­son­able to me in some cases. They seem to point to plau­si­bly real costs of cross-cul­tural shar­ing and re-in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

(Just to lay my cards on the table: I cur­rently think that the benefits of cross-cul­tural shar­ing so of­ten out­weigh these cost that cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion as such should not be stig­ma­tized.)

I’ll ab­bre­vi­ate cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion as CA from here on out.

1. Some CA is taken to be a kind of mock­ery. Such CA is thought to re­sult in diminished sta­tus and power for peo­ple in the “ap­pro­pri­ated” cul­ture. Alleged ex­am­ples are team mas­cots, Hal­loween cos­tumes, and Char­lie Chan.

On the one hand, such ar­gu­ments should be scru­ti­nized skep­ti­cally and ac­cepted only ten­ta­tively, be­cause they rest on claims about difficult-to-mea­sure effects on the vaguely defined sta­tus of amor­phous so­cial groups.

On the other hand, and for the same rea­son, you can’t be cer­tain that such claims are false. And you shouldn’t just trust your own in­tu­ition on this kind of thing, be­cause you don’t have a bird’s eye view of the en­tire com­pli­cated net­work of power and sta­tus that makes up our su­per-cul­ture and all of its var­i­ous sub­cul­tures. So it does make sense to listen to how other peo­ple think so-called CA af­fects their so­cial stand­ing.

2. Some CA amounts to dilut­ing a piece of the cul­tural com­mons from which peo­ple in that cul­ture were benefit­ing.

For ex­am­ple, peo­ple choose their clothes based on how they want to be seen by oth­ers. Tie-dye, for ex­am­ple, has a cer­tain mean­ing in our cul­ture. You wear tie-dye if you want peo­ple to see you in a cer­tain way. But sup­pose that our cul­ture found it­self im­mersed in some larger sur­round­ing cul­ture, and peo­ple in the larger cul­ture started wear­ing tie-dye with­out any knowl­edge of the whole sys­tem of sar­to­rial sig­nifi­ca­tion within which tie-dye is em­bed­ded in our own cul­ture. Now there’s a bunch of peo­ple walk­ing around wear­ing tie-dye who don’t mean to sig­nal what tie-dye sig­naled for us. As a re­sult, tie-dye loses its sig­nal­ing value for us. Hav­ing lost this sig­nal­ing tool, we are that much poorer.

In some cul­tures, such mark­ers of mean­ing are much more po­tent than they are in ours. So the loss of these mark­ers re­sults in a cor­re­spond­ingly greater loss of value to the peo­ple in these cul­tures. This seems to be part of the ob­jec­tion to the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of cloth­ing, jew­elry, and hair styles.

3. Some CA is seen as a kind of theft of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, where gains in sta­tus and ma­te­rial wealth go to peo­ple out­side the cul­ture that ought to have gone to peo­ple in­side the cul­ture. Mere users of a cul­tural in­no­va­tion (an­glo con­sumers of Mex­i­can food, say) are re­sented in­so­far as they pa­tron­ize out­siders rather than in­sid­ers. But the real re­sent­ment is di­rected to­ward the out­siders who sell the in­no­va­tion, or who gain sta­tus as “trend­set­ters”. The prof­its and the sta­tus, on this view, ought to have gone to the peo­ple within the cul­ture, who de­serve a kind of cor­po­rate credit for the in­no­va­tion.


There is a fourth kind of ar­gu­ment that is con­spicu­ously ab­sent from my list: “Peo­ple within ap­pro­pri­ated cul­tures take offense at CA. So, you shouldn’t do it if you care about not putting peo­ple through that painful ex­pe­rience”.

I want to set “offense” ar­gu­ments aside for the mo­ment. That’s not be­cause I dis­miss them out of hand. Rather, it’s be­cause offense ar­gu­ments raise lots of is­sues that re­quire spe­cial care to treat prop­erly.

For one thing, offense ar­gu­ments have a kind of re­cur­sive ten­dency to be self-fulfilling. Un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, they can even boot­strap them­selves into val­idity from prac­ti­cally noth­ing. Katja Grace has a cou­ple re­ally good posts on how this can hap­pen:

Iter­at­ing hurt

What you can’t say to a sym­pa­thetic ear

For that rea­son, I want to see how far the pro-CA case can get prior to an ap­peal to offen­sive­ness. If you like, I’m look­ing for non-re­cur­sive rea­sons for find­ing CA to be offen­sive—rea­sons other than “be­cause that prac­tice is already un­der­stood to be offen­sive”. This is not to sug­gest that such rea­sons aren’t real or can be ig­nored in the fi­nal anal­y­sis. Re­gard­less, it seems valuable to know what is left when you set this kind of ar­gu­ment aside.

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