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.