On cultural appropriation

Let’s open the article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation

“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by a member or members of a different culture” – because this definition makes me scream and run in circles, and since people actually seem to follow it sometimes, I’ll call is bailey.

“Cultural appropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that “appropriation” or “misappropriation” commonly refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from the minority culture by a member of the dominant culture, and then these elements are used outside of their original cultural context – sometimes even against the expressed, stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture” – oh, OK. That seems like a thing we would all agree is bad, unless some exceptional exculpatory circumstance occur. This is motte.

Why I say it’s genuinely motte-and-bailey? Here’s the same website using it as motte – http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/ “That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic” – and as bailey: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/cultural-appropriating-outfits/ (tl;dr: western women, stop wearing Native American headdresses, bindi, chopsticks in your hair, kimono-inspired garments, sexy burkas, and saris). Now wait a minute. One of this things is not like the others. All Native American populations were massively hurt by the colonial genocide, and so were all their cultures (to the point that there’s almost nothing left to appropriate, and what they do now is a rough approximation from historic sources, not unbroken legacy: http://kontextmaschine.tumblr.com/post/122751651518/someone-asked-about-that-german-cosplayers-bit). Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Arabic people, on the other hand, while may be oppressed in Western countries, all have their own places in the world where their cultures are dominant by a huge margin. Incidentally, Chinese economy by some estimates have already outperformed American; India and Japan are the third and fourth world’s top economies; Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the entire world, Kuwait is right above Norway, UAE is above San Marino and Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia is above Ireland and Netherlands. China and India have damn ICBMs and nukes! (Admittedly, they don’t have MAD with the US, since American missile defense was built to protect against Russia, that has 20 times more nukes, but they can totally hit Europe in the second strike) How on earth can one put “subdued culture” and “world’s top economy with nukes” in the same sentence? Note, I’m not talking about particular people living in the West, and facing racism – this is a serious problem – but I’m talking about the culture, of which they’re not only the only bearers, but not even the majority of bearers. Even if you stretch the definition of oppression so far as to include the historical trauma of colonization of India, wars in the Middle East, and the post-WWII American influence in Japan, none of that applies to China. No matter how you twist it, by the motte definition of cultural appropriation, there are zero reasons to protect the Chinese culture against it. And yet people talk about it as it’s a settled debate – settled in favor of protection. That show us that they mean something else – motte.

What’s even more interesting is that Chinese and Japanese example rather clearly demonstrate that the motte definition is decidedly biased against Western cultures, since in this case we observe the exact reflection of the dynamics described above, and no one cares about it.

Is Chinese culture dominant in China? Of course. Do they have prejudice against those far far smaller minorities of non-Asian people living there (compared to the number of Asian people living in mostly white countries)? Oh sure they have. 100% of non-Asian expats living in China, Korea, and Japan (probably other countries too, but I haven’t been following that) when asked “when can you expect to integrate in the society?” will (sometimes politely and obscurely) answer “never”. You just don’t. People may be well-meaning (although this may sometimes translate into asking to take selfies with you; sometimes they aren’t well-meaning, and in the Japanese towns neighboring with either port where Russian sailors are frequent, or with American military bases, establishments where white people are banned aren’t that uncommon – that has been illegal in the US for half a century!), but you’re always gonna be a foreigner, even if you were born there. Do the Chinese and Japanese cultures import and recycle elements of Western cultures? Sure they do, like everyone else in the world. But particularly China, Korea and Japan – when they do it, they do it massively. Like this: http://squid314.livejournal.com/198873.html. Sometimes it gets so massive that in Bay Area you can find multiple bakeries with French names that have nothing to do with France – they’re Chinese. They bake things that are definitely European-inspired, but still Chinese. This is just the textbook motte example of drawbacks of cultural appropriation: the appropriated version gets so popular that a non-trivial number of people (enough to cover the expenses of having a shop in Bay Area) prefer the appropriated version to the original. How many people exactly are deeply concerned about that? Um, none – perhaps because there’s genuinely nothing bad about it, and people realize that. No French people (who are, by the way, a significant minority in San Francisco) are deeply offended, no one’s history is tarnished, everything is cool. Sometimes the results of this appropriation are so good that one of the world’s most renowned pianists performing Western art music is Lang Lang. The same music, by the way, is widely used in Korea (and as far as I understand, Japan, but I can’t be sure not having been there) for all sorts of purposes like elevator music. It’s imported, and it’s taken out of context – nothing like in symphony halls where they give you a booklet with the composer’s biography – and I bet some of the classic music experts will find playing short pieces of poor quality of their favorite works rather distasteful. Who cares? No one, because seriously, musicians getting offended by poor treatment of music are like designers getting offended by poor kerning everywhere – this is unfortunate, but everyone seems to agree that this is what you have to deal with when you get into profession. And although it’s only my opinion, I think Chinese and Korean Western-style casual feminine fashion is so much better than the original thing that no Western designers even come close. And while we’re on topic of fashion, take Lolita fashion. It’s what you get when you collide fashion from Victorian England with that of French Rococo, and shorten the skirts in the resulting trainwreck. It originated in Japan, and was then picked up by Chinese designers too. And this idea was apparently so good (for one, they vastly simplified the dressing process, as opposed to the genuine Victorian fashion) that the number of fans of this fashion in the West seems to start competing with the number of Ren Faire fans. Sometimes though they’re concerned as to whether they’re appropriating Japanese culture, which makes me facepalm. Even a more facepalm-worty moment occurs when Chinese designers bombard this trainwreck with cheongsams, resulting in Qi Lolita style, and Japanese ones add kimono connotations, resulting in Wa Lolita. You know who gets offended? Western Lolitas, being concerned about the Chinese somehow appropriating their own culture. Splendid. But there’s more! Gothic Lolita style widely uses crosses, rosarios, and other Christian attributes. Who gets offended? Well, conservative Christians rarely intersect with any of these things, but when they do, they almost certainly freak out. No one complains about cultural appropriation though. Why? Because the sets “people who know the word ‘cultural appropriation'” and “conservative Christians” are non-intersecting. Furthermore, among the former set, the latter set is a Set Of People Whom It’s Officially Fun To Dislike. No one care about them getting offended, aside from themselves. That pokes a hole in the seemingly strongest and consequentialist argument against cultural appropriation – don’t do it when it actually offends people. Well, offense alone is not enough. It’s not even the news. Homophobes get offended seeing guys kissing all the time. The most charitable response to them is “that’s too bad, but doing this is important for me, so you’d better look away or reconsider your views”. The most expected response is “I will be kissing in front of you to the point then you puke, you shitlord”. It’s a very established (although implicitly) position in liberal ideology that offense is not enough to consider a thing morally wrong – sometimes they even consider offending a virtue. Yet they completely omit this part when it comes to proving their arguments. I’m not saying that this proves that it’s OK to wear Native American headdresses – seems rather distasteful and unnecessary to me – but people have to either massively reconsider their position on things like gay pride parades, or provide arguments against cultural appropriation other than it offends people.

To summarize, when people talk about cultural appropriation, they’re committing a massive motte-and-bailey fallacy all the time. Aside from the part with Native Americans, most commonly cited examples of cultural appropriation don’t satisfy the motte definition AT ALL. Furthermore, I can poke holes even in the motte definition, and I’m willing to speculate that most (if not all) harm cited as the result of cultural appropriation is attributable to racism alone. However, even if we agree to accept the motte definition, we have to conclude that most things people call cultural appropriation aren’t such.


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