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Cultural Appropriation

2018-10-28

Category: politics

You may have heard the term "cultural appropriation" and all the concern for it. You may have wondered what it really is and why it is so bad. Essentially, cultural appropriation is when someone from a dominant culture uses an aspect of another culture without showing proper respect. Some people become very indignant about it. Those people are wrong and there is a clear explanation of why.

Wait a minute, you say. "Isn't it wrong to show disrespect to other people's way of life?" There's a question with no easy answer, but we'll get to that. First, let's start with something a little more clear.

Culture is a convenience word to help us understand other people. It really means the behaviors, beliefs, and related artifacts of a group of people at a particular time and place. For example, it was a culture of Anglo-Saxon culture to carry a single-edged knife, called a seax, on one's person a thousand years ago. The belief was that you should always have your seax at hand. The practice was the act of carrying the seax. The artifacts are the remaining seax knives and the documents describing them. What is currently called Anglo-Saxon culture is a little less knife friendly.

As with the carrying of the seax, aspects of cultures are always in flux. What was culturally relevant one day will be different the next. So, the concept of culture is convenient for describing what happened, or is happening, if is not itself a tangible thing.

The more important aspect is the concept of identity. People always strive to find a place in a wild, dangerous universe. Part of that is putting together a story that describes them and where they fit. They tend to fit that identity to the culture to which they belong, or believe they belong. If you challenge a person's identity you had better be ready for a fight.

I'll give an example from my own family. It is widely believed in my father's generation that there is a strong Native American component. This is based on a family tale of one of my great, great, somebodies marrying a native woman. I've had my genetics tested and there is only the tiniest trace of anything that might possibly be considered native. When I brought this up with family, the backlash was strong and abrupt. I have not discussed it with the family since. (Note: considering that I carry all of the standard family traits, they are very likely to actually be my family.)

The spread of beliefs, practices, and artifacts has gone on for all of human history. It's how agriculture spread. It's how everybody gradually moved from stone to bronze, then to iron. It's how the Clovis points spread across North America. It naturally occurs when humans interact. We have even seen our primate cousins imitate human behaviors when it is to their benefit, whether gathering food or just amusement.

What about the imbalance of power or lack of respect? What about it. That's another thing that has always existed. How it plays out depends on how you work it. Is it a theft by the stronger group or is it an infiltration by the weaker group? (Please ignore the fact that the people who are most likely to complain about cultural appropriation are also likely to object to one group being referred to as weaker than the other.) All the humans gradually mingle and the better parts of each group go along for the ride. The problem is that the less desirable traits of each group are on that ride as well.

For those who are still thinking that cultural appropriation is a terrible thing, there is only one thing left to say. Culturally speaking, I'm an Imperialist Conqueror. If your culture is the only thing I appropriate, you should probably be grateful.


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