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Appropriate and inappropriate cultural appropriation

25 September 2016

I only learned about the term “cultural appropriation” about seven years ago, and blogged about it here: Inculturation, indigenisation, syncretism and cultural appropriation. But though the term itself was new to me then, the thing it described was not. Fifty years ago I wrote about how disconcerted I was (well, more like disgusted) to encounter English Anglicans who spoke of “Orthodox Spirituality” in hushed and reverent tones, yet looked down condescendingly on other aspects of Orthodoxy as the amusing antics of quaint foreigners.

Literary figures rendered in Byzantine icon style -- cultural appropriation? Appropriate or inappropriate?

Literary figures rendered in Byzantine icon style — cultural appropriation? Appropriate or inappropriate?

One of the ways in which postmodernity differs from modernity is that it is more tolerant of tradition, and indeed different traditions. Modernity tends to be intolerant of tradition, or at least all traditions other than its own. Moderns often express amazement that “anyone could believe that in 2016”, a kind of temporal chauvinism that assumes that anything anyone believed before the Enlightenment must be false. Postmodernity is much more tolerant, and adopts an indulgent attitude towards cultures of other times and places. The problem is that it also tends to encourage an eclectic and rather superficial borrowing from other cultures, in a way that trivialises them. Here is a recent example: See Literary Figures Rendered in Byzantine Icon Style, which is not very dissimilar from the “spirituality” one of 50 years ago.

On the other hand, I li8ve in a multicultural society. For many years our rulers tried to deny this. They concocted the policy of apartheid (aka separate development) to keep different cultures separate. There was little danger of cultural appropriation, except among those who wanted to buck the system, and those tended to be suppressed. American jazz, for example fused with urban African culture in the shebeens of Sophiatown, but the government brought in bulldozers to put an end to that.

The government insisted on “own”. “Own” affairs, “own” culture, “own” people, “own” land. So they tried very hard to stop cultures influencing each other, and their policies tended to assume that cultures were static. In “separate development” the emphasis was on the “separate” rather than on the “development”.

There are still some people who would like to go back to the old days. They regard multiculturalism as a Bad Thing, and say that things were so much better when we had apartheid.

Things seem to have played out somewhat differently in North America, where, according to my blogging friend Jonathan Allen, it seems that the concept of cultural appropriation has itself become trivialised. He recently wrote on Facebook:

Culture is, and always will be, wrapped up in unequal and unstable dynamics of power. The hijab that the offended author, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, wears is a case in point: to simplify greatly, it originated through the appropriation by victorious and newly dominant Arab Islamic polities of elite Byzantine practices of veiling women, refracted through the emergent legal and religious norms of Islam, itself formed through appropriative acts, from the recycling of Jewish popular traditions, to the destruction of Coptic Orthodox churches in order to acquire spolia for early mosques. But of course the history and meaning of a cultural artifact like the hijab doesn’t stop there, and cannot be reduced to a story of cultural appropriation, or patriarchal dominance, or religious piety, or postcolonial assertions of feminism. It is all of those, and, perhaps, none of them, depending on the context, the people involved, and the meanings that emerge out of that matrix. Neither Abdel Magied nor anyone else is to blame for all of the matrices of appropriation, power, privilege, and so on we are all entangled in- which is why I don’t think charges of ‘hypocrisy’ are very helpful here or in most cases. Everything we do is, in some way, political, and is connected to multiple dynamics of power, privilege, and production, in ways that cannot be reduced to easy moral answers, or to moral answers at all even (though we shouldn’t then simply ignore potential moral questions). Many of the attempts to police identity, even if borne out of praiseworthy sentiments initially, tend to ignore or erase this dynamism, and instead become practices of merely securing political and cultural power over others- even if that is not the intention of the actors involved.

He links to this article, Will the Left Survive the Millennials?, according to which it seems that some are demanding that fiction writers write only about people of their own culture, and that if they write about people of other cultures they are guilty of cultural appropriation. That view is ascribed to the “left”, though it sounds like Dr Verwoerd’s most happy dreams. I think that only goes to show that terms like “left” and “right” in politics have long been meaningless.

And all that leads me to think that it is time to revive the somewhat outmoded concept of a synchroblog, and for a group of people to blog on the same day about appropriate and inappropriate forms of cultural appropriation, and where the difference lies. I think George Tinker’s article, cited in my earlier blog post, might be a good starting point. It’s a good question for missiologists. Any takers?



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