The American author, Lionel Shriver, is in Australia this month. Last time she was here there was a bit of a kerfuffle when she spoke about “cultural appropriation” at a writers’ festival and finished off the speech by popping a jaunty Mexican sombrero on her head. All the right people were offended and made a fuss, including a woman who seems to have made a career out of telling Australians and Britons how terrible they are, despite the awkward personal dichotomy of her revealed vs expressed preference of living there rather than her place of birth, Sudan.
“Cultural appropriation” is an interesting compound noun and one which prompts vicarious offence in some and extreme annoyance or amusement in others. We can find a definition on the internets that suggests the following:
Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.
In other words, it’s another branch of critical theory or cultural Marxism. How can we be sure? The emphasis on power. The second sentence in the definition tries to explain why the first sentence is problematic and reverts to an argument of power imbalance.
Without that qualifying sentence, most reasonable and sane people would never consider there was anything sinister about their enjoyment of tea as a refreshing beverage, cooking a spaghetti bolognaise for dinner or using duvets as bedding whilst wearing pyjamas.
A Google Ngram search shows cultural appropriation is a very modern sin:
There is amusement to be had when engaging those issuing accusations of cultural appropriation, however; ask them to describe the margins. By which we mean, a situation where one person uses a useful cultural invention of others and what would be considered over the line and cultural appropriation. Much hilarity often ensues.
Let’s show a worked example:
Bill is a white Englishman who very much enjoys Indian food (but we repeat ourselves). Not content with enjoying the cuisine in his local restaurant, he holidays in India and attends a cookery course to learn how to expertly blend the spices and other ingredients. Back home in London, he hosts a dinner party for some friends where he delights them with his newly acquired knowledge.
At risk of building a strawman, one suspects the cultural Marxists would suggest he’s innocent up until the point he invites the other gammons round to eat his culturally appropriated food.
The problems with this arise following just the slightest scratching of the surface.
Problem #1 – 80% of all “Indian” restaurants in Britain are no such thing. They are Bangladeshi.
Problem #2 – Several of the main ingredients of Indian cuisine only arrived with the Europeans. Chillies, potatoes, tomatoes and cauliflower, for example.
The burning question then is surely, which culture is Bill appropriating?
Bangladeshi? Perhaps, but maybe only those ex-pats who set up restaurants in Britain.
Indian? Perhaps, but if the cuisine they taught him is the Anglo-Bangladeshi version, maybe they are guilty of some cultural appropriation too.
South American? The cultivation of chillies, potatoes and tomatoes was initiated in South America but by which South Americans? Not necessarily the ones whose descendants are currently living there.
It’s a bit tricky, isn’t it?
It’s almost as if the people who suggest cultural appropriation is a sin are bullies who use a claim of vicarious offence as their justification (more on this in a later post).
Perhaps they are mistakenly or even deliberately missing the incredible amount of good work cultural appropriation has done for you, me, them and everyone around us? My suspicion is that they have fallen into the mental trap of zero sum thinking. That is, they believe there is a finite supply of something, in this case “cultural good”, and therefore feel it is their duty to protect those who they perceive as being without power from having their ration stolen.
Of course, this is the racism and bigotry of low expectations. The people who are having their culture “appropriated” have no qualms about taking the best bits of everyone else’s culture such as effective medicine, power generation, water sanitation, iPhones, Game of Thrones streaming, etc. and they really don’t give a shit if someone in another country is cooking a strange facsimile of the food they eat.
Returning to the Sydney Morning Herald report on Lionel Shriver’s visit, it’s interesting to note the article finishes with an explanation that Lionel wasn’t the original first name she was given by her parents, and that she changed it when she was 15. I have a couple of questions on that;
- How is it relevant to the news item, and
- Did you just “deadname” Ms. Shriver?