The Virtue of Cultural Appropriation

Of the many heresies and crimes against society that fill the pages of the modern left’s inquisition manual, “cultural appropriation” must rank very highly, situated somewhere between “microaggressions” and “denying someone’s truth,” just above “assuming a stranger’s gender” but certainly not as highly as making a “triggering” claim. These offenses, which are frighteningly well described as “thought crimes,” are the product of a generation desperately in need of a moral crusade and cursed to live in a wonderful time in human existence. That the civil rights movement has been fought and won, that women have the right to vote and to lead Fortune 500 companies, and that socialism has continued to fail dismally for the last thirty years has left the crusading, activist personalities with fewer battles to wage.

This isn’t to say that racism, sexism, or other prejudices don’t exist, nor that discrimination doesn’t occur; it is to say that they are not the universally salient features of everyday life needed to sustain activist movements anymore nor to elevate the entrepreneurial campus activist to the political heights to which he or she aspires. When that happens, discrimination becomes the subject of individual court cases, dealt with on a case-by-case basis, rather than the subject of marches and sit-ins. That leaves the hungry activist with little to work with, leading him to dig deeper and deeper to devote inordinate outrage to statistically rare events and, when those run dry, to manufacture offenses out of anything and everything he dislikes. The world becomes his persecutor and he rises to the task of victim, litigator, judge, jury, and executioner.

Each of these nonsensical leftist anti-concepts is deserving of an analysis all its own, but for the purposes of this writing, inspired by a recent article written by my friend Brad Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative, I will limit myself to the subject of “cultural appropriation.” Birzer gives an excellent take on the subject, drawing from a personal experience as well as the recent banning of yoga classes at the University of Ottawa. “Cultures merge all the time,” he writes.

“This is a central process in history, and it has been since the first group of people met another group of people. Cultures meet, cultures clash. Everything from marriage customs to regional dialects to clothing styles to trade and commerce transform—sometimes dramatically but more often quietly—when different peoples encounter one another. Yes, cultural encounters always involve tensions, but they also allow for dynamism, creativity, and innovations in human existence.”

Birzer goes on to note that the hysteria we observe around fears of cultural appropriation are the signs of a leftism descending into totalitarianism and pursuing its own cultural “fundamentalism to the extreme.” Many would find Birzer’s claims to be inflammatory and exaggerated, but rather than push back I prefer to take the argument one step further. I contend that cultural appropriation is not only so ubiquitous as to be unable to decry without gross hypocrisy; it is an eminently positive thing. Hear me out.

Appropriating aspects of other cultures is integral to the dynamic churning of cultural evolution. Drawing in cultural elements from diverse sources, sorting the efficient from the inefficient and the valued from the disvalued, an active and healthy culture is in a constant process of appropriating that which improves human life and dismissing that which makes it unpleasant. It is, in essence, a market: competing sources offer products—goods, practices, and ideas—meant to serve human ends; some succeed and grow, others fail and pass away. Like any market, we can best understand it using economic reasoning.

Imagine a market of many producers offering heterogeneous goods that all satisfy a diverse bundle of wants (philosophy, intellectualism, language, arts, dress, food, work habits, practices, celebrations, etc.). Now, imagine that one day a business shuttered its windows, withdrew its product from the market, and insisted that its product was only meant for its creators and a small group of sanctioned consumers who must be given permission to receive it. If the producer was a monopoly, it could foreseeably restrict the output of its cultural offerings and raise the price to generate profits. In this case, however, culture manufacturing is a highly competitive industry with many close substitutes. Public use by unsanctioned consumers can be punished through public shaming, vilification, and ostracism, but increasing such costs of consuming one culture will only cause consumers to switch to a different culture, making the first culture’s output more scarce and less salient than before. Rather than standing outside, banging on the doors of one culture, clamoring to get in, and viewing it as an elite club, the vast majority of consumers will simply move along to another producer. That is to say: restricting consumption of a culture is self-destructive for anyone who wants that culture to persist and flourish. To the extent that a culture’s insiders punish and decry appropriation, they limit their market and become less culturally relevant than they otherwise would be.

If practiced consistently, it is not difficult to see how such punishments would lead to the diminution of significance of a culture rather than its being honored and revered. To the extent that this hermetically sealed culture is honored and revered by outsiders, it will be treated as a protected group not unlike an endangered species. That similarity, however, does not bode well for protected cultures that are warded from all appropriation. Protected endangered species have often fallen into extinction because in the process of warding off poachers who would do them harm, conservationists have also restricted access to them for private parties who find a profit motive in actively cultivating the species.

To depart from analogy, those who denounce all use of one culture’s offerings as condemnable appropriation reject both the good and the bad. They might preclude derogatory and disrespectful uses—and I stress might, since those who intend to be disrespectful will also likely be the least responsive to the charge of “cultural appropriation.” However, they will also forbid the possibility of that culture’s traits becoming more salient and integrating in unforeseen ways with other cultures which might carry them further into unknown manifestations that neither the originators nor the initial appropriators could have foreseen. And though we may not like to acknowledge it, none of our cultures are eternal. When we look back at history, we find manners of dress, speech, eating, and art that seem peculiar and alien to us. Nonetheless, they are merely the traits of our own everyday practices several generations removed, and without them the world would look very different than it does now.

The impulse to resist this is not unique. Others countries have started out by walling off their cultures, never discovering their own potential out of a preference for indignant struggles over arbitrary cultural miscellanea. Countries where populations have become convinced of the superiority of their culture simply because it is theirs and the despicable nature of their neighbor’s culture simply because it is his devolve into ethnic tribalism. They become economic, political, and philosophical backwaters fighting centuries old feuds over arbitrary differences in accents, skin color, or the names that they give to their children. This is ethnonationalism, and it is the greatest logical consequence of the belief that an individual’s pride should be derived from his membership to a group and that only his group should be permitted to wear these clothes, listen to this music, eat those foods, or pray in that way.

By contrast, two of the most influential cultures in history—Ancient Greece and Rome—both actively worked to promote their own adoption and salience. They recognized that cultural similarity and familiarity bred familiar relations in other aspects of life: trade, ideas, politics, and warfare. Cultural salience was viewed as a tool to promote security. If man is frightened by the unknown and the strange, then the best security was found in being familiar and, if possible, ubiquitous. As a result, I would estimate that a hundred words in this essay have some Greek or Latin heritage. These cultures ruled the world in their heyday, and when they failed it was often because they retrenched to their strongholds and walled themselves up inside. In the East, similar trends emerged, with both China and Japan each having their own days in the sun only to opt, in darker times, for isolation and cultural retrenchment that made them both more regressive and, globally, less influential. Spain built an empire in part by spreading its culture, and today the Spanish language is the second most widely spoken language in the world, exceeded only by Chinese. Almost an entire continent was grown from the seed of its culture. In the twentieth century, it was America’s turn to sweep the world with the glamours of its culture. Whether we are to escape the fates of our predecessors and endorse with confident pride the virtues of American life or to retreat, sabotaged by our own self-doubt and the clamorings of the worst among us, is still for us to decide.

Thus, if our interest in and admiration for our cultures gives us a compelling interest in their survival, my unconventional but, I believe, sensible advice to them is this: get appropriated. Get integrated, interwoven, synthesized, and made salient until the casual consumer of your cultural offerings is unaware of their origins. If we believe in our cultures because we believe that they have objective value, that they make human life better, that they improve our way of doing things, or that they offer us a positive sense of life, then we should take pride not in a purist notion of freezing them in place for eternity (though with modern information technology we can always remember and relive their past incarnations) but in allowing them to flourish in unforeseen ways that will likely mean adoption and improvisation upon them by other cultures who take them in new directions. Only through this process of competitive selection and spontaneous ordering is it possible to discover their potential.

Lest it be forgotten, the alternatives are not rosy. Archaeology and anthropology note the existence of many cultures of which we know very little because their traits were scarcely passed on. Even great cultures are not immune. The Etruscans, predecessors to the Romans, for all of the archaeological interest in their society, remain somewhat a mystery to historians in many ways. Their language is only partly understood, and we have little to no trace of their philosophy and religions. Ominously, much of what we know of them had to be dug from their graves, and the rest survived through appropriation by the Romans. When the ideas of Ancient Greece and Rome died off, they too were forgotten for most of a millennium. Save but for several accidents of history, some of their greatest authors would have been lost to us, and the world would be a very different place. Only when they were resurrected and rerecorded in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age did we recover their genius and their meaning—great achievements in theater, language, philosophy, science, and even the notion of logic itself. So, to the person who wishes their culture to last, to be admired by future generations, and to influence the course of the world in small ways or great, the historical record speaks with one voice: get appropriated or vanish!

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