Thinking about Cultural Appropriation

There is an article here by a SF author about cultural appropriation which could be best describe as somebody speaking authoritatively on a subject they are struggling to understand. As readers of this blog will have noticed by now, I have no problem with thinking out loud in print but the perils of doing so are patently obvious when the gulf between what is being said and the actual topic are so deep.


Abstract ideas are hard and yet we deal with them all the time. One of the ways in which the society we live in gives us a cognitive boost is the extent to which some abstract ideas are so deeply embedded in the society and language around us that we find it relatively easy to deal with them. ‘Market forces’ for example is a term that packs in multiple levels of abstraction – the notion of an economy, the notion of unplanned but directed actions within that economy, the notion of those actions having long term effects on individuals and so on.

Another example is the notion of ‘intellectual property’ – the idea that creators of writing, art, music etc have an alienable right over the stuff they create by which they can exploit the easily copied material to make money or just claim credit for the work they have done. The idea, enshrined both in law and also in societal standards that copying other’s work is unethical, is an abstraction from another abstract idea. From the notion of ‘property’ we abstract the notion of ‘intellectual property’. Property itself being an abstraction of other more basic notions such as a toddler’s basic conception of ‘mine’ or pre-historical notions of territory.

From less abstract to more abstract:
‘mine’ -> property -> intellectual property

As none of these are formal notions (i.e. not mathematical or formal logical entities) the way we abstract is by metaphor and by extending laws or social behaviour to a different category of things. Because we live in a capitalist society in which our laws are heavily focused on securing property, the metaphor underlying ‘intellectual property’ is overtly ‘property’ but it needn’t be. For example creative works sometimes fall into a different legal-ethical framework such as ‘the right to free speech’.

The notion of culturally appropriation is a relatively new abstract idea but one with old roots and even existing legal precedence. Western countries already attempt to use laws and treaties to protect cultural aspects of their nation. The use of protected terms (e.g. ‘champagne’) follows models similar to the ‘property’ model above (i.e. France and a specific region of France ‘owns’ the term ‘champagne’). Whereas in a quite different model, English speaking countries such as the UK or Australia use trade laws and public funding to ensure that each country maintains its own film and publishing industries independent of the economic behemoth of the USA. Non-English speaking nations attempt to manage the independence and health of their language from the global influence of English. In each of these cases we see a notion of a culture as a thing that can be damaged or exploited for economic gain. The extent to which these measures are baseless, quixotic crusades against the inevitable, or noble efforts that adds to the richness of the human condition is debatable on a case-by-case basis.

Modern concerns, primarily either from the left or from specific cultures and sub-cultures, around cultural appropriation don’t use the notion of ‘property’ per-se and I am not suggesting that it is the right metaphor to use as the basis for the abstract idea. However, I think it helps explain what I find wrong with the piece I linked to above. The essay has all sorts of examples of things from one culture being used by another and  yet I find none of it particularly compelling – it doesn’t even really get to the level of being ‘wrong’. Rather it comes across as somebody simply struggling with an abstract idea without actually being aware that this is what they are doing. Rather like encountering a creationist who asks ‘If people descended from apes how come there are still apes?’ unpacking the premises of wrong makes the question difficult to unpack despite the absurd corollaries it engenders (e.g. ‘If dogs evolved from wolves how there are still wolves?’ or ‘If many Australians are descended from British people how come there are still British people?’ or ‘If I’m descended from my parents how come I still have parents?’)

So hopping back to the notion of property an analogy with the argument would be as follows. Imagine discussing with somebody (lets call them ‘Bob’) who does not have a good grasp of the abstract notion of property and who claims the idea of ‘theft’ is nonsense. To show that the idea is nonsense they offer a range of examples:

  1. somebody buying something from someone else
  2. somebody being given a gift of something by someone else
  3. somebody borrowing something from someone else (with that person’s overt permission)
  4. somebody borrowing something from someone else (with their implied permission)

In each case person A takes something of person B’s. Bob cites each of these examples as things that are intuitively morally OK and that a world in which they were not morally OK would be an absurd unworkable world. Hence, claims Bob, the notion of ‘theft’ is nonsense. At which point he takes your coffee and drinks it in one big gulp.

The step Bob is not making is considering what could we change in each example that would make the example seem less morally OK.

  1. a government using its authority to ‘buy’ land that the owner doesn’t want to sell so a private developer can build a shopping mall
  2. an official who oversees the awarding of big contracts (for a government or business) expecting ‘gifts’ in exchange for favours
  3. a school bully using tacit threats to gain a fellow student’s ‘permission’ to take something of theirs
  4. a bully just taking something of a fellow student knowing that the student won’t complain because they are scared

What’s the difference? How have the situations changed ethically? Why are each of the examples now so much closer to our notion of ‘theft’ or at least ethically dubious?
Power, power, power. Power of one person over another. You can’t properly even begin to discuss the rights and wrongs of cultural appropriation without starting with the question of who has the power over whom.

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4 thoughts on “Thinking about Cultural Appropriation

  1. And there’s also the definitional argument aspect – the problem that two people may be using the same term and presuming that the other party to the argument is using the term in the same way. Even legally defined terms struggle with this; abstract ideas become a positive minefield.
    (I agree with your final point though – and it always helps to first ask “cui bono”…)

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  2. “The extent to which these measures are baseless, quixotic crusades against the inevitable, or noble efforts that adds to the richness of the human condition is debatable”

    This is a charming sentence — the English language culturally appropriating a classic Spanish character to encapsulate and convey an action in a single Cervantine word. Well, maybe not cultural appropriation exactly, but definitely human enrichment. I enjoy your writing.

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