Oct 132016

Here’s a counter-intuitive argument: Cultural appropriation is a good thing.

What, exactly, is being appropriated when cultural appropriation is said to occur? It’s a nebulous thing called “culture” which is to say it’s an idea, process, or behavior, rather than a physical artifact. Were the Hope Diamond to change hands, we would identify it as a purchase, gift, or theft, not an appropriation.

To argue that cultural appropriation is a good thing we start with the moral intuition that good ideas deserve to be spread and acted upon, while bad ideas should be stopped. If you accept that smallpox is a bad thing, then you should accept that smallpox vaccination, a process, is a good thing. We could define “good ideas” as those which lead to furthering human health and aesthetic joy. If you accept that human sacrifice to appease the gods is a bad idea, we should work to stop it and thankfully for our species we largely have.

Ideas, processes, and behaviors are not zero sum entities. Your vaccination against a dread disease in no way reverses or “steals” my vaccination.

Unless you suppose that a particular idea, process, or behavior occurred simultaneously to a group of people, it’s most likely that good ideas start with particular individuals. Most likely, at some point in our prehistory, some hominid decided to pad their foot with an animal skin, creating the first shoe. The utility of this good idea would have been evident to other hominids, and copied. We are all descended from humans who have “culturally appropriated” from this first group of enlightened hominids, who themselves probably copied it from an individual.

There seems to be a deeply human impulse to share good ideas. We love to express to those we care about our aesthetic discoveries, whether it’s food, clothing, music, movies, or really any stimuli which makes us feel good. This good and natural impulse is countered by those who define it, incorrectly, as “theft.”

Ideas, processes, and behaviors which are claimed to be “appropriated” are ones which are held to be positive values. Behaviors such as “black face” are acts of mockery, not appropriation. Caucasians who wear dreadlocks do so because they think it looks cool, not as an act of mockery. Thus the ~intention~ of what is held as “appropriation” is that of reverence. Intentions matter.

While I’ve been thinking about this subject for some time, I’d like to thank Peter Boghossian for the clothing metaphor. I fully support honest acknowledgment of where good ideas, processes, and behaviors come from.


 Posted by on 10/13/2016 Culture Tagged with:  Comments Off on Cultural Appropriation is a Good Thing