A contact I respect posted an article titled The Evils of Cultural Appropriation, and described it as “thoughtful”. I’ve long been interested in the complexities of “cultural appropriation” as a modern concept, and generally find the woman recommending it to have an insightful and reasoned perspective significantly different from my own. Despite mild concern over anything describing its topic as “evil”, I was interested in what it had to say.

That interest turned to concern when I got to the subhead, though: “How victimhood became a moral currency dependent on defining and policing the boundaries of human identity”. I’ve long found that hearing “victimhood” and “moral currency” up front is a pretty good predictor that we’re about to go off the rails. I am, by default, somewhat skeptical of most claims of cultural appropriation, but this seemed unlikely to be the sort of analysis I was looking for.

The article makes two main assertions:

1) Most things described as “cultural appropriation” are actually just normal, healthy evolution of culture, which inherently evolves though interplay with other cultures. This assertion is well summarized in the article as “Almost every cultural practice we engage in is the byproduct of centuries of cross-cultural pollination.”

2) Given the first point, the objections raised by people more concerned about cultural appropriation can, and generally should, be dismissed, and the motivations of the people making them are suspect. This is best summed up by the article’s claim that “In a culture that increasingly rewards victimhood with status, in the form of op-ed space, speaking events, awards, book deals, general deference, and critical approbation, identity has become a very valuable form of currency. It makes sense that people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to get some.”

I’m largely on board with the first point. The article points out that even the most extreme skeptics could find cases they’d consider valid. I’m more liberal than that example, and presumably more than the author, but I’m generally in agreement that cultures evolve—historically and today—largely through a messy exchange of genetic material. But the second point seems to mostly come from a disturbing lack of empathy, and the author does little to back it up. Worse, the framing of the main thrust of the argument is deeply problematic.

White Victimhood

It starts off giving set of examples where cultures have regulated the attire of parts of their society, including the Indian caste system, Ancient Greece, and Renaissance Europe. Notably, in every case given, the power dynamic is clear: a privileged, upper-class portion of society is imposing restrictions on a less privileged or oppressed portion of the same society. The article goes on to (incorrectly) equate these to sumptuary laws and asserts that these are seeing a resurgence due to the “orthodoxies of social-justice activism”. In doing so, expounding upon the second half of that link, it very clearly relies on the idea of white victimhood, without ever naming it.

Even assuming the worst about the examples given of the consequences of such “orthodoxies”, it is absurd on the face of it to compare anything experienced in such examples to the systemic, pervasive oppression in, for example, the classical Indian caste system. But the article clearly seeks to draw a connection between all those advocating for such cultural restrictions—"monarchs and aristocrats" in the language of the article—and all those targeted by the same—"commoners and slaves".

Sit with that for a moment. This article expects us to believe that something about the power dynamic in those examples matches, say, the example given around Lionel Shriver’s speech. Power can be a tricky, multi-faceted thing, but I have a really hard time mapping the power wielded here by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a black Muslim immigrant woman in a white-dominated society, to that of a monarch imposing their will; similarly, making the parallel between Shriver, a white American, and slaves is… well. Not good.

Something about empathy

I was somewhat amused by the author’s assertion that reactions to such perceived appropriation “are surely baffling to anyone over the age of 30”. I am, to my occasional dismay, well beyond 30, yet I don’t find these concerns particularly baffling. It’s impossible to know the author’s true intent for such a claim, but it feels like an attempt to these concerns into a tidy, dismissible box of misguided youth and naiveté. It demonstrates a lack of empathy; of even an attempt. This article’s author seems to misunderstand the position of people concerned over this form of appropriation… and to misunderstand it so completely it’s hard not to wonder if that’s intentional.

But go read Abdel-Magied’s piece in The Guardian and it’s hard to see that as a fair characterization. Abdel-Magied explicitly says that there’s a potentially interesting question here, and goes on to explain pretty explicitly what her concerns are about:

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

You can disagree with the premise, or dispute individual cases, but it’s a clear enough exposition of the concern. Rather than engage with that, the article dismisses it, or pretends that no such explanation exists. It feels very intellectually dishonest.

Golden age of fiction

In another unsupported assertion, the article claims “New orthodoxies of social justice have arguably done the most obvious damage in the world of fiction writing”. I suppose “arguably” is difficult to effectively dispute, but the argument certainly isn’t clear. From my perspective—and those of most of the authors I’ve heard talk on the topic—we are in something of a Golden Age (at least thus far) in terms of representation. We’re getting a broader range of authors and, therefore, stories than perhaps we ever have.

And, culturally, that’s what matters most here: the stories we have access to. I have not seen any evidence that the improved representation by women and minority authors has restricted the sorts of stories told by writers of the old canon, but to the extent that such a restriction is the cost of improved representation, it seems a solid win. If the author is concerned that new “orthodoxies” will cause “fiction [to] cease to exist”, the diversity of fiction available to us today should put her mind at ease. I am, for example, looking forward to the next book on my stack, Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death”, a novel I do not expect would have gotten the circulation it has had it come out a decade or two ago, and would almost certainly not be on track for an HBO treatment. It’s clear that the diversity of stories available to our culture has only improved, not diminished, in the face of such social justice concerns.

And, again, this is an argument that such a trade off would likely be worth it if it existed; the article does nothing to actually support the claim that it does, in fact, exist. It simply says, vaguely and without support, that a novel like The Human Stain “arguably” (there’s that word again) “could not be written today”, but the argument here is very muddy (in particular, I kept wondering if the article’s author realized that Philip Roth is, in fact, Jewish). Certainly just scanning a few weeks of the New York Times best-sellers list yields no shortage of people writing across demographic lines. Granted none are quite as ambitious in doing so as The Human Strain, but then the point of that example was that it was exceptional.

No apparent understanding of justice or reconciliation

As the article descends into the worst parts of the “victimhood” discussion, it asks the rhetorical questions: “What is the harm in showing respect and compliance with these new rules—isn’t it a way of making up for past sins?”. The framing of that question and the presentation of the answer shows how deeply the author has misunderstood what is at stake here, what is being asked for. The objective has never been “collective punishment”, nor even atonement for the sins of the past. The objective is correcting the present, and improving things for the future. Historical oppression does not simply “go away” because you turn that page in your history book. People in certain groups (like me!) continue to benefit from the systems established by and for that oppression. Expecting people to be conscious of that is not about atoning for the past, but correcting the present. It is about making our current and future reality more just.

Anyway. Probably safe to say I didn’t get out of this article what I was hoping for.