The High Honor of Cultural Appropriation

I recently learned that last year a columnist claimed that, “You should only be allowed to enjoy the culture of your own race.”* Even if that was meant to be a joke, I thought I’d put the proverbial stake in the ground here, with something I’ve said verbally and on the Book of Faces (where everyone, including me, spouts off about everything): Cultural appropriation is the highest form of societal flattery.

That is to say, so far as cultural “appropriation” is a real phenomenon, we appropriate what we appreciate.

If your culture is being appropriated — if elements of your culture are being borrowed and copied and used by others — it is only because people find value in them. No one appropriates cultural elements that have no appeal.

This way to the culture…. (Image: “Culture,” by Scott Beale, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Life is too short to spend very much time eating foods we dislike or wearing clothes that don’t suit us or participating in activities we loathe. We feast on foods we love, no matter what the people looked like who originated them. We wear clothing that helps us feel comfortable and look good (so far as that’s possible, for some of us), no matter what language the people spoke who first wove the cloth or designed the patterns. We take part in games and rituals and enjoy music and drama that we find uplifting, that speak to us, that give us pleasure in company or alone, regardless of what patch of earth was home to the people who first made up those pastimes or told those stories.

I hope you take pride in your culture, and defend it fiercely from misuse or misappropriation. Certainly some cultural copying is intended to criticize or mock, but that’s the exception, not the norm. (And in a society of free people who value free speech, even that is a valid form of expression.)

But it remains that imitation, as it is said, is the highest form of flattery. In personal terms, we emulate people we admire. We say we want to be like them, and sometimes we go so far as to pattern our lives after theirs, although some of them may not appreciate the attention they get. So it is with cultural appropriation.

If elements of your culture are being appropriated, then, it’s because they are valuable — and valued.

*From a HuffPo piece that I’m not sure was meant to be serious or absurdist. (Whatever it was, it needed to be edited before it was posted.)

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The Problem of Not Caring

I get the impression that we, as a society, have grown increasingly thin-skinned: Everybody seems so touchy these days, so sensitive to the smallest offense.

I wonder if maybe the problem is not so much that we’re offended (or offensive) as that we don’t really care about one another. We do more than just choose sides over divisive issues; we draw battle lines, dig trenches, and build fortifications around our positions so that it seems we “care” more about the issues than we do about our fellow human beings. Like troops steeling ourselves for battle, we cease for a time even to think of our opponents as human.

We are quick not only to take offense but to show it — to advertise the fact that we are offended. And there is no shortage of people ready to ally themselves with us against the offender, to try them in the court of public opinion and hang them in electronic effigy, as if a chorus of shrill, shouting voices is somehow more coherent and convincing than our single, small voice would be if we stepped toward the offender and offered, in private or to a very limited audience, an explanation of what grieved us.

Easily Offended
Should every Internet-connected computer have a sign on it like this? (Image: “Easily Offended,” by Derek Bruff, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I admit: Sometimes I suffer from the affliction of not caring. Not caring about particular issues, but worse, not caring very much about the people who care about those issues.

I think that if I did (or do) care about you and have a connection with you, I should offer my grievance between the two of us — or in a small group if that would bolster my courage — rather than airing it to the world.* By broadcasting my offense, in effect I broadcast that I care little for you and do not wish to relate to you on a personal level.

That is, if I do or say something that offends you and you address the issue with me, what I do about it then will be related to how much I care about you: about your perceptions, about your feelings, about you as a person.

If I care about you a lot, I will find a way without compromising my principles to apologize, attempt to make amends, and try to modify my behavior so I don’t offend you in the future. If I care about you only a little, I might apologize — possibly insincerely, I admit** — but I’m unlikely to make amends or to change my behavior. If I don’t care about you at all, I won’t apologize nor will I see any need to make recompense or act any differently.

But how much I care may be affected by whether you have addressed the issue with me privately or castigated me in public. The way in which you approach me will demonstrate whether you care about me; is it any wonder that I might reflect that back at you? The worse I feel I’ve been treated, the less I am likely to care about those mistreating me and the higher and stronger I will build my side of the wall between us.

Or, to put it another way: If what I do or say offends you and I know it and continue to do it anyway with no attempt at bridging the gap between us, the message is that I care not a whit for you. I am secure behind my battlements, ready to toss insults and taunts and other, less savory things at those who assail me.

The reverse is also true: If what you do offends me and you persist in it knowing it offends me, then no matter how you dress it up in your “right” to do whatever, the message I receive is that you care nothing for me and others like me whom you offend.

That is our right, of course. We have no obligation to care for one another, but the world might be a better place if we did.

*In this regard, the way Jesus taught his disciples to deal with each other one-on-one first was one of the wisest pieces of advice he ever gave.
**A teacher of mine once said, “… I apologize, but this apology is in no way sincere.”

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How I Want to Relate to You

A while back I was thinking about our tendency to generalize: to take specific instances and apply them broadly. Our ability to make such mental associations may help us make sense of the world, so long as the associations make sense, but sometimes they fail to represent the whole (or even a large part of the whole). In particular, our generalizations often fail when we observe the actions or hear the words of specific people and act as if they apply to an entire cohort of people.

I don’t want to do that to you. I’d prefer it if you didn’t do that to me, either.

I want to relate to you on the basis of your individuality, your own unique nature, and whatever we might find we have in common.

  • Perhaps we have in common a shared experience in school or work or recreation.
  • Perhaps we have in common a shared appreciation for music or some other art.
  • Perhaps we have in common a shared belief in the founding principles of the United States.
  • Perhaps we have in common a shared faith, or a similar enough faith that the differences are not as important as the similarities.
  • Perhaps we have in common something more basic, more primal, like geography or heritage or history.
  • Perhaps the only thing we have in common is our shared humanity. Perhaps that could be enough.

Jackie Treehorns (The House on the Rock)
Surely we have something in common; if nothing else, maybe we can relate to one another based on a mutual appreciation of something simple, like a book. (Image: “Jackie Treehorns (The House on the Rock),” by Justin Kern, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I want to relate to you on the basis of who you are as a person — an individual, whole, complete person. And I would like you to consider who I am as a person, rather than any particular association I may represent.

If you permit me, I will try to overcome negative associations you may have. I will try not to come at you only from the perspective of my political viewpoint, my creed, my race, my sex, and so forth — I will not deny them, but neither will I flaunt them. Likewise, I don’t want to relate to you solely on the basis of your political viewpoint, your particular creed, your race, your sex, or anything of the sort. Our politics, our races, etc., are parts of us, but not the sum total of who we are. I am not my politics, you are not your race, and so forth, unless one of us insists on treating the other in that way. I do not so insist.

In other words, I don’t want to relate to you only as a representative of any group, or sect, or party, or biological construct. So, if we can, let’s just meet as two people, and look for something — maybe for anything — that can unite us.

And then, if we can, let’s move forward.

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Fighting My Outrage Addiction

I intend to make this post deliberately obtuse, as general and nonspecific as possible. If you think it may apply to a situation with which you’re familiar or in which you’re involved, you may be right. Here goes:

I get mad sometimes. Maybe more often than I should.

Not as mad as I used to get when I was younger, I think; though the people closest to me might disagree. Same frequency, maybe, but lower intensity? I think that may have something to do with not having as much energy as I used to have. (What was it Heinlein said about how what appears to be “mature wisdom” resembles just being too tired?) I find that what used to induce paroxysms of rage in me now elicits only grunts of disapproval.

But the stimuli to outrage continue. In fact they have increased in frequency because I encounter them on television news, in online news of various types — sports stories or science stories that contain not-so-thinly-veiled references to political or societal turmoil — and pretty much everywhere in social media. The lines in the sand are drawn, have been drawn now for some time, and no matter how often some of us try to smooth them away others are prepared to redraw them, often deeper and more distinct than before.

And all that leaves me struggling against my own addiction to outrage, my long-established and well-practiced tendency to fight back, to fashion my words into missiles and fire them in thundering salvoes.

Sometimes it’s hard not to give in to the outrage. (Image: “241/365,” by Kenny Louie, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But I fight against that tendency because the results usually aren’t that good. Too often, surrounded by the exhaust plumes of my tirade, I have exulted in my triumph — until the winds of reality blew away that fog and I realized that the only things I’d damaged were my friends and friendships.

I still get mad, sometimes. Probably more often than I should.

But I’m trying not to give in to it.

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Do You Prefer Your Socialism Voluntary, or Mandatory?

Recently there’s been a lot of social-media talk about socialism, what it is and what it isn’t, if for no other reason than one of the candidates to be the Democratic nominee for the Presidency is a self-described Socialist.

Now, before we get to the question posed above: in the hopes of improving communication let’s take a moment to define a few terms. At the very least, we might ensure that we are not confusing socialism with other -isms. According to the online version of Webster’s:

  • socialism is “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”
  • communism is “a theory advocating elimination of private property; a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed”
  • capitalism is “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”
  • fascism is “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”
  • altruism is “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”

From the dictionary definition, it would seem as if there could be no such thing as “voluntary” socialism except in the context of voluntary adherence to the dictates of government and collective society. But socialism seems to have come to mean something different in common usage, which is why I included altruism among the defined terms.

So far as I can tell, a lot of the people who advocate for socialist policies do so out of personal altruism — i.e., out of concern for others’ welfare — and not because they believe that the government or other collective entities should own and operate factories and businesses. That is, in some respects “little-s” socialism has come to be understood in terms of social action (or even social “justice”) and thereby in terms of caring for members of society, as opposed to its dogmatic, collectivist big brother: systematic, capital-S Socialism. In other words, from what I’ve observed some people look at socialism not as an economic theory, but as a form of human tribalism (defined by Webster’s as “tribal consciousness and loyalty; especially, exaltation of the tribe above other groups”) where the “tribe” consists mainly of the downtrodden as opposed to the related.

altruism makes you more attractive

(Image: ” altruism makes you more attractive,” by Will Lion, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


In this manner of thinking of socialism, the question posed in the title distinguishes between two possible modes of implementation: voluntary or mandatory.

The first is voluntary socialism, practiced primarily through personal social action: giving of one’s excess treasure, time or talent to help the less fortunate. This is the socialism of charity, of personal altruism, of expressing one’s individual concern for one’s fellow man by actually doing something — writing a check, building a house, cooking a meal. This is the socialism of the soup kitchen, the homeless shelter, the sanctuary.

The second is mandatory socialism, practiced primarily through government-led social action: empowering the government to take everyone’s (and particularly other people’s) excess — most readily in the form of treasure — to help the less fortunate. This is the socialism of confiscation, of redistribution, of assigning responsibility to the government to take care of one’s fellow man and thus absolving oneself of the need to act. This is the socialism of the tax office, the entitlement check, the welfare line.

So, do you prefer your socialism to be voluntary, or mandatory? Do you prefer to volunteer your contributions to social action, or to be made to contribute to it?

Generalizations always exclude those who do not fit them, but I have observed that, in general, many people who regularly practice voluntary social action oppose mandatory social action, and many people who promote mandatory social action don’t seem to engage in much voluntary social action (other than perhaps organizing people into promoting more mandatory social action). That is, many people who frequently donate their time or money to charities they deem worthy oppose efforts to empower the government to exact donations from them, and many people who support the idea of the government providing and expanding all of the social safety nets do not often seem quick to engage in personal acts of charity. I find that curious, but I admit my observations are limited and perhaps flawed.

But which do we emphasize: the voluntary, or the mandatory? As with most dichotomies of this sort, most continua, I think that everyone favors a little bit of volunteer action and a little bit of mandatory contribution. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone so dyed-in-the-wool that they did not accept some of the alternative approach. (Perhaps the one Trotskyite I’ve met, though we have not discussed this in any depth. Perhaps a Libertarian or two.)

When we emphasize the voluntary, we allow ourselves to practice socialism — to contribute to social action — to the degree we feel comfortable, and we allow others also to practice it (or not) to whatever degree they want.

But when we emphasize the mandatory, we may ourselves end up practicing socialism to our preferred degree but we almost certainly require that others practice it to a greater degree than they feel comfortable. And when we enforce contribution through coercion via the rule of law, we should not be surprised when those others bristle, and balk, and even prepare for battle.

Where do you fall on the continuum between voluntary and mandatory contribution? If you tend to take the burden of helping others onto your own shoulders, with no thought of reward and no expectation of other people pitching in, then you probably fall closer to the voluntary side. If you sometimes think “someone ought to do something about that” and sometimes think “can I do anything about that,” then you probably fall somewhere in the middle. But if you tend to think “those other people ought to do more to help” more than you think “what can I do to help,” then you probably fall closer to the mandatory end.

I’m not here to pass judgment; in the end, I think in some way we will all pass judgment on ourselves. But I know who I’d rather have as my neighbors, if I ever find myself in a pinch. And I know what kind of neighbor I’d like to be.

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Refining My Position on Just About Everything: Don’t Punish Good Folks When Bad Things Happen

Often it seems to me that many of our laws — and quite a bit of the heated rhetoric I read and hear — derive from a tendency to try to correct or prevent bad things by punishing everyone, including those who aren’t responsible for the bad things. I’m against this.

Community Punishment Workshop
(“Community Punishment Workshop,” by amortize, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I first thought about this when I was writing my “If I Were My Own Representative” series, one of which was Part IV: My Touchstone for Voting:

My initial position would be to vote “no” on any bill that had a provision that would hurt some of our citizens, even if it helped some others. I would have to be convinced that the help was worth the hurt; i.e., that the hurt was along the lines as the necessary pain of surgery to correct a life-threatening condition.

If it wasn’t clear what effects some given legislation would have, whether it would hurt some people while helping some others, I would at least ASK. If no one could tell me, again my initial thought would be to vote against it.

I’m coming to believe this in more general terms than just politics: i.e., that in general we shouldn’t blame or punish good people when other people do bad things or allow them to happen. Let me lay out a few assumptions upon which I base this position:

  • There are some bad people in the world, who tend to do bad things. However,
  • Most people in the world are good or, if not actually good, at least not habitually bad.* Even so, some good people may occasionally do bad things (but, I think, usually by mistake or in extremis).
  • Bad things cannot be predicted with certainty, and sometimes not even with confidence.
  • When a person does a bad thing, and is considered likely to do more bad things, it is best to place that person in a position where it is more difficult for them to be able to do bad things.
  • When a person (good or bad) does a bad thing, and bad people may be inspired to follow their example, it is best to downplay the bad things rather than advertise or sensationalize them.
  • When a person (good or bad) does a bad thing, it is a mistake to assume that good people will follow the person’s example.
  • Because good people are the majority, and most good people are unlikely to follow the examples of people doing bad things, it is always a mistake to summarily limit the rights of good people (or strip rights from them) in response to bad things.
  • This approach will occasionally fail, because it is impossible to prevent all bad things or to identify all potentially bad people.

I don’t expect anyone particularly to agree with me on this (or anything else, for that matter), but that’s the way I’m approaching things right now.

*I offer this optional way of characterizing it for those for whom the doctrine of Original Sin, or Jesus’s “no one is good but God” statement (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19),prevents them from admitting that there may be good people in the world.

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