I have seen quite a few rather angry debates online lately about the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ – apparently people that grew up in a particular culture get upset when people from outside that culture publicly display symbols, artefacts, clothing and rituals they ‘have no right to’, being outsiders and not part of the culture they are displaying. Can anyone really claim to ‘own’ a culture? Does it make sense to demand of others to stay away from elements of cultures they didn’t grow up in?
We all grow up in one culture or other. Being human, our ‘natural’ environment – the one we evolved to adapt to – is the culture of the people we grew up with. Even though it may feel we are born to the culture we belong to, there is no known genetic predisposition for any particular culture. Any newborn, from anywhere in the world, when it is immediately placed in another culture than that of its parents, will grow up belonging as much to that particular culture as any of its peers. In other words, culture is acquired: learned and internalised through the continuous exposure to the beliefs, assumptions, and behaviours of those around us.
This means cultures are shared: it’s only through other people that a culture exists that we can belong to together. And cultures are diffuse : while it may have been true in ancient times that cultures could exist in near-perfect isolation, almost all of humanity is in contact with other cultures nowadays and elements of those other cultures get assimilated over time; either indirectly through stories, regular contact, the need to co-exist, or more directly through inter-marriage and other forms of people more or less permanently joining a culture other than the one they grew up in.
Humans have always traveled, it seems, and in our travels we have had to adapt to wildly different circumstances. Our ability to create cultures was a crucial skill in this process, as it enabled us to learn from each other and rapidly share, refine and scale crucial survival skills across our groups and communities. But with all that traveling and trading we did, the inevitable process of cultural learning has led to the continuous exchange of ideas, memes, beliefs, practices and behaviours. Even cultures that have remained fairly isolated over thousands of years show traces of cultural exchanges with tribes or travellers they have occasionally interacted with, either through direct contact, or through stories and objects brought back by scouts and travellers coming back after venturing far from home.
So can any element of a culture actually be exclusively claimed by a single group? Or is culture by its very nature a treasure trove of human adaptation and learning, intended for and of potential benefit to anyone genuinely interested in the wisdom each culture has to offer?
I certainly would like to think so. But I also understand that the way culture and identity are intimately interconnected can cause an emotional reaction in people.
Our history knows may examples of people that were overpowered and overrun by other cultures. Very often the conquered people had little choice: either adapt to the new rulers and try to blend in, or vanish completely. Culturally, the effect is the same: blend in long enough and there may not be enough left of a culture to distinguish the conquered people from their conquerers. The people may survive, but their culture dies.
I think that distress about other people ‘appropriating’ cultural elements is actually the distress of people that fear – rightly or not – they are at the losing end of a cultural assimilation process. We can’t deny that the globalisation that Western Europe unleashed upon the Earth in the past 600 years or so has not been particularly beneficial to many (if any) of the non-European cultures that came under the yoke of the colonising powers. Local cultures were seen as primitive and inferior, and either violently suppressed or systematically ridiculed, marginalised and discouraged. At the same time, artefacts, symbols, ideas, fashion, and even habits and behaviours of those ‘inferior’ cultures were shamelessly stolen, copied, twisted, parodied and then incorporated into the dominant culture as if they had invented or created these things themselves. I can fully understand the anger and frustration downtrodden and marginalised people feel when they not only see their autonomy, dignity, and quality of life being taken away, but at the same time have to watch on as the very things they define their cultural identity and their life’s purpose and meaning by are publicly displayed and copied by people who don’t even try to understand the true meaning and significance of what they are appropriating.
I understand, I truly do. And I would be the last one to want to inflict such anger and frustration on people. I am fortunate enough to have been born on the privileged side of the human divide – being European, white, educated and (relatively) rich. I do acknowledge that many of those privileges were created through the wilful and systematic destruction and theft of the wealth of other people by the previous generations of the society I am, by birth, a part of. So I don’t want to add insult to injury by digging through those other peoples’ cultural treasures to shamelessly take whatever I think is useful of interesting to me. That would be disrespectful. And it would be wrong.
Nevertheless, I am a lifelong seeker of wisdom and enlightenment. I know there is profound wisdom to be found in the many cultures of this world: deep, life-changing, time-honoured wisdom in many different forms. And I would love to learn of this wisdom, try to understand and fathom its depths, and learn from it, so I can be a better human being because of it. That’s all I am asking for. Or is that inappropriate too?
I do have a suggestion that may help change the perspective of those that feel they need to protect the essence of their cultural heritage from outsiders. Maybe it’s possible to separate your own experience of your culture – how you live it, use it, obey its rules, and contribute to its continued existence – from how outsiders experience it. Maybe you can come to see that sharing your culture with others doesn’t mean you are losing it, or diminishing its value. Even if those others completely misunderstand it and use or abuse it in inappropriate ways, that doesn’t reduce your culture’s wisdom and value to you and your community. That can never be taken away from you. That inner experience is unalienable yours. It’s your birthright.
And there is an even more hopeful perspective. There are examples in history of empire-building cultures that absorb so much of the cultures they conquered that they can hardly be called the same culture after they won their wars of conquest. The Mongols became Chinese in China, Muslim in Persia, and unmistakingly Indian in India. As long as there are enough people left to carry on their cultural traditions and transmit their cultural wisdom, the process of cultural exchange can work both ways, resulting in a new culture that combines both the conquered and the conquerors into a brand new culture that the original conquerors would hardly recognise themselves in.
Having recently traveled through Egypt to look at the ancient ruins that can be found all through the land there, two of my favourite examples of conquerors blending in with the people they conquered are the Nubians from Egypt’s southern borders taking over the country, in the process becoming almost more Egyptian than the Egyptians, while still maintaining some of their own traditions, and the Ptolemy’s, the Greek conquerors ending with the famous Cleopatra, who may have seen themselves as essentially Greek but adopted so many of the ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices it is hard for us modern people to see their Greekness; they look much more Egyptian than Greek to us.
So, before you argue your cultural heritage is yours, and yours alone, and should be kept safe from those who would appropriate it without having any right to it, consider this: maybe by giving outsiders access to your cultural wisdom you are not diminishing your self or your culture, but spreading it and extending its influence. Maybe, by letting elements of what your people learned over countless centuries infiltrate into the often shallow and short-sighted thought-systems of your oppressors, you are changing them, slowly, imperceptibly but inexorably, until they have become a different people altogether. Maybe this can be your revenge on those who so ruthlessly conquered and cruelly oppressed you: that their own progeny, their children’s children’s grandchildren, become nothing like their ancestors, and would not want to be seen to be like them. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate victory? That they who thought they could conquer and vanquish you through sheer force and violence, are instead conquered and vanquished by your patient and continuous infusion of their culture with the wisdom they so sadly lacked, until they – not you – become nothing but a minor and questionable footnote in our future history?