Garwulf's Corner

Garwulf's Corner
Appropriating Culture

Robert B. Marks | 15 Mar 2017 15:00
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One of the better - and more controversial - books on the 1996 Everest disaster is Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. The book is controversial because of its treatment of one of the guides on that fateful day, but that wasn't what stood out during my reading of it. Instead, it was a line about the Sherpas and their culture.

imageHaving spent time with the Sherpas and talked to them, as a professional journalist is wont to do, Krakauer discovered that the Sherpas of Nepal had no desire to become a living museum exhibit. While some critics had argued against the cultural contamination of the Sherpas, the Sherpas themselves wanted all of the benefits of Western culture that they could get, from movies to new schools.

And yes, it is time to pinch our noses once again, as we are descending back into outrage culture.

As I write (in early December) cultural appropriation has been in the news in a way that has struck close to home: my alma mater, Queen's University, is under fire for a costume party held by a number of its students, in which they dressed as members of other cultures. The event was considered racist by many of the students who saw the pictures that brought the event into the public eye, and as I edit this, the university is determining if it is actionable.

It's another part of outrage culture that I find very problematic, particularly with my academic background being in the field of history. The problem is that cultural appropriation is a key mechanism in how cultures develop and grow - it is not a process that should be vilified.

Take modern mainstream North American culture, for example. North America is a continent that was primarily colonized by the English and the French. So, how much of it traces back to England or France?

The answer is "not much." Mainstream North American culture is a hodgepodge at best of a number of different historical cultures. Most of the English language consists of loan words from Old Norse, French, Greek, and Latin - the original English prior to the Danelaw or the Norman Conquest is functionally a different language that requires special training to translate (for example, in the title of this column the name I use, "Garwulf," is Old English for "a wolf to spears," or a swordsman, a meaning that cannot be ferreted out without knowing how Old English works). Our mathematics are based on Algebra and Arabic numerals, both of which are from the Arab world and came to us through cultural contact between Christianity and Islam in Medieval Spain. Our literature freely cribs from other cultures, from Shakespeare's plays to Tolkien's Middle Earth (which often takes more from Norse and Finnish mythology than English culture). Several of our types of music, in particular jazz, rap, and hip-hop, are originally African-American. The pop culture juggernaut that is the Transformers was originally Japanese. Even our public buildings tend to be based on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. And, to cap it off, most of the Bible, a text that underpins much of Western culture, is Middle Eastern.

To be fair, this is an issue with plenty of nuance. Taking ideas from other cultures and adapting them to your own is generally healthy, and a sign of an open mind. Mocking or stereotyping other cultures is not. A "sexy Trappist monk" costume is going to be offensive, no matter what culture you're in - it takes an identity that is filled with meaning and reduces it to a caricature.

Outrage culture has a bad habit of being offended on other people's behalf.

To continue being fair, there is a distinct difference between taking ideas from a culture and trying to claim that you are part of that culture when you are not. For example, I have no objections to my Catholic in-laws participating alongside me in Jewish holidays such as Passover. I do have objections to those Hebrew Catholics who have decided that they are Jewish without ever having converted or been born into it - Judaism is an ancient religion that one is either born into or (far more rarely) a convert to, not an identity that one can assume by declaration.

Figuring out where these lines are can be the tricky part. However, neither of these are the appropriation of culture - to declare them as such is to misuse the term. One is the parody of culture, and the other is the impersonation of it.

But, the misuse of the term notwithstanding, where this becomes an even bigger problem comes with the declaration of offensiveness. Outrage culture has a bad habit of being offended on other people's behalf, often without any consultation of those people beforehand. It is one thing for Native Americans to campaign against the name of the Washington Redskins - they are the people being offended. It is quite another for non-Japanese people to go after April Lavigne for making a Japanese-styled video in Japan for her Japanese fans (who had no problem with the video at all), or for a Yoga class to be suspended for cultural appropriation without so much as a single complaint from anybody of Indian heritage. Whether something is offensive is determined by those who are on the receiving end, not by uninvolved observers.

And, to turn a much-used phrase on its head, a culture is not a costume, or vice versa. Wearing a sombrero does not make somebody a Mexican any more than wearing a kimono makes one Japanese. But, one can enjoy doing these things without it being an act of aggression against other cultures. More often than not, a hat is just a hat, and there's nothing wrong with liking or wearing one from another country (although, to be honest, most people can't look good in a fez).

Cultures appropriating elements from each other is the historical rule rather than the exception. And, in the main, it is a positive process, with ideas being shared and built upon as the culture grows - it should not be treated as the latest set of buzz words with which to shame people. To vilify this process is to attempt to turn culture into a living museum exhibit, and that is not where any culture wants - or needs - to be.

Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is available in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.

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