The first time I heard the term cultural appropriation was a few years back when a volunteer-run yoga class at the University of Ottawa was denounced by university administrators and suddenly cancelled. This bizarre story quickly went viral, with many wondering if this was a Canadian April Fool’s Day prank.
Regrettably, the university officials who made this fateful decision were deadly seriously.
So what is cultural appropriation and where did it come from?
The logic of cultural appropriation goes something like this: Yoga (as practised by westerners) is trespassing on cultural property owned by an identifiable victim of western colonial oppression.
S.E. Smith, a U.S.-based feminist, described the Ottawa case as a textbook example: “Westerners lift something from another tradition, brand it as ‘exotic,’ proceed to dilute and twist it to satisfy their own desires, and then call it their own.”
I suppose, by this definition, the most scandalous case of cultural appropriation has to be Grey Owl. Grey Owl (also known as Archibald Belaney) was an English-born native American impersonator who fooled the world with his fraudulent identity back in the 1930s.
He used his exotic native identity and (surprising) international notoriety to advance the cause of preserving nature. He was the world’s first environmental superstar, championing the dream of unblemished wilderness and blaming corporate greed for its degradation.
Nevertheless, and despite his noble intentions, Belaney was clearly of the oppressor class (male, British, colonial, etc.) and the identity he so convincingly adopted was that of a people victimized by the dominant culture.
Not surprisingly, the claim of cultural appropriation is rapidly becoming the ideological weapon of choice for the more heated proponents of radical feminism and anti-colonial studies.
These highly-motivated academic elites view the world through a romantic lens that’s quite different from the norm. For true believers, cultural victims are created by, and would not exist without, the active participation of an oppressive establishment. The very presence of inequality or suffering is, in other words, deliberate and someone else’s fault.
Western culture is, naturally, the guilty party. We westerners (males in particular) are the agents of oppression, guilty of humiliating other cultures, women, people of colour and the LGBT community, to name but a few identifiable victims.
Where did cultural appropriation come from?
To find the roots of this anti-social idea, we have to go all the way back to the 18th century. Ultimately, it started with the musings of a radical French philosopher by the name of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778).
Rousseau is the father of Romanticism and is famous for saying, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” To Rousseau, the natural state of humanity (in the absence of restraint) is perfect liberty. Regrettably, on the flip side of Rousseau’s worldview lies a dark falsehood. Because inequality clearly exists, society must, by definition, be the source of human suffering – the oppressor of humanity’s natural freedom.
Where is the falsehood in this logic? It lies in the idealized state of nature that Rousseau and his successors hold. Any sensible reading of history demonstrates clearly that the condition of humanity in its so-called natural state is dire and tyrannical; English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described life in the natural state as “nasty, brutish and short.”
Why does this misperception matter?
It matters because Romantics see injustice and wrongly demonize western society, which, ironically, is the single most important vehicle to elevate humanity, and hopefully reduce or eliminate prejudice, division and inequality.
Cultural appropriation (misappropriation?) has one virtue: it points to the need to treat everyone and all cultures with dignity and respect. But the cult of victimhood and vicious blame associated with cultural appropriation is simply wrong.
Western society is – and has been for many centuries – the only major civilization to deliberately embrace change, repudiating its colonial past and championing the dignity of disadvantaged groups. It has provided the platform for societal change that however imperfect could eventually eliminate inequality.
The notion of cultural appropriation is wrong in its central principle. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to point to an attribute in any culture that hasn’t been copied, borrowed or lifted from another culture. Sharing cultural properties is how civilizations grow and humanity advances.
And thank God for that, for if the cultural thought police have their way, the world will become be a much more divided and dangerous place.
Robert McGarvey is chief strategist for Troy Media Digital Solutions Ltd., an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.
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