But why does it matter?
Well, I feel it’s always easier to understand something when it’s personal… so let’s do a little thought-exercise. Yes, I know what this example will most properly describe is something more like a copyright issue, but work with me here; I’m trying to explain something conceptual in an emotive matter, and it’s not easy. :)
So. Imagine yourself as the proud creator of something — a song, a painting, a story, a ritual, a dance… whatever speaks to you. You’re justifiably proud of this creation because it came from your heart and your culture: it is a beautiful fragment of all that is quintessentially you, brought to life in your creation. You start to become somewhat known for your marvelous work, and one day a man comes to you and asks to talk to you about it.
You show it to him with great pleasure — you like sharing beauty! He is flattering and complimentary, and you realize he’s going to write a truly amazing article about you. You open up to him, telling him things about the work’s creation that you’ve not told anyone else — personal things. When he leaves you’re very happy that more people will read about your beloved work, and maybe purchase things from you that are based on it. Life is good!
You look forward eagerly to the copy of the article which the man promised you, though for some reason it doesn’t turn up in the time frame he suggested it would. Unfortunately things start to slow down very soon after that too, though you don’t know why exactly. People aren’t as complimentary about your beautiful work, or they dismiss it as primitivist, unoriginal. Then one day someone refers to it disdainfully as a copy of someone else’s much more polished work — and you are rightfully incensed! You didn’t copy anyone. Who is this guy anyway? You look up the work you’re supposed to have copied, and with a shock of dismayed recognition… you see the name of the man who interviewed you.
At first you’re sure it’s just a mistake — he wouldn’t rip you off like that! You email him, but you never get an answer. You try repeatedly, until the day that your email is bounced. Then you try snail mail and the phone — but there’s no reply to your letter, and the man’s administrative assistant always says he’s too busy to talk to you. While this is happening, of course, his work is receiving more and more accolades, wider viewing, and financial support. He’s feted at parties and invited to speaking engagements and making good money — all on a copy of your work! Worse, your work is getting dissed and ignored and laughed at for pretending to be as good as his work! It’s frustrating and hurtful and infuriating — how could he?! You’d thought he was a friend!
He won’t talk to you, he won’t reply to your missives, he completely ignores you. Finally, in desperation you go to see him at a talk at some conference — so you can ask him to his face: why would he do this to you? Has he no human decency? He listens to you… then smiles out at the audience and tells them your story — except it’s not your story, not really. He’s misrepresenting you, misquoting you, making you out to be someone who is nice enough but lacking in any real gumption — it took him taking your half-formed ramblings to turn them into something truly beautiful, useful, and valuable. You’re appalled! You cry out that he’s lying — that’s not how it was at all! The crowd turns against you, yelling and snarling at you: how could you accuse their hero so?! You’re forcefully escorted out of the auditorium by security guards… for your own safety, of course.
The next day the reviews of the conference are full of you — of how you’re abusing the poor man, trying to steal his ideas and take credit for his work. People refer to you scornfully as a thief of ideas, as pro-censorship and anti-creativity. The man talks sorrowfully in interviews about how he tried to help you, but you just wouldn’t listen. People talk about how your ‘supposed’ creativity is only a poor product of the man’s efforts to boost you up — and you’re too mean-spirited to admit it. Your business suffers too… because who wants to purchase creativity from someone who appropriates it from others, after all? Perhaps in the end, adding insult to injury, the man even files a slander or defamation suit against you. You don’t have the money to hire a lawyer to go to court… and so it goes about as well as could be expected.
Do you think maybe you might be a little bitter after all that?
But Elvis did it, so it must be good!
The most common example I’ve heard of why cultural appropriation is good is part of the music industry: Elvis and/or jazz. The usual trope is: “but if it weren’t for cultural appropriation we wouldn’t have had [Elvis/jazz/insert favorite ethnically-inspired, white-controlled genre]!”
Let’s take a moment to review what this statement is actually saying: it is blatantly re-casting theft as a good and necessary element of cultural growth. Not only is socially-approved theft a staggeringly bad idea, but to frame Elvis’ appropriation of black culture as somehow required is, quite frankly, nonsense. Barter, gifting, sharing, and financial selling are far more ethical and responsible elements of cultural growth, as any principled economist can tell you.
Further, the appropriation-approving trope also betrays a tragic ignorance of human potential. Sure, we have Elvis and jazz now… but how much more might we have gotten, had the white musicians all chosen to acknowledge and work with the black artists whose music so inspired them? Indeed, completely aside from the wonderful musical possibilities, might we have had the jazz subculture effectively peacefully leading the way to a more egalitarian and less racist world?
What potential wonders have we now completely lost… due to the impatience, ignorance, and selfish greed of cultural appropriation?