This makes me feel bad — so it must be bad!
On deeper examination of this issue, I believe the selfish desire to profit regardless of the pain or damage it causes others is behind the deliberately inaccurate reframing of cultural appropriation as something good. For example, I’ve seen terms such as “cultural evolution” and “anti-censorship” tossed loosely around as justification. Let’s try unpacking these phrases to see what they really mean.
The concept of cultural evolution is an attempt to broadly apply the theory of evolution, based on biological natural selection, to a different intellectual field. However, if we more deeply explore the theme of cultural appropriation as a form of evolution, how do we account for the hurt and damage it causes in the unjustly appropriated culture? If we are matching this to some sort of biological exchange then aren’t we perilously close to admiring what is in effect cultural rape? Do we really want to take that route to self-justification?
Fortunately cultures (unlike individual organisms) are not biological organisms, and therefore cannot engage in natural selection — there are no “culture genes,” for example. As a consequence, trying to apply natural selection to cultures makes about as much sense as trying to apply it to, say, mathematics. True, mathematicians are biological entities which perform the math in question — but you cannot point to, say, a gene in the math itself that will lead to the creation of calculus from algebra. Similarly, you cannot point to a gene in a culture that helps produce authoritarianism or egalitarianism or whatever.
But it’s censoring me!
For those who argue that cultures cannot and should not become gated communities: I agree. I believe cultural exchange is a useful and necessary means of social growth. However, there is a major difference in having an exchange between social equals… as opposed to a more powerful society simply stealing from a smaller, less powerful one. There are fortunately ways to shift a possible cultural appropriation into a fair exchange — but it involves acting like an adult and having some empathy for others. As I mentioned above, one step — perhaps necessarily always the first and last one — is to listen to those with less social power; to hear what they consider just compensation and fair representation.
Speaking of acting like an adult… I’ve also seen people refer to themselves as anti-censorship when they champion cultural appropriation — because having to be sensitive to the potential pain they might cause others censors their ability to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Apparently they believe their desires — however inappropriate or damaging — trump everyone else’s. Curiously, these expressed cravings always seem to involve bullying those weaker than themselves rather than tweaking the metaphorical nose of powerful social institutions such as the police or a major corporation. I suppose it isn’t really a surprise, though, as that way such individuals are less likely to either face any real consequences, or be harmed by their selfish actions.
I privately refer to this as the ‘special snowflake’ argument: like a spoiled child, they apparently believe the entire world does and should revolve around them. Consequently any effort to teach the child to become a thoughtful and responsible adult is met with screaming and tantrums. Frankly, this not a valid form of rational argument.
But I don’t know what to do!
The really sad part is that when it’s done right, cultural exchange can be a huge win-win situation. I am, in effect, attempting to accomplish this with my dissertation: I want to do research through interviews which will reveal information which is potentially helpful for others — and maybe, if we are all really lucky, it will be one of the little pushes that will help in changing our society for the better as well. Guided by my university and my committee chair, I have been very careful to ensure (to my best effort) that my interviews are not harmful, my questions are respectful, and my interview participants realize they can both ask questions themselves and stop the interview at any time should they so wish.
In the dissertation itself, I am required by the university to use aliases to protect the identities of my participant collaborators, but in the Acknowledgements section I will definitely be thanking all my interview partner-researchers for their willingness to work with me. Further, as I write my dissertation I will be sending the relevant bits to each of my interview partners so they can review it and ensure I am not in any way misrepresenting them or their words. Perhaps most importantly, they know that if they are unhappy with what I have written and/or any changes I have made at their request, they can ask to withdraw from my research and my dissertation work at any time.
Is this scary for me? Oh, hells yes! I have (fortunately infrequent) nightmares where I dream that they all decide they hate me and my work and tell me they’re withdrawing — and I’m left with no research at all. But in the warm light of day my rationality reassures me: these are women who more often than not are trying to help — they’re being kind to me. How could I not return that generous favor? It is emphatically not acceptable to treat these women as nothing more than lab rats or renewable personal resources. I don’t want to be the ivory tower elitist who believes they know better than everyone else, nor the selfish narcissist who has peculiarly convinced themself that they somehow deserve to profit at the expense of others.
In the end, in order to end up with an excellent dissertation I am required to do the work — to truly listen to the words and needs of these kind women who shared part of their lives with me. In a way I find it a scarily straightforward equation: if I wish to be treated with respect then I should treat others respectfully as well — the way they wish to be treated. By so doing it is my hope to create something wonderful and useful, not through cultural appropriation of these women’s lives… but rather via friendly and mutually supportive exchange.