Good arguments against "cultural appropriation"

by Tyrrell_McAllister2 min read18th Dec 201812 comments


SteelmanningSocial & Cultural Dynamics
Personal Blog

[Originally posted to Facebook.]

I'm collecting steel-man arguments that the concept of "cultural appropriation" describes a real problem. Below are three arguments that seem somewhat reasonable to me in some cases. They seem to point to plausibly real costs of cross-cultural sharing and re-interpretation.

(Just to lay my cards on the table: I currently think that the benefits of cross-cultural sharing so often outweigh these cost that cultural appropriation as such should not be stigmatized.)

I'll abbreviate cultural appropriation as CA from here on out.

1. Some CA is taken to be a kind of mockery. Such CA is thought to result in diminished status and power for people in the "appropriated" culture. Alleged examples are team mascots, Halloween costumes, and Charlie Chan.

On the one hand, such arguments should be scrutinized skeptically and accepted only tentatively, because they rest on claims about difficult-to-measure effects on the vaguely defined status of amorphous social groups.

On the other hand, and for the same reason, you can't be certain that such claims are false. And you shouldn't just trust your own intuition on this kind of thing, because you don't have a bird's eye view of the entire complicated network of power and status that makes up our super-culture and all of its various subcultures. So it does make sense to listen to how other people think so-called CA affects their social standing.

2. Some CA amounts to diluting a piece of the cultural commons from which people in that culture were benefiting.

For example, people choose their clothes based on how they want to be seen by others. Tie-dye, for example, has a certain meaning in our culture. You wear tie-dye if you want people to see you in a certain way. But suppose that our culture found itself immersed in some larger surrounding culture, and people in the larger culture started wearing tie-dye without any knowledge of the whole system of sartorial signification within which tie-dye is embedded in our own culture. Now there's a bunch of people walking around wearing tie-dye who don't mean to signal what tie-dye signaled for us. As a result, tie-dye loses its signaling value for us. Having lost this signaling tool, we are that much poorer.

In some cultures, such markers of meaning are much more potent than they are in ours. So the loss of these markers results in a correspondingly greater loss of value to the people in these cultures. This seems to be part of the objection to the appropriation of clothing, jewelry, and hair styles.

3. Some CA is seen as a kind of theft of intellectual property, where gains in status and material wealth go to people outside the culture that ought to have gone to people inside the culture. Mere users of a cultural innovation (anglo consumers of Mexican food, say) are resented insofar as they patronize outsiders rather than insiders. But the real resentment is directed toward the outsiders who sell the innovation, or who gain status as "trendsetters". The profits and the status, on this view, ought to have gone to the people within the culture, who deserve a kind of corporate credit for the innovation.

There is a fourth kind of argument that is conspicuously absent from my list: "People within appropriated cultures take offense at CA. So, you shouldn't do it if you care about not putting people through that painful experience".

I want to set "offense" arguments aside for the moment. That's not because I dismiss them out of hand. Rather, it's because offense arguments raise lots of issues that require special care to treat properly.

For one thing, offense arguments have a kind of recursive tendency to be self-fulfilling. Under certain circumstances, they can even bootstrap themselves into validity from practically nothing. Katja Grace has a couple really good posts on how this can happen:

Iterating hurt

What you can’t say to a sympathetic ear

For that reason, I want to see how far the pro-CA case can get prior to an appeal to offensiveness. If you like, I'm looking for non-recursive reasons for finding CA to be offensive—reasons other than "because that practice is already understood to be offensive". This is not to suggest that such reasons aren't real or can be ignored in the final analysis. Regardless, it seems valuable to know what is left when you set this kind of argument aside.


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Some CA is seen as a kind of theft of intellectual property

It's worth mentioning here that Intellectual Property is codified in law, that the version of it that is codified into law is restricted to a specific list of types of things, and that intellectual property existing at all is controversial, even within those codified categories. If "Cultural Appropriation is bad" is framed as an extension of the preexisting debate about intellectual property, it's solidly outside the Overton window: it would mean drastically increasing the scope of things which can be IP.

I was in a situation recently in which someone from one of my communities urged me to cut off my dreadlocks, so I have given a lot of thought to this. While my thoughts on this were on dreadlocks specifically they are at least to some degree generalizable onto CA.

I made a similar observation as your third argument: that contemporary society recognizes the property of individuals and coorporations but not of demographic groups. If an artist created some piece of art and someone else claimed that as their idea and made money on it while none of those money being returned back to the artist, most people would consider that ethically problematic. Many cultural artifacts of certain demographic groups are featured in designs, movies, stageperformances and such while none of the generated capital goes to the original group many of whom are living in proverty.

The most concrete argument I could think of in regards to dreadlocks is that there already exists a unfavorable bias towards black people in regards to getting jobs. There's a stereotype of black people in the US being lazy and having a poor workethic, and the stereotype of someone with dreadlocks is to be lazy, smoke pot, and have a poor work ethic. If a white person wears a black hairstyle and strengthens the stereotype there's a reasonably plausible causal link to making it more difficult for black people to get work and in the US not having a job quickly leads to .

While none of those arguments applies to my situation specifically I could understand a deontological viewpoint of discouraging CA in general to avoid the instances in which it does cause harm.

On a tangent I find the term African American infuriating due to it's blatant imprecise. People who come from south africa and are now living in the US would be white African Americans. America covers not one but two continents and yet only people from a single country within one of the continents call themselves 'Americans'.

2 and 3 need to be contextualized a bit more: they're cultural appropriation in circumstances where the more powerful group has forced the less powerful one to mix with or assimilate to it.

In 2, mixing means that the less powerful group's ability to maintain their own set of signals within their territory is diminished. This is why fashionably copying their signals is a problem: it disrupts one of the few remaining ways for minority-group members to recognize and selectively pay attention to other full participants in their culture.

In 3, assimilation means that members of the less powerful group face an incentive to distance themselves from signifiers of their culture, so they often can't profit from such signifiers, while members of the more powerful culture may have more freedom to countersignal by playing around with things from the less powerful culture.

I haven't heard the complaint much, recently. Sports mascots and misuse of representative characteristics in media is now generally attacked without use of the term "appropriation", and identified more directly (and correctly, often) as demeaning stereotype.

The complaint I heard most about appropriation was related to #2 and #3 above, but distinct. The reason given to me that appropriation was problematic was that it perpetuates a power imbalance. The appropriating culture is historically dominant over the appropriated-from, and the topic of appropriation is one way that the victim culture could start to become equal. Until it was copied - after the appropriation, there are fewer obvious reasons to value the victim culture.

I never fully accepted the argument (or the concept of cultural identity as a separate value from institution effectiveness), but that's how it was described to me.

Such CA is thought to result in diminished status and power for people in the "appropriated" culture.

I'm having a hard time separating this from the 'offense' argument that you're not including. Like, The Simpsons introduces Apu, who is Indian and works at a convenience store. Written by and voice-acted by white Americans, he's very much "Indian immigrants as seen from the outside" as opposed to "the self-representation of Indian immigrants"; as a character in a comedy show, he's often a subject of mockery.

But someone being offended by Apu is what expecting this will lead to diminished status and power for Indian immigrants to America feels like from the inside. That makes me suspect that we should feel similarly about individuals taking offense claims of this category of CA, but I'm curious what makes you consider them separately.

I'm having a hard time separating this from the 'offense' argument that you're not including.

I agree that part of offense is just "what it feels like on the inside to anticipate diminished status".

Analogously, part of the pain of getting hit by a hammer is just "what it feels like on the inside to get hit by a hammer."

However, in both cases, neither the pain nor the offense is just passive internal information about an objective external state of affairs. They include such information, but they are more than that. In particular, in both cases, they are also what it feels like to execute a program designed by evolution to change the situation.

Pain, for example, is an inducement to stop any additional hammer blows and to see to the wounds already inflicted. More generally, pain is part of an active program that is interacting with the world, planning responses, anticipating reactions to those responses, and so on. And likewise with offense.

The premise of my distinction between "offense" and "diminished status" is this. I maintain that we can conceptually separate the initial and unavoidable diminished status from the potential future diminished status.

The potential future diminished status depends on how the offendee responds. The emotion of offense is heavily wrapped up in this potential future and in what kinds of responses will influence that future. For that reason, offense necessarily involves the kinds of recursive issues that Katja explores.

In the end, these recursive issues will have to be considered. (They are real, so they should be reflected in our theory in the end.) But it seems like it should be possible to see what initial harm, if any, occurs before the recursion kicks in.

Having lost this signaling tool, we are that much poorer.

Are we? Signaling value is both a blessing and a curse, and my impression is that it is generally zero-sum. Personally, I consider myself *richer* when a mundane activity or lifestyle choice loses its signaling association, for it means I am now less restricted in applying it.

I think you bring up a good point, but rather than being zero-sum, signaling can be either socially beneficial or detrimental compared to no signaling, depending on the details of the situation, so in theory removing a signaling tool can make us either richer or poorer. I'm not sure if economists have a consensus on whether signaling is typically good or bad, and would be curious if anyone knows this.

You may be interpreting "signalling" in a more specific way than I intended. You might be thinking of the kind of signalling that is largely restricted to status jockeying in zero-sum status games.

But I was using "signaling tool" in a very general sense. I just mean that you can use the signaling tool to convey information, and that you and your intended recipients have common knowledge about what your signal means. In that way, it's basically just a piece of language.

As with any piece of language, the fact that it signals something does place restrictions on what you can do.

For example, you can't yell "FIRE!" unless you are prepared to deal with certain consequences. But if the utterance "FIRE!" had no meaning, you would be freer, in a sense, to say it. If the mood struck you, you could burst out with a loud shout of "FIRE!" without causing a big commotion and making a bunch of people really angry at you.

But you would also lack a convenient tool that reliably brings help when you need it. This is a case where I think that the value of the signal heavily outweighs the restrictions that the signal's existence places on your actions.


I think you need to make a stronger case that mockery is bad.

Cultures often have harmful dysfunctional components, which should be criticised - and mockery is one of the more potent forms of criticism.

In the examples that occur to me, both sides agree that mocking the culture in question would be bad. They just disagree about whether the person accused of CA is doing that.

Do you have in mind a case in which the accused party defended themselves by saying that the appropriated culture should be mocked?

That seems like a different kind of dispute that follows a different rhetorical script, on both sides. For example, critics of Islam will be accused of Islamophobia, not cultural appropriation. And people accused of CA are more likely to defend themselves by saying that they're honoring the culture. They will not embrace the claim that they are mocking it.

I'm not contesting the claim that mockery can be good in some cases. But that point isn't at the crux of the arguments over cultural appropriation that I've seen. Disputes where the goodness of mockery is at the crux will not be of the kind that I'm considering here.