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The incoherent, divisive dogma of cultural appropriation outrage

by Shaun O'dwyer

Contributing Writer

Five years after Katy Perry’s kimono at the American Music Awards provoked a Twitter meltdown, cultural appropriation callouts remain baked into online outrage culture.

Still, the narrative arc of these social media theatrics is changing. These days, the people on whose behalf the cultural appropriation callouts are often enforced are no longer bewildered bystanders. Looking at the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in now, I think the time has come to follow up on the article I wrote on this issue three years ago.

Let’s consider the updated script for callouts on appropriation of “Asian culture.” First, someone tweets a denunciation against a person — often a celebrity, usually white — for wearing a kimono or a Chinese cheongsam, or for publicly playing a Japanese shakuhachi flute while in kimono. This, it is claimed, is a textbook case of cultural appropriation: an act of Orientalist, racist wrongdoing in which people from dominant cultures help themselves to cultural items, practices or identities from a minority or nonwhite culture, without the permission of its members.

However, even as denunciations and hot takes rain down, there is that twist in the narrative when Japanese and Chinese nationals respond forcefully that there is nothing offensive about the appropriation, and they are not victimized by it.

Nevertheless, opponents of cultural appropriation will also argue that it is minority Asian-Americans who are harmed by such cultural appropriation, not the Japanese or Chinese, who are “majorities in their own culture.” They are harmed because the white American people who appropriated those cultural items or practices are perpetuating sexist, racist stereotypes against them, or marginalizing them.

But this is a category mistake. Assume for the sake of argument that something like a cheongsam or kimono is the exclusive cultural property of people belonging to a particular nationality or ethnicity. Then it would only be people from that nationality or ethnicity, such as Japanese or Chinese citizens, who are harmed by the cultural appropriation — and it’s ultimately their call to say they are.

The harm some Asian-American activists and their supporters claim from cultural appropriation is a categorically different type of moral harm, which is inflicted when people mock or mimic the stereotyped characteristics of minority groups in a racist and sexist manner, through exaggerated, fetishizing costumes, makeup and gesture.

Of course, it still needs to be shown that the people behaving like this intend such harm, or are culpably ignorant. But even if that is proven, it is incoherent according to the very definition of the term that it is cultural appropriation that harms Asian-Americans, most of whom have no national or cultural link to the items they say are appropriated. They might try and say the appropriation harms them as members of “Asian culture.” But this claim, which shoehorns billions of diverse people into one “culture,” is nonsensical.

Those committed to promoting Japanese arts and pop culture abroad may wonder why such cultural appropriation outrage persists in spite of its incoherence, and why it has such allure that people claim to be victimized when they have no connection to the “home cultures” of the appropriated items or practices. Well, I think a large part of the explanation arises in the history of that word “culture” in both left- and right-wing ideologies about identity and belonging.

Identity politics gone mad: Shakuhachi flute master Cornelius Boots was called out recently for the crime of playing a traditional Japanese instrument while white.
Identity politics gone mad: Shakuhachi flute master Cornelius Boots was called out recently for the crime of playing a traditional Japanese instrument while white. | COURTESY OF CORNELIUS BOOTS

To 1945 and back again

Others have covered this history in detail, so I will just sketch it here. In the later 18th century, philosophers like Johann Herder reacted against what they saw as the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of Enlightenment ideals of a universal human reason. While not completely rejecting these ideals, Herder argued that human nature and reason were expressed through distinct, diverse cultures — the organic, transmitted worldviews, literatures, folk practices and arts shaped by the distinctive language of a people, and by the geography of their national homeland. Herder rejected the idea that some cultures were superior to others, and denounced European imperialism for endangering folk and non-European cultures.

Modern multiculturalism, cultural nationalism and anti-colonialism all owe something to Herder’s influence. Unfortunately, 19th century nationalists also distorted this influence in a darker, racist direction, fencing off “their” culture from the polluting influence of Jews and other racial outsiders. One, an embittered young German composer, published an anti-Semitic pamphlet in 1850 about Jews in German music.

Richard Wagner declared that unconverted Jews could never authentically belong in Europe’s folk-cultural life, because of their appearance, their avarice and their inability to master European languages. In arts such as music, he believed Jews could only produce inferior copies of the great German composers’ works. The popularity of Jewish composers in his time, Wagner raged, was a sign of the terminal decay of European music: Jews were its scavengers, like a “swarming colony of insect life” dissolving a corpse’s flesh. Within a century, such ideas were rhyming to the tramp of jackboots.

In the post-1945 era, progressive ideas of cultural identity gradually reasserted themselves. They did so in the form of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a politics of recognition. Unlike a universal, progressive politics of redistribution, which campaigns for just distributions of income, educational opportunities, medical care and civil rights or for collective control over the means of production, a progressive politics of recognition is more particularistic. It calls for respect for the distinct identities and values of national and regional cultures, and of historically oppressed minorities. Through international treaties and conventions, it also calls for the protection of their cultural property — the physical, intellectual and spiritual heritage, cuisines and traditional arts they claim as their own.

It was out of this idea of cultural property that the concept of cultural appropriation emerged amongst Canadian, American and Australian indigenous rights scholars and activists in the 1980s. For centuries, indigenous peoples had watched, helpless, as anthropologists, archaeologists, museum curators, artists and entrepreneurs helped themselves to and interpreted their heritage and their ancestors’ bones, even as they were dispossessed and forcibly assimilated.

Denouncing cultural appropriation and claiming ownership over their heritage, arts and stories became a means for indigenous activists to rebuild traditional identities and demand recognition, albeit in the modern (and sometimes intemperate) language of cultural nationalism.

However, in the hothouse conditions of 21st century social media, and after fertilizing with hefty servings of postcolonial and critical race theories, cultural appropriation morality has bloomed into an intractable, divisive, quasi-religious dogma. In this atmosphere, a compulsive yet shallow politics of recognition reigns supreme, richly inventive in contrived victimhood.

Quasi-religious callout culture

Not in my name: A model wears one of  Hiromi Asai
Not in my name: A model wears one of Hiromi Asai’s kimono at New York Fashion Week in 2016. ‘I believe kimono is a universal fashion that is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries,’ says the Japanese designer. | COURTESY OF HIROMI ASAI

Against the background of the more individualized lives of citizens in postindustrial nations like America today, social media callouts provide a potent means for participating in ersatz collective identities and ersatz social justice movements. They enable people to mobilize quickly behind vague, racialized notions of “Asian” or “black” culture and against equally vague, essentialist notions of white supremacy, and to claim cultural ownership, or gatekeeping authority, over the wearing of kimono, cheongsam, cornrows and dreadlocks, over hip-hop performance, or over choices of actors for “Asian”-themed movies.

The quasi-religious character of this callout culture finds expression in ritualized shaming and demands for atonement, and for recognition of cultural ownership from those who sacrilegiously transgress against it; and in the ritualized atonement and recognition duly offered up by repentant transgressors.

Cultural appropriation outrage persists because — at the touch of an electronic screen — it serves powerful emotional needs to belong to a particular collective identity, and to social justice causes with highly inclusive lists of victims, such as those with no plausible national connection to the “appropriated” culture. All this is bad news for advocates for the popularization and internationalization of Japanese arts, anime, manga, cosplay and kimono fashion. What should they do?

They can take to social media to highlight the incoherence in cultural appropriation outrage, and show that more racialized understandings of culture play into the hands of actual white supremacists and nationalists, who are busy creating their own Wagnerian variations on the themes of “white” and “European” culture.

They can remind Twitter and Tumblr that Japanese practitioners of traditional arts like the shakuhachi are gladly sharing that art with non-Japanese musicians. They can also point to the internationalist ambitions of kimono designers such as Hiromi Asai, who explained her vision to me as follows: “I believe kimono is a universal fashion that is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”

Rather like Johann Herder and his intellectual heir, Lafcadio Hearn, they can demonstrate that the survival and flourishing of minority and non-European arts, folklores and traditions can depend upon their internationalized transmission.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.

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