Cultural appropriation and Political Correctness in writing
Or ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’
I am guilty of culture appropriation. I used a teaspoon of live yogurt from a tub from the store to get my own yogurt going. And anyway yogurt is doubtless a dietary item brutally wrenched from some Steppe dwelling pastoral nomads who were doubtless engaged in their traditional cultural pastime of invading and conquering effete city-dwellers (it is not politically correct to criticize this important cultural activity, or indeed, to resist, for fear of displaying cultural insensitivity. Do modify your behavior and writing accordingly or you will have a cloud of shrieking internet harpies descend on you.)
Yeah, it’s all a bit ridiculous isn’t it?
Culture – what is it besides bacteria? (They’re in everything. Even toxic individuals you’d swear could not possibly harbor life.)
That’s actually a harder question than you may think. A lot of the time it seems to mean just whatever some berk wants it to mean, so he or she (I’m sorry, I’m just a biologist. You want 23 sexes talk to an Arts graduate. It’s beyond me) can be offended. The being offended part seems important, at least to them. The Cambridge English Dictionary explains culture as, “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.”
Here’s my take: It’s a complex moving target, which means different things to different people. It is almost never totally unique (because all cultures take whatever they fancy from other cultures, and some have other cultures thrust upon them). It’s a composite of both history and the interaction with the current world (so the culture of a specific group of people, even if totally isolated from the world fifty years ago isn’t the same as today’s). There are elements of geography, the food, the way of life, the language, religion and laws and probably Aunt Mary’s in-growing toenails in there. One can only hope the latter is not in the food.
There are isolated cultures (few these days) cultures alongside other cultures, mixing well into something inseparable and different in places, and like oil and water (poisoning both) in others. There are cultures within cultures, and little cultures within those, like Matryoshka dolls, all bellowing loudly that they the equal if not far far better. There are gay cultures and women’s secret business and men’s secret business, hipster cultures and tribal cultures and so on…
Culture. I’m not too sure anyone actually agrees quite what it is, or really has set bounds, but you’ll know it when you see it. Only what you see as it today, is not what you see tomorrow.
And it doesn’t belong to you any more than bacteria belong to you. ‘Keep your bugs to yourself, will ya?’ Doesn’t work any more than ‘cultural purity’ does.
Oh, and attempting to ‘set’ it, unchanging, unresponsive to the outside world, seems the equivalent of cultural suicide. The same is true of exclusivity: with genocide of anyone who tries, you can stop other cultures pinching bits they fancy, changing them and making them theirs, but there really is no other way. So maybe you can stop the neighboring Ping-ping tribe from adopting the Pong-ping conical headdress and adding the complete affront of feathers, by overwhelming force and with elephants, or by refusing to buy Ping-ping yogurt… but if people really want or see an advantage in something unique to your culture, they will rapidly make it non-unique.
In fact, if they don’t and won’t… you know they consider your culture, or that aspect, inferior. Worthless. While it’s considered massively politically incorrect to compare cultures (the only comparison allowed is that ANYONE else’s culture is way, way better Western Judeo-Christian – which is why so many people want to migrate from everywhere else to these Western countries. Because the West’s culture is awful and unsuccessful.) The facts on the ground say people adopt (and move to) the ones they like most, that work best for them, or at least aspects of those successes. It’s the weak culture, that which offers little, which needs to fear being destroyed.
With this very obvious and demonstrable fact…
Enter the newest shibboleth of Arts world (along with 23 sexes) intended to divide and exclude.
I’m a wicked man because I talked about Yogurt (Turkic) and Matryoshka dolls (Russian) and shibboleth (Hebrew). These words, and a meaning of them have all become quite normal in English, understood, accepted… and maybe not quite what they meant (or still mean) in their root-culture.
But the culture of the permanently offended (the one I adopt nothing from, because yes, I consider it inferior, and overdue for the scrapheap of history.) has discovered it as a new and valuable thing to… you guessed it!… Be offended by. Demand reparations for the terrible damage done. Exclusivity even. Heaven help you if you’re not gay, and write about something that could be considered gay culture, or Aboriginal, or Inuit or quite possibly of sex number 23 (is that the one where you identify as coffee table?). Contrariwise, you are to be utterly condemned, pilloried, attacked, decried as a sexist, racist, homophobic misogynist if you don’t include all the possible groups (including number 23) in your books, in the prescribed stereotype roles.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In other words, unless you’re one of the permanently offended, you simply may not write at all, because this is, a la apartheid, a reserved profession for designated victims and ‘other cultures’. Of course, even there the discrimination cheerfully continues: you may – if you’re black, or gay write black or gay characters, so long as they live up to the preconceived stereotypes of the same.
You may come from Cameroon (where you lived a wealthy, comfortable and educated first world lifestyle, because that too is real), and have been beaten up for being gay there, but do not dare write this unwanted truth. The stereotype foreign primitive African culture full of gentle, tolerant but colonially repressed people must be there.
However, as a sop, you may, as a gay black woman who has lived her entire life in a pleasant enclave of Reunion, describe, with impunity, the culture of white heterosexual men living in Nebraska, where you have never been, have never met any of, and never bothered to research… As long as they’re barbaric brutes, stupider than rocks who drag homosexuals behind trucks, that is.
I’m sick of the perpetually offended. Screw them, and the donkey they rode into town on. There are obvious areas I avoid, like religion, like deliberate belittling, or selective stereotyping. There is being stupid and vindictive. There is even being insensitive. I make an effort to avoid deliberate offense, to fact check as best as possible, to find first readers who do have the background. To give a fair and balanced picture.
But none of the perpetually offended give a damn about these issues when they write. Let them lead by example, start making an effort to be less offensive themselves, to people they have decided they don’t like. To show appreciation and respect for those cultures… To condemn their own when they make offensive productions about, for example the Mormons – there certainly have been many opportunities to speak up. I don’t think most Mormons care… but they do expect the converse to apply: You do to us, don’t complain when we do the same to you.
On the other hand: if you think your culture is exclusively yours… Then butt out of my culture. Take nothing from it, make your own. I’m not writing in Ping-ping glyphs with a ping-mechanical-wobble-stick onto sheets of ping-tree bark. I might be writing about Ping-ping myth, but it’s in English, with a computer, and printed on paper. If they wish to be true Ping-ping they will be blissfully ignorant of what I say and do, and therefore not offended by my getting it wrong. One can’t have it both ways – This is not modern divorce. What’s yours is not yours exclusively, but what’s mine is also yours. Either ours is ours, or yours is yours and mine is mine.
But all of this misses the key thing about the ridiculous “cultural appropriation” issue.
Which is simply this:
A story is not destroyed by getting told. It is not even destroyed by being told wrong, or disrespectfully, or without elements that one culture considers important and the other irrelevant.
Just because Joe Popular Author told the Primal tale of Ping-ping, WRONG, and sold a million copies…
Does not stop Joe Ping-ping author publishing it next week, RIGHT… and selling as many, or more, or none depending on how good it is, how well written. Its chances of success are in fact better because of Joe Popular. And respect and interest in the otherwise unknown Ping-ping tribe are vastly improved.
And Jolinda Ping-ping Author can write the woman’s point of view the next week, and Joe-Linda Ping-ping the trans version the week after.
The story is not destroyed. It is strengthened. The culture it comes from is not destroyed. It is strengthened. Changed perhaps… but a culture that can’t survive change, is dying anyway.
A story dies when it is not told. Not when you get a little wrong.