Appropriate Culture Like It’s Going Out of Style

So today I found myself drawn in to a trainwreck on the book of faces, where a particularly smug specimen was completely failing to understand why Lionel Shriver’s address to the Brisbane Writers Festival was both necessary and important.

If, like me, your native culture is flat out inappropriate (it’s not my fault I was raised on dirty jokes, single entendres and in-your-face-ohs), chances are as a writer you’re going to be dealing with cultures not your own. Hell, even if your culture actually is appropriate you’re likely to be dealing with cultures not your own. Let’s face it, “Geek Odd” isn’t the most common culture out there, and “Introverted, filthy-minded geek odd” is rare enough it should be declared an endangered species. Except that would set off a whole new round of filthy jokes.

Anyway, the point here is that there are very few cultures around these days that have not appropriated, borrowed, and outright stolen bits from other cultures. One might go so far as to say there aren’t any, but then some smart-ass anthropologist will dig up a completely isolated tribe somewhere remote and metaphorically wave it in my face.

It would have to be a very isolated tribe. Even in the New Guinea highlands, which are so isolated each valley has its own language (the neighboring valleys are more or less mutually comprehensible, mostly), the tribes manage to trade, fight and generally interact with each other, and cultural exchanges of varying flavors happen. And yes, ideas and things move around between them.

American culture (any variety) has picked up so many bits and bobs from other cultures it’s impossible to tease them all out. There’s the Christmas tree (Germanic), Halloween (the mutant love-child of multiple versions of All Hallows Eve), Santa Claus (Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas, etc.), clothing styles (trust me, those have origins everywhere), hair styles (ditto), you name it, it’s likely been through any number of cultural integrations, aggregations, and who knows what else.

For that matter English itself is living evidence of the richness that emerges from interacting cultures. If England hadn’t been invaded, conquered and settled by successive waves of celts, angles, vikings, normans, and then hadn’t spent the next five hundred years or so continually at war with somewhere in Europe, it would be a very different language indeed. The results of successive generations of invaders trying to figure out the right words to use to get it on with the cute barmaid (it being much more fun when your partner is playing along than when she’s trying to bean you with a cast iron frying pan) bred a hybrid with staying power.

The point here is any time cultures interact they will pull in the aspects of the other culture they like and adapt them for their own use. Any culture we write will have done this in the past, and probably do a whole lot more of it in the future. It doesn’t actually matter in the long run which one conquered the other, if conquest was involved, because ultimately the stuff that works better will get adopted and the stuff that’s in the way will get left behind. Conquest just drives the process a bit faster.

That doesn’t mean we writers have carte blanche to just paste on whatever we think looks cool: that way lies crappy storytelling. If you want your fictional culture to have absurdly large penis sheaths, then you need to have a reason this group would find absurdly large penis sheaths useful. Perhaps they started out as a way to protect the danglies before they’d got the hang of pants (like codpieces) and shirt hems got a bit short. Then they found that in a fight the codpieces became targets so they started padding the things. Then ornamenting them to show they didn’t need to fear getting kicked in the goolies in a street fight. Then things, as they do, progressed, until a well-dressed gentleman wouldn’t be seen dead without a penis sheath so big it had more structural support than his wife’s corset. And ran on wheels so it didn’t get dragged in the mud.

Then culture B started trading with these guys and thought this would make really cool art, and the next thing you know, all the furniture the B folks make is based on tripods. Two legs and a really big dangly.

Okay, it’s a ridiculous argument – but the point is, whatever the heck happens, there was a time when it was a good idea to someone. Possibly a lot of someones. And it’s guaranteed those someones got at least part of their inspiration from someone else. And so on, all the way back to way before there’s any way to document this stuff.

There’s are other words for cultural appropriation, after all. It’s called progress. Or growth. Or adaptation. Or integration. If you don’t like it, you’d best avoid the pot luck next week (because that’s been appropriated from the Alaskan tribes), shed all your clothes (we’re not entirely sure where the idea of clothes came from, but there’s a fair chance our not exactly homo sapiens sapiens cousins had a little something to do with it), and eat only what you can pick or catch with tools you make yourself. Because everything else in your life is there by way of interacting with someone else’s culture. And not interacting with other cultures makes for boring, bland fiction.

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84 responses to “Appropriate Culture Like It’s Going Out of Style

  1. For that matter English itself is living evidence of the richness that emerges from interacting cultures. If England hadn’t been invaded, conquered and settled by successive waves of celts, angles, vikings, normans, and then hadn’t spent the next five hundred years or so continually at war with somewhere in Europe, it would be a very different language indeed.

    Oh yes. And don’t forget all those places Britain subsequently invaded in the rest of the world which gave us thugs, curry, pajamas, boomerangs and so on. In fact curry is probably one of the best bits of cultural appropriation there is, right up along with denim jeans. The Japanese have a dish called “Curry rice” which is based on the sort of 19th century British institutional curry (of the sorts served for school meals and the like), that in turn is based on Indian curry dishes. These dishes wouldn’t taste the way they do without the chili pepper which was culturally appropriated from Latin America by the Spanish who then spread it around the rest of the world, including India.

  2. snelson134

    “Halloween (the mutant love-child of multiple versions of All Hallows Eve)”

    All Hallows Eve, the kidnapped Samhain (Celtic).

    For some reason, every time someone mentions cultural appropriation as a bad thing, my tattoo needle wants to ink this on them.

    Rudyard Kipling

    “When ‘Omer Smote ‘Is Bloomin’ Lyre”

    INTRODUCTION TO THE BARRACK-ROOM BALLADS IN “THE SEVEN SEAS”
    When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
    He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;
    An’ what he thought ‘e might require,
    ‘E went an’ took — the same as me!

    The market-girls an’ fishermen,
    The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
    They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
    But kep’ it quiet — same as you!

    They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed.
    They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
    But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
    An’ ‘e winked back — the same as us!

    • Luke

      Don’t forget the Day of the Dead in its mutated-descended from samhain oddness.
      Or the Festival of Fools (sure, it’s English, mostly. But it’s from an entirely different time of year!)
      Or superstitions about Walpurgisnacht (despite it also being a different time of year).

      Or we can just make fun of the neo-pagans for believing that the ancient Celts used a calendar created by the Roman Catholic Church towards the beginning of the Enlightenment. (If you’re going to celebrate samhain, at least make an effort to do so at the right time. Otherwise, you’re just making clear that you care more about “freaking the ‘danes” than your supposed religious obligations.) For the record, it’s a solar holiday, located halfway between the equinox the solsice. Beginning at sunset. It moves around a bit, but generally falls somewhere between Nov. 4-6.

  3. Cultural appropriation, one more idiotic idea hatched by Ivory Tower sinecureists to beat up working men and women out trying to make a buck.

    I fart in their general direction.

  4. Christopher M. Chupik

    “We need more diverse books!”

    vs.

    “Don’t culturally appropriate!”

    Make up your minds, SJWs.

  5. Penis sheaths as cultural appropriation? Oh, well . . . I suppose they do make a vas deferens.

    🙂

  6. TRX

    Americans love culture. We knock off pieces and take it home as souvenirs…

  7. sabrinachase

    Not sure potluck and potlatch are related…but the SJW’s should look up the potlatch tradition if they want to get their brains bent. Conspicuous consumption! Deliberate destruction of wealth to show how wealthy you were! All without any western connection! Of course they try to make it look like it was all “redistribution of wealth”, skipping over the accumulation in the first place. Oh, and the slaves.

  8. “If you don’t like it, you’d best avoid the pot luck next week (because that’s been appropriated from the Alaskan tribes),”

    Bah. In truth it’s the medieval European tradition of nail soup (or, in iron-poor areas, stone soup). They stole it from us. Give it back. 😉

  9. The more I see about cultural appropriation, the more I come to the conclusion that *culture* is appropriation. Because one guy borrowing/taking good ideas from his neighbor (and his neighbor doing likewise) is how culture develops and grows. Another example: two people get married, and each one comes from a different family culture (even if they both come from the same town). They have to figure out which bits work and which bits don’t, and as they do a whole new family culture develops that is appropriating bits from the first two, plus other sources as the couple sees necessary. This is normal, natural, and an elemental part of human nature.

    So really, complaints about cultural appropriation tend to strike me in much the same way as whinging children in the back seat of the car, one complaining “He’s *looking at me!” and the other going “She’s breathing my air!”

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Sadly, some of the people who talk about “appropriating culture” are also the type of people who appear to believe “culture is genetic”.

    • Alan

      That’s what’s so stupid about the whole thing. People who are proud of, or at least happy with, their own cultures are usually very willing to share and export. It’s the po’faced and greedy who care if somebody “appropriates” their culture – and why should we let THEM dictate what’s good and right?

      • Alan

        The related semi-valid bit, is that none of us likes having our culture mocked or laughed at by others. But that’s a courtesy issue, not a cultural appropriation issue.

        • Ja, like the gal in my undergrad college who ticked off the students from India by trying to wear a sari and bindi dot “to be like them.” 1) they didn’t wear saris or the bindi because they weren’t Hindu, 2) she couldn’t figure out how to wear the sari. These were the same young ladies who pestered me for my curry recipe after I made Country Captain one night and the scent got pulled into the elevator shaft and spread through the dorm. Tasty, tasty cultural appropriation.

  10. The H. Beam Piper phrase about the English language (paraphrased) is: “English comes from Norman men-at-arms trying to get dates with Saxon barmaids, and about as legitimate as the other results.”

    • Not to mention that the Saxon barmaids had been seeded by Roman tradesmen* in the wombs of German floozies in the first place.

      * Many of which came from Syria. So, aren’t those guys just moving it at their cousins’ today?

  11. BobtheRegisterredFool

    My native culture is:
    1. Perfectly legitimate mass killings.
    2. Friends come through the gates, enemies come over the walls.
    3. Seeing Jim Crow and Segregation through the lens of Democrats murdering, or attempting to murder, Republicans.
    4. If you fight the war again, or are still fighting, you are doing it wrong.
    5. Some opinions so generally offensive that one has difficultly sharing them in a tactful enough way for ATH, much less here.

  12. Uncle Lar

    When accused of cultural appropriation the only legitimate response in my opinion is: FOAD you puling simpering social justice wanna be. Go live naked on the veldt eating bugs and grasses and the remains left from real predator kills. Tools? Clothing? Fire? Bah, you didn’t invent that, none of those for you. May you live a fine natural life for the couple weeks you’re able to avoid those alpha predators.

  13. Rowan

    Naked potluck hunting party. Hmmm, not sure it sounds all that bad… 😉

  14. I’m not sure what this is, a Chinese talent show? But I like her performance, and it fits the theme. 🙂

  15. So, there’s cultural appropriation in aggregate, which can come from unpleasant sources but happens all the same. The prevalence of amazing Indian food in the UK is an example of cultural appropriation that happened because conquest. You can’t stop that and telling people ‘don’t eat Indian food because of Imperialism’ is just dumb. Then there are celecbrities appropriating culture in a crasser commercial version of appropriation that I’m less okay with. There was a rash of indie musicians that got all into ‘native cultures’ for a while, and it really annoyed me.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I am deeply offended by everyone who uses the English language to complain about cultural appropriation. 🙂

    • aacid14

      I think the ‘Do it right’ caveat comes in there. Yes you can write or use other cultures but understand why. It irks me when you get arguments over using a character different from you in a nonflattering way (e.g. a minority villain) but the accuser can use your stereotypes however they want. No, all rural folks are not rednecks dragging a body wrapped in the stars and bars behind their pickup. However a dispute or brawl starting over an argument about chili or barbecue could happen. One will toss me out of a story. One may make me laugh.

      • Kate Paulk

        And one day someone will start a brilliant story with “Hold my beer and watch this!”

        • snelson134

          You’re too late….

          a href=”https://www.amazon.com/Bubbas-Apocalypse-Book-ebook/dp/B00E5575RM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475195463&sr=8-1&keywords=Bubbas+of+the+Apocalypse”>Bubbas of the Apocalypse (The Bubbas of the Apocalypse Book 1)

        • Robin Munn

          Ringo and Taylor’s Into the Looking Glass implies that this is basically what happened at the University of Central Florida, possibly* minus the “Hold my beer” part.

          * “Possibly” because the entire university (and much of the surrounding town) was wiped off the map by the explosion, including the physics professor whose experiment had caused it. So nobody could find out whether he had, or had not, handed off his beer to a lab assistant before pushing the button.

  16. The Christmas tree is not Germanic. The oldest known record dates from a German 17th century chronicle. Though I have tongue-in-cheek suggested in the “Romanike” novel series that Christmas baubles are derived from those skulls that Germanics hung into their trees, according to Tacitus.

  17. BTW, the archetypical example of cultural appropriation may be the British Museum …

  18. Joe in PNG

    “Cultural Appropriation” is another version of the Hipster’s Lament- “It’s Popular Now It Sucks!”.
    When the Right Kind of People adopt some Cool Thing From Foreign Lands (typically to brag about their two week sojourn to same), it’s all Cool and Hip (because it gives them distinction).
    However, when the Wrong Kind of People start doing it, it is no longer Cool and Hip (because it doesn’t make the Right Kind of People look superior). Now those yucky flyover people are participating, and who wants to hang out with them?
    But, since they can’t just kvetch about not being hip anymore, they shoehorn in a bunch of Socially Conscious Pap and do a lot of Virtue Signalling about this sort of nonsense.

    • Alan

      Same thing, different age group: have long observed that fashions developed for teens/young adults generally migrate to younger and still younger kids, sometimes with minor mods, at which point something new is needed for the teens/young adults to feel fashionable.

      I’m sure hipsters will be all over the idea that their hipness is nothing but an analog of kid fashions…

  19. TomT

    You sent me off on a digression of research on the history of Codpieces. I blame you for my gaining odd knowledge anyway.