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.