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What has cultural appropriation done for you lately?
Learning from snow monkeys and Monty Python
This week’s post is recycled—I first posted it on my Patreon in November of 2018, and am putting it here with scant edits, even though, as with all writing, I would certainly say and do some things differently now, three and a half (long) years later.
Humans share. We are social and long-lived. We have generational overlap and long childhoods, during which we learn how to be human, and during our adulthoods we continue to learn, and to teach, and to borrow and create and observe and build on what we see.
We are not, of course, the only species that does this, although we do it more, and more completely, than any other species on this planet.
We are, by phylogenetic and geographic description, temperate monkeys. The only other temperate monkey besides us is the Japanese macaque (also known as the snow monkey). Snow monkeys sometimes hang out in hot springs, getting warm and being social.
Several decades ago, one population of snow monkeys was being provisioned with sweet potatoes by researchers. (Provisioning wild animals with food they enjoy in order to acclimate them to the presence of researchers does often work, but of course the behavior that the animals then engage in cannot by any stretch of the imagination be understood to be “wild.” This, however, is a story for another time.)
In 1953, one of the snow monkeys, Imo, a young female who was then one a half years old, took her sweet potato to the sea, where she rinsed it before eating it. Was she cleaning it? Salting it? Whatever her intentions, she accomplished both things. And it worked for her. So she kept doing it. And others in her troop began to watch her, and in time they copied her. Copying, or learning, if you will, occurred fastest through kin and friendship connections—children learned from their older siblings and from parents. Close friends of those who salted their potatoes began to salt their potatoes before more distant acquaintances of potato salters did. Within a few years, everyone in the troop was doing it.
That first monkey, Imo, she had an idea. It was a good idea, and so it spread. And what if another monkey came visiting, from a different troop, saw this potato salting behavior, took it back to her home troop, and they starting salting their potatoes, too? Sounds like cultural appropriation to me. The spread of ideas from place to place, from people to people (or monkey to monkey), the creolization of culture, this is some of the best of what we do. Proprietary claims on particular aspects of culture are almost always (not always, but almost always) ill-advised and naïve, and demonstrate a rather complete lack of understanding of how we arrived where we are now in human history.
So, what has cultural appropriation done for you lately?
Well…it did give us written language, algebra, astronomy, agriculture, and a diversity of extraordinary musical traditions (and instruments!). To name just a very few things. Also: pottery, carpentry, and metalworking. And plumbing, antibiotics, and surgery. And cuisine, theater, and cocktails.
It is the exceedingly rare—dare I say, the non-existent—modern human who can so precisely trace their ancestry as to be certain, for instance, that it was their ancestor who first collected wild seeds and planted them with intention, hope and luck. While some in modern times can presumably trace their family back to, say, the Wright brothers, and thus make a claim to not culturally appropriating flying in airplanes, what of the giants who came before the Wright brothers, whom they were borrowing from? No human is in all of those lineages, all of those cultures. We are a mosaic, a messy, lovely, sometimes ugly and chaotic, sometimes beautiful and chaotic, mosaic.
Everything about modernity is a mosaic of borrowing and improving on the traditions and wisdom of our collective ancestors. Look at the English language alone, a Germanic language firmly nestled within the Indo-European language family, and yet we talk about alcohol (from the Arabic) and ninjas (Japanese), and chocolate (originally from the Nahuatl, in Mesoamerica, although both the word and the substance came to English-speakers through (the) Spanish, who in turn found it, yes, in Mesoamerica).
Allow me to introduce a new term, to demonstrate how loony the cultural appropriation concept is: Biogeographical Appropriation.
Also, no turkey, by the way. Turkey, we now believe, was domesticated by the Maya 2,300 years ago, eaten only on ceremonial occasions. Sound familiar, Americans? Sound like one of our cherished holidays may be on thin, culturally appropriative, ice? Or we could embrace this truth, celebrate the Maya as the intellectual and cultural giants that they were, and thank them for our turkey at Thanksgiving.
Is there, as there so often is, some true kernel at the heart of this madness over cultural appropriation? Yes, there is. And in fact, much of the hysteria, that which is founded in good faith, is likely about reasonable people disagreeing over the costs of wrongful accusations. I prefer to preserve freedom of inquiry and discourse, understanding that with that comes the risk that some people’s feelings will get hurt. Others will prefer to (try to) protect everyone’s feelings—and, they argue, everyone’s heritage and history—understanding that with that comes the tamping down on free inquiry and expression. Some questions just shouldn’t be asked, they will argue; some things shouldn’t be said, some clothing shouldn’t be worn, some thoughts shouldn’t be thought.
I am not an absolutist, but my position on this slider is extremely far towards free inquiry, and away from protecting people’s feelings at all costs.
That said, I personally would never don a native headdress and prance around pretending to be of a lineage in which wearing a native headdress meant something deep to people.
The tension between two opposing worldviews, or virtues, if you will, seems to me to be at the heart of this: Is it more important to you to protect the feelings of others, or to allow others to pursue truth and meaning no matter the ramifications?
If feelings: you are tamping down free inquiry and expression.
If free inquiry: you are tamping down the real emotions of individuals.
This is not a situation in which everyone can be made happy. This is not just a misunderstanding. There is an actual clash of cultures, of beliefs, of values, and any apparent peace between them is unstable. The trade-off is unavoidable.
To repeat: I am not an absolutist, but my position on the slider is extremely far towards free inquiry, and away from protecting people’s feelings.
There are many reasons for this. Two of them are:
Inquiry and expression, in all of its many forms, open up worlds we have heretofore unimagined. They allow progress. They allow us to be our best selves, and our best selves may be people we have yet to meet. Be the forms of inquiry logical, scientific, and rigorous, or creative, artistic, and spontaneous, or many other sorts, we can forever be surprised and bettered by the output. By contrast, when was the last time that you were surprised by a new emotion, a new feeling? Surprised, perhaps, to find yourself angry when you didn’t expect it, or sad, or giddy with relief at something you did not know you were worried about, but daily emotions are rarely transformative. Now: love, grief, loyalty, joy, ecstasy—these are real, and human. But protecting individuals from feeling discomfort or even anger or hurt, at the cost of not being able to explore certain ideas or ways of thinking: No. That is not us being our best selves. That is us being our basest, most authoritarian, fearful, and diminished selves.
Second, perhaps a simpler reason to prefer free inquiry over protecting people’s feelings is that freedom of inquiry is not an inherently gameable position, while if your stance is that you will protect people’s feelings no matter what, all it takes is one bad actor who is willing to claim that their feelings are hurt whenever they feel like stirring the pot a bit. There is no protecting against bad actors in a system that privileges feelings.
So, are there some behaviors to which the term “cultural appropriation” might apply? I think so. Walking around in another culture’s ceremonial garb, with no thought as to whether the costume was reserved for particular times, or places, or people, can be viewed as disrespectful. On the other hand, some members of the original culture might feel honored that their cultural ancestry is being kept alive. There is not only one allowable response to such behaviors.
By comparison, blackface has a long, racist history, and even if it didn’t, it strikes me not so much as “cultural appropriation” as phenotypic mockery. Mocking an entire population of others based on how they look is actually racist.
On the other hand: Imitation is sometimes the highest form of flattery. And culture is imitative. This is what culture is. And humans are the most cultural species on the planet. Culture is what we do.
To those who seek a constrained world in which nothing is shared, and everyone stays in their lane, as drawn and dictated by the cultural purity police, I will say this: You are in the wrong. I see nothing honorable in your goals, or your methods.
Did Imo, the potato-salting snow monkey, object when her innovation spread? I don’t think so. Was she pleased? Maybe not that, either. Humans have pride and resentment. We like to be recognized for our contributions, and don’t much appreciate being robbed. And so we have rules, both formal and informal, of attribution: when to cite others, what is plagiarism, what is not. But reveling in our beautiful, tangled histories, where as much as possible those histories are laid bare on the table for all to see the myriad contributions from so many places and moments and individuals—that is what we all should want.