Egypt, or the stupidity of cultural appropriation

img_4937

I think I’ve finally put my finger on what really shits me about “cultural appropriation” – besides the fact that the whole concept has been so completely stupidified by the left – it is that, like racism or sexism, it’s a sin that only certain groups in society can ever be guilty of.

The left has always perceived the society through a prism of power relations; Lenin’s famous “who whom” and all that. First capitalists oppressed workers, then, as workers turned out not to be all that oppressed and disappointed the left with their lack of revolutionary fervour, it was men oppressing women, whites oppressing blacks, dominant culture oppressing minorities. The vision is doubly crude for being so Manichean: rich evil, poor virtuous; white bad, minority good; all men are rapists, all women are victims. This ideological shorthand has little to do with reality; it effectively denies individual dignity, responsibility and moral agency; and it puts the left and its pet causes and groups on the side of the angels, while everyone else stands condemned – automatically, permanently and without appeal.

Thus only white people can be racist, because somehow prejudice is about exercising power; because other races and ethnic groups are powerless, when they hate whites, or indeed one another, it’s not racist, it’s a reaction eminently justified by past and present grievances. The same applies to men, women and sexism. And to the cultural appropriation. As About.com’s “Race Relations Expert” Nadra Kareem Nittle writes:

Cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions… In the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority groups…

Cultural appropriation remains a concern for a variety of reasons. For one, this sort of “borrowing” is exploitative because it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve. Art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity. In addition, when members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce stereotypes about minority groups.

Culture – and civilisation – rely on “borrowing”, “appropriation”, transfer, and cross-fertilisation in order to grow, change and survive. Hermit cultures stagnate and wither. Those open to new ideas from elsewhere adapt and thrive. Throughout the whole recorded history, and no doubt before, the “dominant” have borrowed from those “less privileged” and those “less privileged” have borrowed from the “dominant”. Those reasonably evenly matched have also borrowed from each other. But according to the left, it’s only bad or wrong if the “dominant” do it.

It’s my last day in Egypt today, and it’s just as good a place as any to consider the reality of cross-cultural borrowing or appropriation. Walk the streets of Cairo with me and observe. Some Egyptians wear traditional robes and dresses, but many others wear the Western fashion. All the buildings are constructed in the styles and designs that originated in Europe, and all the technology, from cars to mobile phones, comes directly or indirectly from the West. Popular music that blares from car and shop radios blends the traditional Arab vocals and instrumentations with pop, dance and hip-hop. At one very hip café (that serves fantastic local food), I listen to Egyptian rock music, which in its melodies and production reminds me so much of Polish rock music, which in turn got to Poland decades ago from the West, where in turn it evolved from the African-American rhythm’n’blues. Writes Nadra Kareem Nittle again: “In the 1950s, white musicians borrowed the musical stylings of their black counterparts. Because African Americans weren’t widely accepted in U.S. society at that time, record executives chose to have white recording artists replicate the sound of black musicians. This led to musical forms such as rock-n-roll being largely associated with whites in spite of the fact that black musicians were pioneers of the art form.” So the whites stole the rock music from the blacks. But now that the Arabs are doing it, are they also stealing it, or is it OK because both blacks and Arabs are oppressed? Speaking of food, what the Egyptians eat and drink is another huge smorgasbord of specifically Egyptian, as well as more broadly African, Arab and Western, as well as now even Asian and other.

According to the left there is nothing wrong with all this borrowing, because the Egyptians fit into the “less privileged”, “oppressed” or “minority” category. On the other hand, presumably when the Bangles sing “Walk like an Egyptian” or when any Western architect includes a pyramid shape in their design – or maybe even when we worship cats on YouTube – we are all engaging in the evil act of cultural appropriation.

Personally, I think it’s wonderful that the Egyptians can blend their own culture with whatever elements of other cultures, including the Western one, they consider beneficial, useful or interesting. It’s their judgment and their decision and all power to them. But I fail to see how I shouldn’t be able to take something from the Egyptian culture that I consider a good idea and use it in my life. But my failure to see that probably just means I’m a racist, sexist, cultural appropriator from a dominant culture.

Or am I? Being of (Western) Slavic background means that I got my religion and alphabet from Rome, and much of the culture from the West, particularly Germany (it’s interesting how much Polish language borrows commercial and technical terminology from the German) but also France and Italy. So am I a member of a dominant or a less privileged culture? Or both? And what does that mean? I still don’t care if the Americans eat pierogi washed down with vodka, or if the Asians borrow Christmas as a gift-giving holiday, including most of its imagery but without its religious connotations. We were all taught as children that it’s good to share. So let’s be children, but not childish, about this whole cultural borrowing thing.

 

Comments

comments