Cultural Appropriation: An EDI glossary entry versus a conceptual analysis. Or, the activist versus the philosopher.

Among the EDI resources provided by the Vice-President Finance & Operations Portfolio (VPFO) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is an EDI glossary which begins with the following paragraph:

EDI Key concepts and definitions

The words we use matter in all things. As equity, inclusion and diversity work has become a [sic] more well researched and defined, several terms and concepts have become common. You will likely hear these terms throughout our EDI journey and will be encouraged to understand and use them to help frame and discuss our work.

In keeping with “you” as above, you won’t be be encouraged to understand these terms because if you try, you’re liable to discover that by referring to the glossary, you can’t. And if you reveal this discovery, which you won’t, you’ll reveal your bigotry to your EDI allies. A real ally is wont to undermine the bafflegab that services EDI activism because doing so might undermine EDI activism itself.

So you say things like ‘the words we use matter’, but won’t say which words, to whom, and how. And you develop a habit of speaking in bafflegab. And, worse, this habit will lead to your thinking in bafflegab, thereby rendering you unable to recognise bafflegab when you see it. Especially since, as noted, you have good reason to render yourself unwilling to see it.

So let’s look at an example from the UBC VPFO EDI glossary:

Cultural Appropriation

Theft of cultural elements—including symbols, art, language, customs, etc.—for one’s own use, commodification, or profit, often without understanding, acknowledgment, or respect for its value in the original culture. Results from the assumption of a dominant (i.e. white) culture’s right to take other cultural elements.

We’ll break this glossary entry into its two component sentences. And we’ll do a cursory analysis of each.

  1. Theft of cultural elements—including symbols, art, language, customs, etc.—for one’s own use, commodification, or profit, often without understanding, acknowledgment, or respect for its value in the original culture.
  2. Results from the assumption of a dominant (i.e. white) culture’s right to take other cultural elements.

Starting with (1), Theft of cultural elements—including symbols, art, language, customs, etc.—for one’s own use, commodification, or profit, often without understanding, acknowledgment, or respect for its value in the original culture.

  • ‘Theft’ is the wrong word. To use it you require a theory of property. Simply put, who owns ‘cultural elements’ and how is that ownership justified?
  • Refer to the content between the m-dashes, “—including symbols, art, language, customs, etc.—.” What does the ‘etc.’ refer to? Not a thing. Let’s remove everything between the m-dashes.
  • Hence, cultural appropriation is, “Theft of cultural elements for one’s own use, commodification, or profit, often without understanding, acknowledgment, or respect for its value in the original culture.” This definition would never stand in a court of law, and it would certainly make for poor policy.
    • Look at the word ‘often’. By its use, you no longer have a definition. Substitute ‘and’ or ‘or’ for often and you will find two very different meanings: “and without understanding” versus “or without understanding.”

Now let’s look at (2), Results from the assumption of a dominant (i.e. white) culture’s right to take other cultural elements.

  • Re: (i.e. white). I.e. means “that is.” E.g. means “for example.” Since ‘i.e.’ has been used, we can do away with the word dominant. Hence,
    • Results from the assumption of a white culture’s right to take other cultural elements.
  • What is a white culture? The Saami, Indigenous people from some northern Scandinavian regions, are white. Is the Saami reindeer herder who shoplifts a Norwegian sweater guilty of cultural appropriation?
  • “A white culture’s right to take other cultural elements” is not a well-formed formula; i.e., one must stipulate which other cultural elements and from whom?

Finally, the work that needs to be done before one can say what cultural appropriation is is to try to get clear on what is meant by a culture. Which, as you’ll see vis a vis James O. Young’s paper below, is no easy task. And then, when one is satisfied that she’s clear enough on both of these concepts to do some more work, she’s tasked with providing an account of what, if anything, is wrong with cultural appropriation. She might find cultural appropriation is acceptable in some circumstances, but not in others. And she’ll need to suggest an account of these circumstances, considering in each case where she might be wrong and identifying those examples that need further analysis.

I include here an essay by James O. Young which is illustrative of these exercises in conceptual analysis and pertinent to our topic, “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.”

By profound offense is meant, cf. Joel Feinberg, “an offense to one’s moral sensibilities or insulting in a way that … strikes at a person’s core values or sense of self.” (135)2 Hence, to be profoundly offended is not to merely feel bothered, it’s to experience outrage.

In this essay, Young is primarily concerned with cultural appropriation of performance art, such as traditional musical instruments, and art products, such as representations in paintings and books. Canadian readers will be interested to know that many of Young’s sample cases concern West Coast Indigenous art.

References

[1] EDI Concepts and Definitions, Vice-President Finance & Operations Portfolio (VPFO), The University of British Columbia (UBC), https://vpfo.ubc.ca/edi/edi-resources/edi-glossary/, accessed August 14, 2022.

[2] James O. Young, Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Volume 63, Issue 2, April 2005, Pages 135–146, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0021-8529.2005.00190.x

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