Cultural Depreciation

Here’s Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post writing about a university fraternity disciplined for cultural appropriation:

[T]hey called their event “Bad(minton) and Boujee.” It’s a pun on “Bad and Boujee,” a popular rap song by the group Migos about being newly rich and hanging with materialistic women. Sigma Alpha Mu registered the fundraiser on American’s online scheduling system, required for all campus events.

Colin Gerker, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life, said the word “boujee” might be criticized for “appropriating culture.” He would not approve the event unless the fraternity changed the name.

Rampell goes on to explain where the word boujee comes from, tracing the etymology through Latin and French and Marx, and asks:

When the fraternity was accused of “appropriating culture,” the obvious question was: Which culture? Latin? French? Marxist? Urban hip-hop? Maybe their own? After all, if you’re wondering who best epitomizes today’s upper-middle class, bear in mind that these are college kids whose parents pay extra money on top of tuition to throw parties.

Oh, Lord.

Look. I have my issues with the notion of cultural appropriation. And I agree that this brouhaha is silly. But is it really so unclear what the administration had in mind? I wish people would quit it with this sort of faux naivete.

I mean, the bureaucratic behavior here is pretty repellent, but don’t we all know what the administrator meant? That the word boujee, as part of Black culture, is used in a particular way, to complain or gripe about certain kinds of experiences. And that when white people take the word and use it in different ways, they weaken the original set of meanings, thereby dulling the word’s power. And that when you dull the power of a word that’s used by a particular group of people in particular ways, you also dull, in some small but non-trivial way, the power of that group. And that this loss of words, of meanings, of power, makes people upset.

I get the larger point Rampell’s making, about cultural porosity and the inevitable evolution of language and so on. But her “obvious question” is a disingenuous one. The people who fume about cultural appropriation certainly know that cultures borrow from one another. Everyone knows that. Their point isn’t that these borrowings should never happen. It’s that some borrowings are harmful and some aren’t.

Responding to an argument like this with truisms and glib history lessons is insulting to everyone. It’s as if someone were complaining about a law passed by Congress, and another person piped up to explain, “Well, you know, laws are human inventions, and new laws are passed every day, and if you look at history, you’ll discover that once upon a time our laws were actually very different. Didn’t you know that?”

Sometimes I wonder why I bother to follow these debates at all. As I’ve gotten increasingly alienated from contemporary leftism, I’ve cast around for critiques of leftist culture, trying to figure out why so much of it turns me off. But the prevailing critiques of the social justice movement are mostly beside the point. You have people like Rampell, who respond to complaints about cultural appropriation by saying, “Hey, have you ever noticed that cultures change over time?” You have people like Andrew Sullivan, who pooh-pooh social justice as a form of religion, as if that amounted to a convincing dismissal. (The idea, I think, is that social justice is a false religion, unworthy of the respect we give real religions, but the basis of that distinction has never been clear to me.) You have people like Jonathan Chait, who cobble together long lists of contretemps, times when various activists stepped on someone’s metaphorical toes. You have thousands of boomers and Gen-Xers who harrumph about sheltered kids and special snowflakes, which has always smelled to me like a classic generational freak-out, middle-aged people lamenting their own lost childhoods and assuaging their dread of aging by taking out their anxieties on the young. You have the free-speech fanatics (I’m sort of one of them) who make the whole social justice movement sound like a legal misunderstanding to be straightened out by the ACLU, when obviously there’s much more going on. And if you add all that stuff together, and throw in some TED-talky social science research that will no doubt fail to replicate, you get Jonathan Haidt, whose basic argument, so far as I can tell, is something like, “Kids today have been mentally stunted by our overprotective culture, so let’s change our culture to protect them from all this crippling overprotection.”

And, yes, this little precis of mine is glib and dismissive, and if I really dug into the arguments of these various factions and cohorts and commentators, I would no doubt find a lot more to consider and discuss … but it’s dispiriting to read the same shallow rebukes, over and over. Even serious critiques of liberalism or leftism or social justice stray into a kind of obstinate iconoclasm, a willful stupidity.

There’s probably no critic of social justice I’ve read more frequently or attentively than Freddie deBoer. At one point he had a piece on his blog about cultural appropriation. It’s since been flushed into the digital ether, so I’ll have to try and reconstruct it.

Freddie’s argument, as I remember, was similar to Rampell’s. To whit: nobody can presume to police cultural appropriation because nobody really knows what the term means. Cultures borrow from each other so often that it’s almost impossible to draw clear lines between one culture and another. What’s more, this borrowing has been going on for such a long time that the evolution of any particular cultural artifact is almost impossible to trace. Finally, because people themselves are always products of multiple cultures and subcultures, it’s virtually impossible to determine who has a legitimate claim to a given set of cultural goods.

I read the post when it was published and thought it was either heroically tendentious or superhumanly oblivious. True, policing cultural appropriation is complex. But that’s because anything to do with culture is complex. Interpreting movies is complex. Managing rights and licenses is complex. The notion of authorship is complex. The study of language is complex.

It’s not as if the ideas behind the concept of cultural appropriation are especially muddled. The key principle, the single vital assumption, is that cultural borrowing is bad when it reinforces imbalances of power, especially if those imbalances have historically led to abuses.

In this view, it doesn’t matter how long ago the abuses occurred. It doesn’t matter if a particular borrowing has a tenuous relation to a particular abuse. All that matters is that there was, at some point, a power imbalance between groups, and that the more powerful group later borrowed cultural traits from the less powerful group.

If you think of these kinds of arguments as games, the rules for the complaining-about-cultural-appropriation game look something like this:

  1. Identify two distinct cultural groups. (We can argue about what makes groups distinct.)
  2. Show that one group has at some time been more powerful than the other in some important way. (We can argue about what makes a group powerful.)
  3. Show that the more powerful group has abused its power. (We can argue about what counts as abuse.)
  4. Point to a time when the powerful group adopted a cultural practice that held special meaning for the less powerful group. (We can argue about what kinds of culture qualify.)
  5. Complain.

Applying these rules gets hairy, as deBoer pointed out. But that’s just how things go when you talk about culture and history. Any given complaint about cultural appropriation might be slipshod or poorly substantiated. But that’s due to poor argumentation, not theoretical incoherence. I don’t think the problem here is ideological inconsistency.

So what is it that bugs me so much about social justice, or lefty commentary, or whatever you call the particular social sector where radical cultural critique blurs into revolutionary praxis? Some of my unease undoubtedly comes from being a cis-hetero-white-male-Anglo-Saxon-atheist+. But I used to feel more kinship with this subculture. What changed?

The best way I can describe it is to say that it feels like talking to your uncle Baxter. You know Uncle Baxter–he’s the cool uncle, the former counterculture hero, the guy who did a lot of drugs and made a lot of music and spent his youth fighting against one thing and another, and now lives in a bungalow with furniture he made himself and a lot of funky looking art. And the first time your parents let you spend a day alone with Uncle Baxter, you’re twelve or so and he lets you try beer for the first time, but not too much, and then he takes you out to McDonald’s and explains about factory farming and chemical additives and how the whole American food production system is rigged for the advantage of the producers and not the consumers, and how even the buildings where food is served are designed to stupefy the senses and stifle the soul in a way that makes you crave empty calories as the only remaining source of stimulation, and really the whole eatery you’re sitting in is designed to convert your ill health into someone else’s profit, and you think, Wow, I’ve never thought about it this way before, but this is kind of intense and mind-blowing, I’ll have to find out more. And then at sixteen you meet Uncle Baxter again, and he takes you out to the woods behind his house and as you walk through the birch groves and the early sprouting seedlings he hands you a bowl just like it’s nothing and talks about Thoreau, and Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and the literature of passive resistance, and what this land was like before the white man came with his tools of rapine and despoliation, and how you can never just passively accept what other people tell you, even your mom and dad, because they’re all a part of this big ugly civilization that operates to systemically constrain of human potential, and as you cough skunky smoke onto the fresh spring air you think, Holy shit, this guy really gets it, this explains a lot, and you can’t understand how other people don’t see how massively screwed-up everything is. And when you’re twenty you go to the movies with Uncle Baxter, and he explains how everything you see on the screen isn’t just idle entertainment, but carefully tailored corporate product coded with countless hidden assumptions, so crafty and artful that you barely even notice you’re being conditioned while watching it to accept a whole raft of stereotypes and relationships and normative judgments, your brain and your senses and your whole limbic system manipulated with a malevolent expertise to make you accept many covert and widespread abuses of power, and when you’re twenty-two, you go to a museum with Uncle Baxter and he explains how the whole art world is basically a display of fetish objects through which rich people simultaneously coordinate the manipulation of economic value and orchestrate their control of international culture, and at twenty-three you go to the zoo with Uncle Baxter and he explains how the place is really a grotesque celebration of humanity’s enslavement and abuse of nature, and at twenty-five you go to a concert with Uncle Baxter and he tells you that the history of Western music is basically a long sordid story of elitism and cultural theft and nationalistic chauvinism and pretentious aesthetics, and by this time you’re starting to think, Yeah, it’s not like any of this is untrue, exactly, or wrong or immoral or even irrelevant, I just, I don’t know, I just sort of feel … but you can’t exactly articulate what’s bothering you, and then at twenty-eight you bring your girlfriend to meet Uncle Baxter, and he’s still living in his bungalow with the funky art, still smoking up as if marijuana’s an invasive weed that can only be eradicated by one lone hero’s inhalative efforts, still watching TV ten hours a day which is something you never noticed about him before, and he explains to your girlfriend that committed relationships are essentially a tool through which a hidebound majority has historically asserted its hegemonic power over individual sexual passion, and you notice that his neck is unclean and that he has mousetraps in his house, the kind that kill mice by snapping little spring-loaded bars onto their spines, and you think, Yeah, you know what, I’m sick of this guy.

For whatever reason, that’s how I’ve started to feel about leftist politics.

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