I was on Facebook when my friend, Razib, posted a video of a black woman at SF State calling out a white guy with dreadlocks and accusing him of cultural appropriation. Maybe this video is fake, maybe it’s real, it’s hard to say. It seems sort of staged. Of course Razib and his fellow academics got all worked up about it. They are all sort of shell shocked by these social justice warriors turning academia into a politically correct police state. Nevermind that conservatives are the ones to blame for letting the far left gain the upper hand there.
Don’t get me wrong, I came into this thread ready to stick up for cultural appropriation. After all, what would America be if we didn’t appropriate the cultures of other nations? … But then I noticed another friend of mine trying to explain why cultural appropriation was actually bad. … But people were deriding him and it made me sort of annoyed. So I made an attempt to come up with a model that explains why cultural appropriation is harmful.
Don’t get me wrong, I came into this thread ready to stick up for cultural appropriation. After all, what would America be if we didn’t appropriate the cultures of other nations? I’m a mutt myself, I don’t even have my own culture. What the hell music would I be allowed to listen to? Polka and beer hall, oom-pah-pah music? (Shudder.) So I was rolling up my sleeves, ready to join in the self congratulatory derision of the latest social justice fad, but then I noticed another friend of mine in the thread trying to explain why cultural appropriation was actually bad. He’s no social justice warrior (SJW) himself, and he was not making a great case, but people were deriding him and making ad hominem attacks against him, and it made me sort of annoyed.
I go by virtue ethics, and I don’t stand by and let a pal get beaten up. So I had to stop myself and think about cultural appropriation in a new light. Why is it that SJWs brandish this idea of cultural appropriation? So I made an attempt to steelman the position that I had previously derided, and to come up with a model that explains why cultural appropriation is harmful. In doing so, I convinced myself that SJWs are partially correct, and that cultural appropriation is sometimes a bad thing.
So let’s start with some sort of definition of what cultural appropriation is.
Here’s a respectable snippet from Wikipedia:
“Cultural elements, which may have deep meaning to the original culture, can be reduced to ‘exotic’ fashion by those from the dominant culture. When this is done, the imitator, who does not experience that oppression, is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.”
One small solace of black people in America might be that they get to be “cool” in some way and can be afforded status in their unique subculture. … And now this hipster dreadlocked boy gets to parade around in the modern equivalent of blackface, usurping the cool factor of being an outsider. But at any moment, he might cut his hair, put on a suit, and blend seamlessly into the dominant culture, while this black woman is left with her crappy internship, forever barred from many powerful inner circles due to her race and gender. What a bitter pill that must be to swallow.
Seems legit. One small solace of black people in America might be that they get to be “cool” in some way and can be afforded status in their unique subculture. How annoyed black rockers must have been when Elvis skyrocketed in popularity above them. How humiliating was blackface vaudeville to the contemporary black artists it was imitating? And now this hipster dreadlocked boy gets to parade around in the modern equivalent of blackface, usurping the cool factor of being an outsider. But at any moment, he might cut his hair, put on a suit, and blend seamlessly into the dominant culture, while this black woman is left with her crappy internship, forever barred from many powerful inner circles due to her race and gender. What a bitter pill that must be to swallow.
There was a time when (white though I am), I was treated as relatively low status for being a nerd with emotional problems. So I went and became a punk rocker and a goth, and I got some local subculture status and that felt good. I was pretty disgusted by all of the jock-core bands that came out and kind of ruined hardcore. I was annoyed by the suave popular kids who posed as new wavers. So I can understand where these SJWs are coming from.
It actually might help to think of this in terms of status hierarchies. This is a trick I learned from the rationalist community. Some rationalists have trouble understanding social interactions and have decided to model them all as status competitions. This is disturbingly accurate when you think about it. So let’s model cultural appropriation in terms of a status competition, shall we?
Conservatives don’t like to allow that minorities are “oppressed,” but we can probably all still agree that black Americans are generally treated as lower status than whites. So, of course, blacks built their own independent status hierarchies, and, back in the day, the minstrels achieved a certain status, putting on folksy comedic shows. Then whites came along, slapped on blackface, and stole the show, partially by virtue of their high status whiteness, without necessarily capturing the authentic down home humor. Boom. Status hierarchy hijacked.
So then jazz hierarchies emerged, oops, here came whites again to hijack the top of the hierarchy (Miles Davis got beaten out by some white guy named Chet Baker for trumpeter of the year?), then Elvis stole rock and roll, etc. Even dreadlocks probably afford blacks certain local status, and this is diminished by whites interjecting themselves into these hierarchies.
So yeah, that sucks. Now the conservatives and neo-reactionaries will howl about how bad social justice is and how it represses free speech and the true diversity of ideas and how it’s out of touch with reality and The Gods of the Copybook Headings and whatnot. And some may even cry that black Americans aren’t treated as low status and are ascendant right now. Mike J. pointed out to me that status is actually revealed in each discrete social interaction. And maybe when some blacks get into college via affirmative action, they push out some whites. This all seems preposterous and annoying to me. I hate it when strong people think of themselves as weak. Not to mention the fact that adopting victim narratives robs people of agency, so no one should really do it if they can avoid it.
Look at Kamau Bell’s incident at the Elmwood Cafe. Here we have a high status black man, a successful comedian who had a national show on FX and attended an ivy league school. But he dressed down one day and he was mistaken for a homeless person by a barista who tried to shoo him away from talking to HIS OWN WIFE on the patio of the Elmwood Cafe (in liberal Berkeley, no less). But instead of just making a joke about it, he angrily posted about it on social media, and the girl ended up getting fired.
When I first heard of this, I toyed with the idea that Bell was falling prey to his own victim narrative. He should have just laughed off this low wage counter prole and told her to relax herself and bring him a coffee while she was at it, no tip to be expected.
But the fact is that, in this world, even a rich, educated, fairly famous black comedian gets treated like a homeless person by a minimum wage earning white cafe lackey. The conservatives can deny it all they want, but blacks are treated as low status. So I am going to hold my tongue and not just tell this guy to buck up and adopt a narrative in which he has power and can afford to act generously towards those below him.
Out here in the real world, social justice doesn’t really have any power, and minorities and queers are getting crapped on. And it’s not cool for the relatively powerful to swoop in and steal the crumbs of subcultural status that outsiders have tried to amass for themselves. I understand why they get pissed off about it. … I know we need conservative impulses to keep society from flying off the rails, but we also need social justice and the progressives in order to progress as a civilization. Otherwise, we might still be burning cats or chaining children to factory floors.
I don’t approve of SJW tribunals sentencing dreadlocked whites to social ostracization. But I also don’t think that’s going to be a problem outside of academia. Out here in the real world, social justice doesn’t really have any power, and minorities and queers are getting crapped on. And it’s not cool for the relatively powerful to swoop in and steal the crumbs of subcultural status that outsiders have tried to amass for themselves. I understand why they get pissed off about it. It’s just not classy. I know we need conservative impulses to keep society from flying off the rails, but we also need social justice and the progressives in order to progress as a civilization. Otherwise, we might still be burning cats or chaining children to factory floors.
Social justice remains the pointy end of the spear driving western cultural progress. We shall not remain worms, but will evolve to something greater.
First point: It was brought up to me privately, that cultural appropriation can muddle the waters and make authentic cultural exchange more difficult. I need to think about this more, but the native american headdress makes a good example. When this headdress is used as a costume, it is stripped of it’s deeper religious and social meaning. We’ve missed the point of what each feather and token might actually represent. It’s become just a pretty hat. Or what if we had adopted arabic numerals strictly as decoration without regard to their use in mathematics? Would the thinkers of Europe have scoffed at the idea that these scribbles worn as ornaments by the fashionable could have a deeper meaning? I’m not entirely sure and of course this dreadlocks example doesn’t fall into this category, but it’s something worth considering.
Second point: I actually spent a huge segment of my day arguing about this on Facebook and I got sort of exhausted by it and by the absolutely uniform rejection of my defence of this SJW. And I wonder to myself, to what end have I done this to myself? What difference does it make in my life or what contribution am I offering to the greater good?
Personally, I felt very similar to most of the people on this thread just last week. But after taking the time to try to steelman this SJW idea of cultural appropriation, I actually found a way to understand it. For me, this was an excellent exercise in updating beliefs.
What disappoints me is that so many of my intelligent and sensitive friends don’t seem to be trying to steelman this position AT ALL. I see little effort to understand the motives of the SJWs who prattle on about cultural appropriation. I don’t see anyone trying to give this black woman the benefit of the doubt. My god, if anyone doubts that blacks have a hard time in America, they would need to look no further than that very thread or even the other comment threads discussing this topic. Who has made the slightest effort to understand this woman’s pain? Who has looked past her boorish but basically harmless behavior to the underlying causes?
I really wish more people would make an attempt to steelman the positions of their opponents in more cases. It’s hard to do but it would yield much better arguments.