By David Ottlinger
On a bright, cold day in April (actually it was late March), undergraduate Cory Goldstein was on his San Francisco State University campus.  He was confronted by two fellow students, both African American, who stood in his path. Goldstein is white. The first, a young woman, looked up to the second and asked, “Do you have some scissors?” The second seemed shy but responded “No”. The young woman was inquiring after scissors for the purpose of sheering the hair off young Mr. Goldstein’s head. She was under the impression that Mr. Goldstein’s hair, styled in dreadlocks, constituted an appropriation of her culture. And evidently she was determined to get that culture back.
Now I don’t usually comment on the goings on in the San Francisco State student center, and as it happens I have commented on “cultural appropriation” before.  But these particular events were captured by a student’s camera phone and loaded on to YouTube where they quickly garnered millions of views, followed by reporting by CNN and the New York Daily News, an editorial in The Independent and a pretty good parody by Jerry Coyne.  The affair grew so large that Justin Bieber himself weighed in (did you know spell-check recognizes Justin Bieber, I didn’t!).  This response, as often seems to be the case nowadays, was more interesting than the event itself. So much of it was ridiculous that it demands comment. And to those readers who may be tired of “cultural appropriation”, tired of viral controversy, tired of campus videos that end with someone grabbing the camera, even tired of Orwell, I understand. But I hope I can offer something new by examining not so much the concept of “cultural appropriation,” but how the concept gets deployed in certain kinds of liberal discourse, and how these controversies spread once they have been started. In particular, there are certain fire-breathing moralists that I want to “call out”, for they display a conspicuous gap between their moral certitude and argumentative rigor. They seem so certain of their case that they hardly feel moved to make it at all, and there is a real moral dubiousness about such behavior that I want to scrutinize. If undertaking this critique means once again calling on St. George, my only defense will be that I cannot slay these dragons without his help.
My adventure more or less started with Wedaeli Chibelushi’s editorial in The Independent, which I understand is one of Britain’s largest newspapers.  The article left me somewhat perplexed. The bulk of the article, including the first several paragraphs, was spent fending away objections to accusations of “cultural appropriation,” which is the view that members of one culture can illicitly “take” or “exploit” features of another, usually less dominant, culture. Evidently, purported cases of “cultural appropriation” are more or less guilty until proven innocent. If some action is prima facie culturally appropriative, in someone’s eyes, it must be considered so until a case is made otherwise. To be sure Chibelushi does, eventually, make a positive case but it is brief and muddy. She presents two different definitions of “cultural appropriation”, both quoted from outside sources, which differ substantially from each other. Her argument seems to settle on the latter and so will I. For this definition she quotes the actress Amanda Stenberg who contends “appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.” When Mr. Goldstein wore dreadlocks he, supposedly, did not appreciate or respect the deep but unspecified significance dreadlocks have for black people. Accordingly his actions constituted “cultural appropriation” and his actions and subsequent defense of them “preserves the power imbalance between white folk and people of colour”. How and why it serves to do so is to me, after several readings, not at all clear.
But if I am confused there is help, for Chibelushi’s piece is shot through with links. In particular the first definition of “cultural appropriation” Chibelushi presents links to another article. From this I gather that “cultural appropriation” is something widely agreed upon already and something which I was already expected to understand. Embarrassingly I did not, so I clicked on the link. The newly discovered article is titled “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm”, and is authored by Maisha Z. Johnson in Everyday Feminism.  It is accompanied by the comforting image of a young African American woman at a keyboard (presumably a depiction of Johnson herself) with a speech bubble which reads “Let me explain this once and for all.” Evidently I had come to the right place. Yet Johnson also has trouble settling on one definition of her central concept. At first she states that “Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own” but then immediately expresses a need for a “deeper” definition. She then claims that “cultural appropriation” occurs when “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group”. (Original emphasis.)
The problem with this definition, as Johnson appreciates, is that it includes so many things which seem obviously innocent. A white person playing the blues or eating soul food would not seem to be doing anything immoral. A concept which does not adequately distinguish between innocent cases and problematic ones is either absurd or no concept at all. Johnson anticipates these problems and responds, “So is every non-Mexican who enjoys a good burrito guilty of cultural appropriation? Say it ain’t so! That would include me and nearly everyone I know. But now that you know that popularizing ‘ethnic’ food can be one way to harm a group of people while taking from their traditions, you can think about ways to satisfy your international food cravings without participating in that harm.” But while we can think about it, Johnson does not show much appetite for helping us. Evidently we are on our own.
But we are not totally on our own, because Johnson’s article is also helpfully shot through with links. In fact, the passage quoted above contains a link to a further article. Johnson’s tone seems to imply that such hair splitting does not constitute a serious threat to the concept; that these issues are satisfactorily dealt with elsewhere and perhaps I am already supposed to know about it. Embarrassingly I did not, so I clicked the link. The newly discovered article comes from Render: Feminist Food & Culture Quarterly. It is entitled, in bold caps, “BREAKING BREAD: APPROPRIATION or APPRECIATION? THE CASE of MEXICAN FOOD” and is authored by the aptly named Phylisa Wisdom (for it is wisdom I sought).  Wisdom has a dilemma on her hands. A native Californian, she has a deep appreciation for Mexican cooking but is worried she is engaged in cultural appropriation. Accordingly she feels compelled to engage in “gastrodiplomacy” which she defines as “using the eating, preparation and study of food to improve cultural understanding and diplomacy”. Her column heading proclaims “We’re unapologetically in favor of talking politics at the dinner table.”
Wisdom illustrates her concerns about “appropriation” by describing the misdeeds of a few regional politicians whom she perceives as race-baiting and callous to the concerns of immigrants (accurately for all I know, there is a lot of it about). Nonetheless these politicians happily crow about the local Mexican cuisine of their constituency. Wisdom perceives (with some justice) a dissonance between these politicians patronizing and celebrating establishments in all likelihood run by immigrants and the decedents of immigrants and yet supporting policy hostile to their needs. For Wisdom such a dissonance is the heart of “cultural appropriation”. It seems to constitute an embrace of what a group brings to the country and a pushing away of the people who bring it. But what of those who do not adopt such politics? Are they thereby innocent of appropriation?
Wisdom deserves more credit than the rest for facing the problems head on. She seeks to delineate a class of problematic actions from a class of innocent ones. She even eliminates what she sees (accurately in my view) as inadequate definitions. But when the times comes to answer the above question and present a definition of “cultural appropriations” which would be adequate, she essentially punts. Instead she provides a draft of a “code of eating ethics”. Most of the injunctions that form her “code” are merely simple matters of business ethics. She enjoins us not to patronize establishments that exploit or mistreat workers or which have owners who are bad actors in the community, etc. These may be fine principles but they have nothing to do with culture or the appropriation thereof. Other principles do concern culture. For instance she suggests readers avoid restaurants with pseudo-authentic décor and which “appropriate” foreign recipes. But nowhere does she articulate what makes all these infractions instances of a single phenomenon that could be called “cultural appropriation” or what would make such a phenomenon in general objectionable. For much of the article she tries to develop what is “appropriative” in economic terms. One might pull from the article the idea that any dining which is positive or neutral towards the economic interests of oppressed populations is permissible, i.e not “appropriative”. But often this formulation does not seem to cover the injunctions she embraces. Psuedo-authentic décor which might appeal to white people is probably in the best interest of immigrant business owners. Perhaps a case could be made that all such practice is against the interests of the oppressed people in the long run, but if so no such case is made. Likewise a person in a foreign country cannot be said to have their economic interests harmed if someone uses their recipes here (they were not going to benefit from a market a world away anyway). In the absence of some such general account, any “Code” which is meant to avoid “appropriative” eating is essentially arbitrary. There is nothing to keep it from devolving into a collection of actions which have nothing in common but seeming distasteful to some person. Likewise without having a general account of what makes the proscribed actions wrong, such a “code” will always be unconvincing.
Of course I had not reached the end of the rainbow. Wisdom’s piece was helpfully shot-through with links. But it was the end of the day, I had run out of embarrassment and I was done. I had gone in search of an argument from reading about dreadlocks to reading about Elvis to reading about tacos and that was quite enough adventuring in the blog-o-sphere for one day. (And yes, I spared you Elvis.) All this constant deferring to other authors seemed telling to me. For one thing it struck me as indicative of what is wrong with the concept of “cultural appropriation”. There is a central instability to the concept which was the source of this constant passing of the football. Rather than face it down it is easier to just toss to another writer to do the hard work.
“Appropriation”, according to the OED, comes from the Latin “adpropriare”. “Adpropriare” comes from the joining of the Latin words “ad”, meaning “to” with the sense in this case of “render”, and “proprius”, meaning “own”. The root suggests something which is owned (“proprius”) being rendered to or transferred to (“ad”) another person. The language employed in arguments over cultural appropriation generally lend further credence to this understanding of the term. They tend to feature liberal use of words like “own” and “take”. The current pieces are no exception. Chibelushi quotes the musician Azalea Banks (evidently an authority on such matters) approvingly: “you don’t own shit, you don’t have shit, not even the shit you created for yourself”. Evidently appropriation presupposes a kind of “ownership”. And when one culture “takes” what another culture “owns”, in the form of manners and customs, the culture from which something is “taken” is left poorer.
But this demands that we see culture as property, which, frankly, is absurd. The idea that every time a person adopts the literature, language or manners of another culture they are making that culture somehow poorer or depriving them of some abstract “property” cannot be seriously maintained. An American taking high tea does not impoverish Scotland. Japanese filmmakers do not impoverish America. Australians playing cricket do not impoverish Britain. Believers in “cultural appropriation” may insist that these are not true cases of “appropriation” but that is exactly the point. For those chastising “cultural appropriation”, sometimes culture is property, other times it is not. Particularly if a case of emulating another culture seems unobjectionable or even admirable, culture is not property. If a case seems objectionable, culture is property again. But presumably culture either is property or is not and emulating culture constitutes “taking” culture or does not. To move back and forth is simply to equivocate.
Of course one could attempt to arrive at a definition of “cultural appropriation” which did not presuppose that culture can be treated as property. Elsewhere I spoke well of Neil Van Leuween’s attempt to do so.  But while I still think Neil produced a definition which does a plausible job in sorting good from bad cultural emulation, it gets so far away from the central metaphor of “property” that there is no reason I can see not to just abandon the rubric of “cultural appropriation” altogether. And so it would go, I suspect, for any other plausible attempt to rehabilitate the concept. At any rate the rehabilitated concept would bear little resemblance to the concept as it is ordinarily understood and deployed.
Yet what annoys me far more than anything wrong with the notion of “cultural appropriation” itself, is the lengths I have to go to in order to find an actual argument. Rather than make an argument, the dreadlock piece passes to the Elvis piece which passes to the taco piece and at the end of the day I don’t know if dreadlocks can be said to endorse taco’s argument or if taco would accept the arguments of Elvis. With all this speaking for each other no one seems to say anything determinate at all. Orwell, in his day, lamented that articles were “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”  What he could not have imagined was pieces so full of links and quotations that they are almost literally patched together from other, pre-existing pieces. This technological gain opens up new frontiers in vaguery that are better not explored. A reader has a right to expect an argument, not a link to a link to an argument.
But the worst is the complete lack of any semblance of proportionality. Chibelushi is deeply concerned to spare black students the grievous harm of seeing a white kid wearing dreadlocks, but she is remarkably unreflective about using a major paper to railroad a college student. One imagines the harm young Mr. Goldstein suffered from sudden, massive negative publicity was somewhat more concrete. And even while dragging this person into the fore, she barely felt moved to articulate an argument at all. Secure in their impenetrable certitude, social justice writers seem to believe the wrongness actions they deem unjust speak for themselves. The perpetrators are, as remarked above, guilty until proven innocent. Only the defense need present a case, which they themselves shall judge. And in doing so they adopted not only the position but the manner of judges. “Let me explain this once and for all.”
And evidently the slightest infractions can land us in this court. “The ability to style your hair for fashion’s sake is a luxury, not a right.” Chibelushi asserts, banging her gavel, “If it is offending others, Goldstein should consider giving up that luxury”. (I find that use of “consider” chilling. Goldstein is invited to “consider” changing his hair or “consider” having his name dragged through the mud by the national media.) And if a haircut can prompt this kind of national attention, it is difficult to see what won’t. Yes the personal is political. I believe that just as much as I am weary saying it. But in the manner of mixing them, adopted by some of these social justice warriors, very little “personal” is left. However, as much as you believe that social change requires alterations in small, everyday interactions, when a haircut “preserves the power imbalance between white folk and people of colour” and a plate of tacos becomes an exercise is “gastrodiplomacy”, something has gone wrong. I salute Wisdom, the gastro-diplomat, and her right to be “unapologetically in favor of talking politics at the dinner table.” I prefer to eat in peace. (Though again Wisdom derives credit. She is by far the least censorious of the three.)
It could be objected that I am just beating up on a few bad pieces centering on a silly controversy. I would like to believe I am. But the pieces strike me as depressingly typical. So many of these blogs form an endless spider-web of links, as writers latch on to other writers to prop themselves up. “This isn’t just me,” they seem to say, “so many people are noticing this.” I can rarely read an article at Politico without having six tabs open. And neither do they strike me as particularly silly in what they claim, or particularly hysterical in their denunciations as judged against other articles of their kind. As I have been dragging my feet writing and the editors grinding their teeth, Steven Thrasher at the Gaurdian responded to Bill Clinton’s clash with Black Lives Matter protestors. Clinton argued that Hillary Clinton did respect black lives, citing, among other things, her charitable work in Africa. Thrasher muses, “Subtext: if y’all Negroes don’t like it here, go back to where you came from.” I could go on. 
There is a logic to this wild rhetoric. Winston Smith had a reaction to another Goldstein, which mirrors the way the above writers treated theirs.  While dutifully attending the daily Two Minutes Hate, Winston is subjected to a recorded diatribe from the ultimate thought criminal, Emmanuel Goldstein. Goldstein was the arch-criminal and sworn enemy of the dictatorship of Oceania. He not only organized terror attacks and spied for the enemy, he spread a dangerous and false ideology. Winston listened:
“Goldstein was delivering his usual venomous attack upon the doctrines of the Party — an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it, and yet just plausible enough to fill one with an alarmed feeling that other people, less level-headed than oneself, might be taken in by it. He was abusing Big Brother, he was denouncing the dictatorship of the Party, he was demanding the immediate conclusion of peace with Eurasia, he was advocating freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, he was crying hysterically that the revolution had been betrayed…”
But Winston did not have to listen for long. Both he and the other party members began to shout at the image until the words were no longer audible. In a particularly striking gesture, Julia finds a Newspeak dictionary, that tome of party orthodoxy, and hurls it at Goldstein’s face. There are many writers, on the internet and in print, who act on a similar instinct. If what they present in way of argument is little and thin, this is because argument is not necessarily the point. Faced with the infamy of what their opponents argue, they feel a deep need to shame, to “call out”, to silence. If argument is effective then so be it. If it is not, it is dispensable. Above all what is needed is to drive the unwanted opinions out, out of public view, out of the public square. What is lost in the din, is any chance at a reasonable public discourse.
 See again:
I discussed this in my “Privelobliviousness” linked to above. Once again Neil was a teacher and acquaintance of mine.
 Amazingly the whole novel is online. But you should still buy a copy.