Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
In the fall of 2015, a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa was suspended out of concern that it might be an act of cultural appropriation. Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities, where the class was offered, made this decision on the basis of a complaint. A Centre official noted that many cultures, including the culture from which yoga originated, “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.” In response, there was an attempt to “rebrand” the class as “mindful stretching.” Due to issues regarding a French translation of the phrase, the rebranding failed and the class was suspended.
When I first heard about his story, I inferred it was satire on the part of the Onion because it seemed to be an absurd lampooning of political correctness. It turned out that it was real, but still absurd. But, as absurdities sometimes do, it does provide an interesting context for discussing a serious subject—in this case that of cultural appropriation.
The concept of cultural appropriation is somewhat controversial, but the basic idea is fairly simple. In general terms, cultural appropriation takes place when a dominant culture takes (“appropriates”) from a marginalized culture for morally problematic reasons. For example, white college students have been accused of cultural appropriation (and worse) when they have made mocking use of aspects of black culture for theme parties. Some on the left (or “the politically correct” as they are called by their detractors) regard cultural appropriation as morally wrong. Some on the right think the idea of cultural appropriation is ridiculous and people should just get over and forget about past oppressions.
While I am no fan of what can justly be considered mere political correctness, I do agree that there are moral problems with what is often designated as cultural appropriation. One common area of cultural appropriation is that which is intended to lampoon. While comedy, as Aristotle noted, is a species of the ugly, it should not enter into the realm of what is actually hurtful. As such lampooning of cultural stereotypes that cross over into being actually hurtful would cease to be comedic and would instead be merely insulting mockery. An excellent (or awful) example of this would be the use of blackface by people who are not black. Naturally, specific cases would need to be given due consideration—it can be aesthetically legitimate to use the shock of apparent cultural appropriation to make a point.
It can, of course, be objected that lampooning is exempt from the usual moral concerns about insulting people and thus that such mocking insults would be morally fine. It must also be noted that I am making no assertions here about what should be forbidden by law. My view is, in fact, that even the most insulting mockery should not be restricted by law. Morality is, after all, distinct from legality.
Another common area of cultural appropriation is the misuse of symbols from a culture. For example, having an underwear model prance around in a war bonnet is not intended as lampooning, but is an insult to the culture that regards the war bonnet as an honor to be earned. It would be comparable to having underwear models prancing around displaying unearned honors such as the Purple Heart or the Medal of Honor. This misuse can, of course, be unintentional—people often use cultural marks of honor as “cool accessories” without any awareness of what they actually mean. While people should, perhaps, do some research before borrowing from other cultures, innocent ignorance is certainly forgivable.
It could be objected that such misuse is not morally problematic since there is no real harm being done when a culture is insulted by the misuse of its symbols. This, of course, would need to be held to consistently—a person making this argument to allow the misuse of the symbols of another culture would need to accept a comparable misuse of her own most sacred symbols as morally tolerable. Once again, I am not addressing the legality of this matter—although cultures do often have laws protecting their own symbols, such as military medals or religious icons.
While it would be easy to run through a multitude of cases that would be considered cultural appropriation, I prefer to focus on presenting a general principle about what would be morally problematic cultural appropriation. Given the above examples and consideration of the others that can be readily found, what seems to make appropriation inappropriate is the misuse or abuse of the cultural elements. That is, there needs to be meaningful harm inflicted by the appropriation. This misuse or abuse could be intentional (which would make it morally worse) or unintentional (which might make it an innocent error of ignorance).
It could be contended that any appropriation of culture is harmful by using an analogy to trademark, patent, and copyright law. A culture could be regarded as holding the moral “trademark”, “patent” or “copyright” (as appropriate) on its cultural items and thus people who are not part of that culture would be inflicting harm by appropriating these items. This would be analogous to another company appropriating, for example, Disney’s trademarks, violating the copyrights held by Random House or the patents held by Google. Culture could be thus regarded as a property owned by members of that culture and passed down as a matter of inheritance. This would seem to make any appropriation of culture by outsiders morally problematic—although a culture could give permission for such use by intentionally sharing the culture. Those who are fond of property rights should find this argument appealing.
One interesting way to counter the ownership argument is to note that humans are born into culture by chance and any human could be raised in any culture. As such, it could be claimed that humans have an ownership stake in all human cultures and thus are entitled to adopt culture as they see fit. The culture should, of course, be shown proper respect. This would, of course, be a form of cultural communism—which those who like strict property rights might find unappealing.
The response to this is to note that humans are also born by chance to families and any human could be designated the heir of a family, yet there are strict rules governing the inheritance of property. As such, cultural inheritance could work the same way—only the true heirs can give permission to others to use the culture. This should appeal to those who favor strict protections for inherited property.
My own inclination is that humans are the inheritors of all human culture and thus we all have a right to the cultural wealth our species has produced. Naturally, individual ownership of specific works should be properly respected. However, as with any gift, it must be treated with due respect and used appropriately—rather than misused through appropriation. So, cancelling the yoga class was absurd.