Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 4 of 4)

Part IV: …Judge them by their content (of their characters)

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that
I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to
win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though
not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.

-The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

People learn by saying wrong things— even offensive things—that can then be corrected!

-Garry Kasparov

I believe in the values of the Enlightenment and traditional education. Free Speech. Reasoned Debate Of Ideas. Scientific Method. The sorts of bedrock concepts where you capitalize all the words.

Yes, historically, that’s mostly a dead white man’s game. But isn’t the answer to that (and to the problem of not enough minority/marginalized authors) to bring diversity directly to those areas? Nothing about that needs to silence anyone’s voice—and certainly no such censoring should be based solely on the speaker’s skin color.

I also very much believe in and support social justice causes. I am against the way our country is careening into fascism. Things seem rather dire to me on that front. So, if I thought that seeking out, isolating, and punishing the creators of a certain class of art was an effective means of achieving social justice, I might even condone it (at least, in theory–and only as a short term, emergency tactic…a ban on nazi paraphernalia in the military and on police forces comes to mind)…

—that is, if it worked. But it doesn’t seem to. In fact, I believe our present situation has been largely fueled by this new, illiberal political correctness.

From what I can see, this latest offshoot of identity politics is merely generating more sympathy and enthusiasm for those that would stand in the way of social justice. To put it bluntly, every time you tell a white person that they cannot do something (or understand something) just because they are white, you are not correcting for past sins against the marginalized. You are merely echoing what those more bigoted of the white people have been saying all along: there’s ‘us’ and there’s ‘them’, with the implied corollary that it is a zero-sum game. You’ve just affirmed their worldview.

It radicalizes republicans, centrists, and even some liberals into de facto alt-right allies. For example, I recently found out about an entire cadre of modern (formerly left-leaning) liberal intellectuals who have been essentially radicalized. I won’t list them here—but, they were coined the “Intellectual Dark Web”a few years ago. They are smart, charismatic, and they rail against the woke lefties who have tried to cancel them. They actually debate each other on various salient topics (e.g.., “Is Religion Useful?”), but they all have one thing in common: Underpinning all of their disparate approaches is the moral certainty that it is wrong (either ethically, or just from a practical ‘anti-competence’ perspective) to use unvarnished discrimination to fight unvarnished discrimination.

The purveyors of cancel culture seem to understand this, too. After all, people tend to get shrill, preachy, dogmatic, insist on changing language, and ultimately refuse to engage in good faith debate when they (deep down) know they are wrong. But the allure of their personal opinion being elevated to holy writ is just too enticing a drug for them to deny. In a world where one person’s opinion (no, not “opinion”, that gives them too much credit–their feelings) rise above all other criteria, it renders all analysis unnecessary. What power!

There’s a strong possibility that the very concept of cultural appropriation is harmful to our freedom of expression and deepens divisions instead of reducing and healing them. But wrong sells. So for the richest .01%, their allies, corporate American, and all the rest who seem to be trying their best to end our democratic experiment, this is a gift. After all, politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree with you. The kinds of societies that work the other way all tend to be forms of authoritarianism, like fascism.

It seems to me that, for all the window dressing, it mostly does come down to intentions. That goes, first, for someone whose creative works use a marginalized culture without regard for how their actions may or may not be exacerbating injustice to that group. Sure.

Second, though, I think it probably also includes someone cynically cashing on the cottage industry that has popped up in the victimization olympics of identity politics. This of the current online warfare between feminine and trans activists. What a mess.

Regardless, I don’t think it’s healthy for people so much time and effort in either certifying creators as authentic or, conversely, canceling them—without regard for the actual content of their art. Time will tell if #ownvoices is a real revolution in power structures, or if it is just the latest marketing gimmick.

But, as a tactic in the crusade of the religion of identity politics, I am concerned with its ultimate effect. Stifling good-faith debate (just as with art) by a priori negation based on identity is rarely a good thing.

For my part, I will not keep both feet rooted so deeply in the past of oppression that I merely stand in place, within my own silo. Nor will I jump with both feet into my writing without any reference or reverence for the historical wrongs that have taken place. I will try to keep one foot in the past and step forward with the other. But, when I do, I will continue to try to go outside my comfort zone, to learn, to share, and to grow.

2 Replies to “Cultural Appropriation or Approbation (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Author by Their Cover”)? (Part 4 of 4)”

  1. While I don’t normally agree with the National Review, I believe this is an accurate assessment of the attitudes that old-fashioned white liberal face these days and the truth of intellectual overreach of those who cry ‘Cultural Appropriation’ (wolf):

    “‘Cultural appropriation’ has become an all-encompassing term, even including yoga if it is divorced from Hindu or Buddhist spirituality. Today selling tacos from a truck while lacking a Hispanic pedigree is akin to genocide; wearing an Asian-style prom dress while sporting European genes reeks of napalm; and uttering the word ‘woke’ while white drives supremacist needles under the nails of black folks.

    We seemingly have discovered a new way to inflame group resentments and fling ourselves on the bonfire of guilt. I wish I could cure this with a touch of common sense, but since all such concepts are now deemed polluted with privilege, I’ll try ancient history instead…

    …The ancient Greeks, of course, are one of the foundations of the West, and their ethic of selective appropriation remains crucial to understanding what the West is. We didn’t come by written language, mathematics, or a thousand other root inventions by sticking with a tradition impervious to innovation. We came by these things through imitation, selective borrowing, and integration into an encompassing pattern….

    …We imported corn, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, pumpkins, peanuts, and chocolate when Europeans encountered the people of the New World. We chose not to import ripping the hearts out of prisoners sacrificed to the gods, or cannibalism. Choices were made.”

    —From National Review (

  2. A quick supplement to this blog post: There are many (left & right) who think that all art is inherently polemic. So, for example, everything from a dead white male is primarily about white maleness. Or all movies out of Hollywood are leftist.

    But, at least as it pertains to speculative fiction, perhaps 100% focus on author identity is self-defeating, effacing the work’s merits and undermining that Art’s shared humanity.

    “There’s nothing like spending some time inside an alien head, to remind us how little divides us, person from person.” —Neil Gaiman

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