My sister recently told me about an argument she had with her friends. They were accusing her of cultural "appropriation" for ... attending a weekly yoga class. Apparently, it’s somehow bad for white Westerners to engage in a practice that is supposed to be good for the body, mind, and soul.
Now, I think it is a good idea to know something about the practices you engage in, and I’ll admit that it does annoy me a little bit when I see people reducing what is essentially a spiritual exercise into mere aerobics. But as long as you practice yoga with a minimum degree of seriousness, I don’t see the problem.
In the current climate, it appears that virtually anything derived from a culture that's not Western European is off limits to someone like me. But what is the offense in partaking of the rich stew of world cultures rather than being limited by my own (and rather confused) ethnic background?
While many of the trends in political correctness seem misguided to me, they are least comprehensible. Cultural "appropriation" remains utterly baffling, however.
If the goal is to preserve and respect other peoples' cultures, shouldn’t widespread adoption be laudable rather than offensive? The European-style business suit is in no danger of disappearing, precisely because it has become universally adopted. But a Chinese businessman wearing a black suit and tie would never be accused of “appropriating” Western culture.
The alternative is to guard a culture as the exclusive property of its natives, and risk letting it disappear forever.
Likewise, cultural appropriation is responsible for many of the pleasures Americans enjoy. Without it, we would have no access to pizza, Chinese food, sushi, and a host of other delicious delicacies from around the world. As George Will points out, rock and roll grew out of the music of black bluesmen, yet developed into its own style of music that remains popular today. That’s how progress works; artists combine a variety of influences into something new.
Perhaps that concern is that the appropriator overshadows and eclipses the original culture. But history does not bear this out. How many young guitarists who would otherwise have never ventured into blues discovered Robert Johnson through Jimmy Page? It is natural to search for the original source of things we like, and when a particular culture becomes more popular through adaptation, the original culture benefits as well.
The warriors against cultural appropriation have even gone so far as to condemn the art of acting, in which a performer plays the role of another person unlike himself. Originating out of a legitimate complaint against “whitewashing” in which white actors were consistently cast to play non-white characters, the movement has now morphed into the apparent demand that every actor must share the exact same cultural background as the characters they play, which rather defeats the purpose.
Linguist and social scientist Steven Pinker argues that political correctness, like many social movements, grew out of a true grievance. But having achieved most all its original goals, it has become increasingly extreme in order to continue existing. I suspect it’s much the same with cultural appropriation.
While it is annoying to see people getting tattoos of Japanese characters or foreign phrases with no knowledge of their meanings, it’s absurd to say that we cannot all benefit from experiencing and participating in the cultures of others.