Monday, February 8, 2016

Cultural Appropriation in Paleolithic Africa

I've never understood why cultural appropriation is a bad thing, because borrowing from other cultures is pretty much what humans do. These South African archaeologists argue that it was key to our progress in the Paleolithic:
This sharing of symbolic material culture and technology also tells us more about Homo sapiens' journey from Africa to Arabia and Europe. Contact between cultures has been vital to the survival and development of our common ancestors. The more contact the groups had, the stronger their technology and culture became.

"Contact across groups, and population dynamics, makes it possible to adopt and adapt new technologies and culture and is what describes Homo sapiens. What we are seeing is the same pattern that shaped the people in Europe who created cave art many years later," Henshilwood says.
The more contact the groups had, the stronger their technology and culture became.

Jared Diamond spent a lot of time wandering around New Guinea with local guides, and in The World Until Yesterday has a wonderful account of how new Guineans interacted with people from other areas. One regular topic of conversation was plants – what do you call this vine? what is it good for? can you eat these berries? how do you prepare that medicine? It shows perfectly how cultural exchange happens, and how fundamental it is to human nature.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

When people in general talk about "cultural appropriation" being a bad thing, they're not talking about normal cultural exchange and genuine adoption of the ways of others - they're talking about shallow and derisive imitation of others whom one has made no actual attempt to genuinely understand.

Learning to speak Cherokee isn't cultural appropriation, but dressing up in a bad stereotype of "Indian" attire at a sporting event is. Learning to sing traditional African folk music isn't cultural appropriation, but wearing blackface in a minstrel show is. Hiring an ethnic Chinese actor to star in a film set in Hong Kong isn't cultural appropriation, but creating the fictional character of Fu Manchu out of ignorant stereotypes is.

Unfortunately, while a lot of the time you can point to something and place it squarely into one category or the other, there is a gray area in the middle where it can be hard to tell if something strays into questionable territory.

In my view, the practical difference ends up being the question of whether something draws genuine inspiration from others in a way that no reasonable person would find offensive, or whether it facetiously imitates the source in only the most lazy, exaggerated, and insulting ways.

The reason the actual term "cultural appropriation" gets bandied around so much is because of the "appropriation" bit - specifically, the notion that something has been taken for one's own use without the permission of the owner. Basically, the complaint is that people aren't willing to engage with others on their own terms.

And while a strong argument can be made that no one truly "owns" their culture, nor can they dictate who is "allowed" to take part in it, I feel that as a general rule one should always ask the following questions: "Would a reasonable individual find my behavior insulting? If the tables were turned, would I be offended by someone acting in a comparable manner?" If either answer is yes, it may or may not be cultural appropriation, but it's almost definitely not appropriate or civil, and that alone should be all you need to judge how you should act.