This began, if I understand correctly, with a bit of a rant on the twitters, when Cato’s Jonathan Blanks got a little miffed (miffed, as in irate) about conservative reactions to the demands that Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till be destroyed. It was a jarring rant, but it made me think about what was meant by cultural appropriation. Thinking is always a good thing.
Apparently, Conor Friedersdorf was similarly intrigued, and he and Jonathan engaged in an email discussion, which ended up as a post at the Atlantic. Both Conor and Jonathan are smart, articulate and sincere guys, and both are likely far more attuned to issues that an old guy might not fully appreciate.
There is no way to provide you with the flavor of the discussion here. Please read it. But I will excerpt a piece of it to add some additional thoughts. From Jonathan’s part of the discussion:
But my white, right-of-center social media feeds are regularly choked with blithe dismissals of cultural appropriation, as if there is never cause for a reasonable person to be upset when aspects of a culture––or perceived aspects of a culture––are adopted, co-opted, bastardized, or lampooned by white Americans, collectively or individually.
While I don’t know what Jonathan’s social media feeds look like, his “white, right-of-center” characterization stung. I’m white. I’m male. I’m straight, married, with children. I live a very comfortable life, all the things that make me “privileged” in social justice parlance. I don’t think of myself as right-of-center, though given that the center has shifted in many echo chambers, I have no clue what that means anymore.
But is Jonathan really suggesting that I shouldn’t be allowed to express a view? Does his disagreement with a view justify his characterization as “blithe”? Does their “dismissal,” as Jonathan sees it, justify his dismissal of their “blithe dismissal”? And is there no difference between “adopted” and “lampooned,” such that they can be uttered in the same list?
Perhaps the quintessential example of the appropriative phenomenon is non-black people donning blackface.
If that’s what he’s talking about, then I’ve completely misunderstood cultural appropriation. Deliberately offending people because of their culture, race, religion, etc., is still deliberately offending people. If that’s all it is, then there wouldn’t be much reason for discussion. But that’s not all it is. If anything, it’s not about that at all, and Jonathan’s calling it “quintessential” is completely wrong.
I understand a frustration with the language in these debates and conversations. I’m not a linguist, but it seems to me that terms like “cultural appropriation,” “white privilege,” “microaggressions,” and many others have been attempts to improve upon the language that we use to discuss the manifestations of cultural conflict on both collective and individual levels. For years, the mainstream recognized “racism,” a concept seemingly basic and straightforward. But racism is, in fact, an over-broad term that can describe a clutched purse on an elevator, a lynching, segregation, obstacles to employment, and countless other examples in between.
The more nuanced terms, associated with “Social Justice Warriors”—“SJW” having become a pejorative among many on the right—are tools to specify wrongs or perceived wrongs, but those terms also frequently turn-off “anti-SJW” types that you and I find often in our social media and professional circles. The result is both SJWs and anti-SJWs talking past one another before they retreat to their respective echo chambers to kvetch about their opposites until the next controversy gets picked up in the media. The words they use may change, but the underlying conflicts endure.
This is where Jonathan’s explanation is both most illuminating and disturbing. If the language of social justice was created to enable a more “nuanced” discussion of racism, then perhaps the problem is that the terms have been usurped and bastardized, bludgeons in the hands of the angry and stupid who just want to get their way. Maybe the manifestations that we (which includes I) kvetch about are a misuse of the words, a misunderstanding of why they exist.
Is there anything wrong with people deeply concerned about racism creating words that enable them to convey concepts that fall within the larger umbrella? Of course not. But what renders this disturbing is that the failure to accept and embrace their views is unacceptable.
In other words, to describe these nuanced words as a means to discuss manifestations is disingenuous. They are “tools to specify wrongs or perceived wrongs,” which you can either accept or be wrong. Jonathan sees the virtue in the nuance. And sees no alternative to agreeing with the SJWs because they’re absolutely right.
Is a Korean guy allowed to run a sushi bar? Can a black guy make bagels? Can a white woman wear a Kimono? The list goes on. Up top, Conor raised a point that I’ve made here many times, that people don’t care about something until it touches their life.
In my experience, one obstacle to stopping those injustices is the unfortunate human tendency to conceive of even sympathetic victims from a different racial or ethnic group as “bad stuff happening to them,” not “bad stuff happening to us.” Even folks who don’t want bad stuff to happen to anyone react with less focus and urgency when an “other” is the victim. No one wants any child to be kidnapped, but the little blond girl leads the local news; her black analog might not make the newscast.
What I suspect Jonathan misses in his view of social justice is that people focus on their own issues, problems, family, needs, not because they are malevolent or racist, but because it touches their lives directly. They will go to war for their children. They will not go to war because someone who isn’t Japanese opened a sushi bar.
Even us white people who share the concerns about civil rights and criminal justice with Conor and Jonathan get to call bullshit on the silliness. More importantly, there are serious issues, like cops killing black guys, and ridiculous issues, like a female basketball player beaten for wearing braids. If you can’t distinguish between the two, no explanation of nuance will suffice.
And that Jonathan is irate at people in his social media feed who “blithely dismiss” something he feels strongly about doesn’t make them wrong, but makes for disagreement. That’s a nuance that someone at Cato should appreciate. It’s a nuance that no SJW ever will.