Because Cultural Diss Is Different

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.

25 thoughts on “Because Cultural Diss Is Different

  1. maz

    Thanks for drawing attention to this dialogue. I’d earlier noticed the headline blurbed on the Atlantic’s home page, but I had blithely dismissed it as more of the same. The same *what* I wasn’t sure, but I figured I’d heard both sides of this LP before. I realize I’ve just contributed nothing to the debate, but I’m not really submitting this as a comment, but wanted to thank you *and* flag it’s Jonathan Blanks, not Banks, who is something else entirely.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    I get miffed when people using Waze culturally misappropriate my hidden short-cuts and turn them into long-cuts.

    Especially when I’m trying to get to that Korean guy’s sushi bar before the lunch special expires, and (trust me on this) expiration of sushi is a serious thing.

    At least Conor and Jonathan seem to agree that it’s OK for the Guatamalan cafeteria lady at work to designate Chinese, Mexican, and Italian days.

    I’ve noticed ladies clutching their purses in elevators before, and I always just assumed it was because I was large enough to be a bit intimidating.

    But now I’m confused and angry about that. When the white ladies do it, are they sexist or sizeist? When the black ladies do it, are they sexist, sizeist or racist?

  3. Miles

    I read The Atlantic piece, and aside from it being really long and insufferably pretentious, nobody deals with the obvious question. Blanks is with Cato, a libertarian free-market think tank, and yet he wants to silence speech and ideas that don’t match his feelz? WTF? How can he simultaneously be a libertarian and an SJW (and he is, despite his protestations, obviously an SJW)?

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not as clear as you are that Jonathan wants to play hate speech censor or is an SJW, as much as empathizes with some ideals. Is there a line? Has he crossed it? Is he not allowed to be pissed at speech he deems racist (or blithely dismissive) without demanding that the speech be silenced?

      Part of the marketplace of ideas is that you’re allowed to argue for and against. So he argues for social justice. Is he not allowed?

  4. John S.

    The only way I can make sense of calling blackface “cultural appropriation” would strongly imply that Jonathan believes that black people are actually just wearing blackface, all the time …

    1. SHG Post author

      Yeah, it was kinda surprising to me as well that he used that as an example, no less the quintessential example.

        1. Patrick Maupin

          Perhaps it was necessary gertruding to keep the portion of his message that was directed to minorities from being dismissed out of hand.

          But it may cause the portion of his message that was directed to whites to be dismissed out of hand in some quarters.

          1. SHG Post author

            If you’re going to proffer a thoughtful argument about nuance, then at least keep it real, keep the gretruding out and assume everyone to be competent to grasp the concepts without giving them an off-target tummy rub. You can’t have it both ways.

  5. LTMG

    Well, let me see. Is it cultural appropriation if someone who appears to be of non-European descent to speak English? To wear clothing of Western style? To eat hamburgers, French fries, French toast, Russian salad dressing, spaghetti bolognese? To listen to classical music? To adhere to laws arising from English Common Law or the Napoleonic Code (Louisiana)? Is it cultural appropriation for Westerners to drive Japanese or Korean name brand cars? Should we in the West delete words like catsup, kimono, and typhoon from our dictionaries because they have non-Western origins? Are there any additional ways I can point out how very ridiculous the idea of cultural appropriation is?

    1. JAV

      The problem is as described in the dialog and mentioned here, that words like “cultural appropriation” are supposed to help add shades and nuance beyond just “racism”, but they usually get humpty-dumptied* into “I don’t like it, so it’s evil”. If the language was more disciplined, I think the words could serve could serve their purpose**.

      * Beg pardon for the verbing.
      ** Like the discipline I exercised in trying to explain further, probably to my detriment.

      1. SHG Post author

        But what “shades and nuance” do they actually add? Saying they’re supposed to isn’t quite the same as doing so.

        1. Patrick Maupin

          I think you mis-heard. It’s not “adding shades and nuance”; it’s “throwing shade by truants.”

      2. Lucas Beauchamp

        Discussing the Schutz painting in terms of cultural appropriation misses the point. For all the reasons stated on this page, decrying cultural appropriation is stupid. The painting’s problem has nothing to do with braids on young white women or Vietnamese food at Oberlin.

        Were I African-American, I would find the Schutz painting deeply upsetting. Emmet Till died horrifically because he did something that violated social codes only because he was Black. He became a symbol not only of the constant threat of lethal violence that Blacks faced in the 1950s but of the way that American society’s differing racial codes obstruct African-Americans today.

        Then a white artist paints Till cartoonishly, completely blurring his face, his most human characteristic. However well intentioned, she diminished the horror of his death. Her painting isn’t cultural appropriation. It’s an insulting diminution of an experience that Schutz cannot begin to understand.

        1. SHG Post author

          Which would be a perfectly fine critique of Schutz, except that wasn’t the problem leveled by her adversaries. It was that she was white. As for her painting and her motivation in painting it, that rises or falls on its own merits. But good or bad, she wasn’t allowed to paint it because she had the wrong color skin.

  6. PAV

    There are real issues at the bottom of these terms, like privilege and whatnot. But the terms have been taken over and used as bludgeons. “Check your privilege” as an insult to keep someone in their place instead of an invitation to empathy and common ground. “Cultural appropriation” as a demand for other races and ethnicities to color in the lines, rather than a recognition that there really are some things that one shouldn’t just wear without knowing what it is. The veteran community recognizes some forms of the later as “stolen valor”, so it’s not an alien concept.

    It’s very much as if this language created to illuminate was subverted into a divisive and ugly language of its own. Which is a shame, because the seed concepts are still useful.

    That and extending blackface to cover dressing in other culture’s dress…I understand that refusing a salwar kameesh or a kimono if offered is an insult, as Indian and Japanese cultures hold sharing as an honor. It’s hubristic for Americans to use the term cultural appropriation for things that other cultures share willingly. It’s near-sighted to think all the world’s cultural issues can be boiled down and seen correctly through the lens of American blacks vs American whites.

    1. SHG Post author

      Let’s leave stolen valor out of it. It’s not the same, and it has nothing to do with this post. As for the rest, a solid meh.

  7. B. McLeod

    Every morning, I read the news. I’ve been doing this for a long time. Today, with the Internet, I read the morning news from all over the country. Yesterday morning, as I read the “news,” I realized almost all of it is what we used to call “editorials,” and it used to be on the “editorial” or “opinion” page. It seems like we have reached a point where our so-called “journalists” who are supposed to “inform the public” can no longer themselves separate what is factual reporting from what is their opinion. It is the death of journalism as prior ages knew it.

  8. Eddie Harrington

    My all time favorite book, and where I first fell in love with the name I gave my first born son, was a book about Ireland, the Famine, and the time leading up to the Anglo-Irish war. It was written by a Jewish guy from Baltimore whose father was Polish and mother was the daughter of Russian immigrants. Talk about cultural appropriation! Yet I never gave a crap that he wasn’t Irish, not once. I was just thankful he gave a damn to write such a great book. And thankful is what the idiots protesting the Emmet Till painting. Would they rather people like Dana Schultz not care? Sure sounds like it.

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