(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, June 14.)
It seems nothing is safe from the scourge of identity politics.
If you haven’t heard of identity politics, it’s the fashionable ideology that breaks society down into minority groups which identify themselves according to their point of difference, whether it be based on culture, ethnicity, disability, sexual preference or whatever. Often these groups define themselves not only as different, but as disadvantaged and even oppressed
It’s from identity politics that we get the notion of cultural appropriation – the dogma that each culture retains exclusive rights of ownership over its own traditions, and that anyone else who tries to imitate or borrow them is guilty of theft.
This is surely one of the more spectacularly wrong-headed manifestations of political correctness.
It provides perfect fuel for displays of liberal white middle-class guilt. An example was the woman who protested at the inclusion, in last year’s Christchurch Christmas parade, of a float with a “culturally insensitive” Native American theme.
I wrote a column at the time pointing out that if we carried the idea of cultural appropriation to its extreme, we probably wouldn’t celebrate Christmas at all. Because virtually everything we associate with Christmas – the music, the food, the decorations, even Father Christmas himself – is borrowed from other cultures.
It doesn’t seem to matter that supposed acts of “cultural appropriation” are often a mark of respect or admiration for the culture that’s supposedly being stolen. What seems to be considered intolerable is the thought that someone might make money from it.
As with many other fashionable political causes, whether it’s global warming or anti-liquor hysteria, the underlying theme is often hostility to capitalism.
But when people start talking about this thing called cultural appropriation, they’re wading into very muddy water. Because virtually everything we do – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the music we listen to, the books we read – involves cultural appropriation, often on a large scale. This is truer than ever in a globalised world where cultural boundaries are becoming irretrievably blurred.
As the American novelist Lionel Shriver recently wrote: “Cultures blend and overlap and can’t be fenced.”
Who decides when it’s not acceptable to emulate aspects of another culture? This seems to depend on whoever decides to feel aggrieved.
Nothing illustrates the inconsistencies and contradictions in this debate better than food, which has become –perhaps inevitably – the latest ideological battleground in the culture wars.
A recent BBC radio documentary questioned whether it was acceptable for people to cook food from another culture. It went on to ask whether it was okay to profit from such food, or to tamper with recipes so that the dishes were no longer wholly authentic. The implication seemed to be that this was all, in varying degrees, cultural appropriation.
But even the most unexciting food has been culturally appropriated somewhere along the line. Porridge, for example, came from the Scots.
If the enforcers of culinary correctness had their way, presumably the dozens of New Zealand fish and chip shops owned by Greeks and Yugoslavs – and now increasingly by Asians – would be outlawed, since fish and chips are a traditional English dish. Chips, come to that, are a French invention. See how crazy it could get?
A black American chef and food writer on the BBC programme acknowledged that “cultural diffusion” was a natural and healthy process in a multicultural society. He probably had to say that, since he wouldn't have got far as a professional chef without cooking a lot of exotic (i.e. non-American) dishes. So when does it become “appropriation”, which he clearly regarded as repugnant?
Alas, he never really explained. Appropriation, he said, was about “asserting power and control”. He seemed to be saying that cultural borrowing was okay up to the point where white people made money from it, but his reasoning was vague and woolly.
I suppose, for argument’s sake, you could understand him resenting the fact that a big corporation such as KFC profits from fried chicken, a dish once associated with poor blacks, but he didn’t explain how black Americans were disadvantaged by it. That’s surely the test.
And if a middle-class white celebrity chef such as Jamie Oliver or Rick Stein devotes a TV series or book to the food of another country and puts his own spin on the recipes, so what? It creates a wider awareness of that cuisine and thereby opens up opportunities for more authentic cooks. That’s got to be a win-win.
Ultimately the key point is this: civilisation is built on cultural appropriation. Every society absorbs influences from other cultures, often cherry-picking the best of what’s on offer.
This process cuts both ways, because disadvantaged societies learn from more advanced ones. It’s not all about exploitation.
Those who seek to outlaw what they arbitrarily define as cultural appropriation would condemn us to a monochromatic, one-dimensional world in which we would all want to kill ourselves out of sheer boredom – and one in which New Zealanders would be reduced to eating tinned spaghetti on toast, since it’s one of the very few dishes we can call our own.
On second thoughts, scratch that. Spaghetti’s Italian.