01 April 2016

A Tory thought or two on ‘cultural appropriation’

Brendan O’Neill, the occasionally-thoughtful libertarian-leaning editor of sp!ked Magazine, has an article on the Spectator lambasting campus liberals and political-correctness police for their overweening obsession with eliminating ‘cultural appropriation’. It is actually very much worth a thoughtful read. If you can get past O’Neill’s borderline-hysterical uncertainty about whether to react to PC with hilarity or open-mouthed outrage, the irony that his latter response engenders by comparison with the very people he’s critiquing, and his occasional hyperventilation about how we millennials are ruining everything, the point is well-taken about there being at the ideological roots of the whole language of ‘cultural appropriation’ a kind of deathly, uncreative, censorious and Puritanical anti-culture which is obsessed with purity, and seeks to hedge all cultures bonsai-like into sterile and artificial shapes which are never allowed to intermingle. And he is, of course, quite right that unique, lively and creative cultural forms which take on lives of their own do spring from historical acts of ‘cultural appropriation’: notably rock music (or any kind of music which came out of the Delta or the Memphis music scene).

That much is very true. Where O’Neill is less persuasive, however (and where, in fact, he falls victim to his own critique), is in the idea that cultural preservation is inherently ‘racist’, and in his conception that we are primarily passive consumers rather than conduits of culture. I have fewer than no objections to chicken tikka masala or Asian fusion cuisine, but even before ‘cultural appropriation’ was a thing, even in my callow middle-school days, I thought young white women wearing cornrows, or young white men adopting ‘ghetto’ clothing and mannerisms, looked downright silly. I didn’t attach a moral stigma to either, as much as an aesthetic sense that something was deeply amiss. This attitude is fairly common, indeed, both in my parents’ generation and in my grandparents’ generation. First of all, we have to ask: what prompts this reaction in us? Secondly, we should be asking: what prompts young bourgeois white women to have cornrows or young bourgeois white men to wear saggy pants, anyway? What need is it that they’re addressing?

It’s worth noting that O’Neill does not use the organic analogy that I’m ascribing to him in my first paragraph, though he does use the language of ‘mixing’ and ‘learning’ that attribute agency, direction and growth to cultural production. The people he critiques, on the other hand – the politically-correct types – have at least a kernel of truth on their side when they note the ‘roots’ of a particular cultural expression. Cultures are, indeed, living and growing things; they are not static but organic. And just as it is unhealthy to prune, hedge, stifle and artificially segregate cultural output based on its biological origin, so also it is unhealthy to cut, graft, cross-pollinate or genetically-engineer without any thought for the underlying roots, for the nourishing stalk that lies beneath each example of cultural output. And this is where the Tory consciousness, with its passion for organic order, must concern itself.

Cornrows and white ‘ghetto’ fashion and yoga-for-yuppies are all ultimately imitative. They look and feel and act fundamentally silly because they represent an artificial grafting of cultural forms which feel more ‘authentic’ onto a dry and withering stalk that has not been properly nourished. One of my High-Tory complaints about white culture in America, at least, is that it has encouraged too many of us with immigrant roots to abandon our Old World traditions to the ‘melting pot’, to adopt a deadening cultural conformity, for the sake of (primarily economic) access to the ‘mainstream’, however that happened to be defined at the time. We whites, we formerly-‘ethnic’ whites in particular, have lost something of value in the process of ‘making good’ (a phrase Chesterton rightly despised) in a society predicated not on shared cultural but on ideological norms. And so what do we do? American bourgeois whites who are starved of meaning adopt cultural forms from others deemed more ‘authentic’. We turn to Eastern religions (yours truly being at least partially guilty of this one). We get tribal tattoos. We listen to reggae and hip-hop and talk with a supreme obliviousness about The Man. Or we take refuge in physical manifestations of antiquity. And we smother everything in layer upon layer of irony (see above).

I point all of this out not to be condemnatory – like I said, I can’t have any moral objections to the above, more aesthetic and existential ones – but it does point to a definite lack that needs filling, with something besides vicarious consumption of stuff and cultural output that is not, in a real sense, our own. It points, in a certain way, to an era of men without chests. CS Lewis wasn’t necessarily talking about ‘cultural appropriation’ specifically when he made this point, more about value-relativism much more generally, but the same point can apply. We demand ‘authenticity’, but we’ve cut out from ourselves those organs which alone can produce it. We’ve untethered ourselves from our Old World roots, and are casting about desperately for some ground – wherever it can be found – to lodge in. And the Old World itself is not much better, having adopted so heavily the selfsame mad alchemist’s approach to culture which got us into this mess.

So am I in favour of physically accosting white people who wear dreads? No, and hell no. That’s frankly an insane overreaction, and Brendan O’Neill is quite right to be worried about it. But at a certain level we do need to be questioning why it is that a guy feels the need to wear his hair that way in the first place. I get the feeling, personally, that if the question had been broached in a less-confrontational and less-antagonistic way, the question of ‘authenticity’ would not have been far beneath the surface for said dreads-wearing white dude.


  1. This is a really interesting post.

    In my work in drug and alcohol services in southern England, I encounter a lot of young white men who speak very strongly in Afro-Caribbean dialect (sometimes called 'Jafaican'). I always find myself wondering how much of this is an affectation or whether they are to some extent speaking naturally having grown up in a multi-cultural environment.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Matthew! It is interesting to hear about the situation on your side of the pond!

    Generally the folks I'm talking about are the sort of kids I went to private school with: kind of bored upper-middle-class white kids who, if I were to start analysing it, I might say are adopting these things partly out of a sense of rebellion...

  3. I don't want to belabour the point, because I concur in the overall thrust of the argument, and have always found false and - yes - inauthentic white boys wearing dreads, or obsessing about the minutia of hip-hop culture; nevertheless, it seems to me that these affectations are epiphenomena of capitalism, which dissolves all cultural particularities precisely insofar as they are organic, reconstituting them as consumerist goods, which is to say, as simulacrae. Having grown up as an American - I'm now 42 - I do not perceive that there is any sort of extant organic American culture, apart from some not entirely healthy warrens of the South; I suspect that many millions of Americans feel similarly, and lack the theoretical apparatus to articulate it, wavering between the abyssal void of consumerism (inclusive of cultural symbols and practices) and attempts to discover a more authentic manner of living, or at least of conceiving of themselves. The oscillation that results nets as a tacit faith in the authenticity of self-construction, which is a ratification of the capitalist mythos of The Market as the locus of the most truly human.

    Cultures have been mixed and appropriated from remotest, and lost, pre-history; what is unique about the present is precisely the Capitalist frame within which all such appropriations now occur.

    OT, but thanks for having that link to Angry Metal Guy; I've discovered altogether too much excellent music!


    Jeff Martin

  4. Thank you for the comment, Maximos!

    Yes, I do actually agree with you on this point; the artefacts of culture adopted by bourgeois American whites have indeed gone through the wringer of capitalist rationalisation (appropriation, decontextualisation, marketing). Again, I don't want to exempt myself from this criticism here. I've adopted a faith which isn't my parents' faith; and I've drifted toward traditionalist conservatism on account of exposure to Chinese Confucianism. It's at this point arguable how authentic any of that is, and I'm neurotic enough to still worry about that.

    And yes, I'm not attacking cultural appropriation per se with this post (I do agree with Brendan O'Neill about the overreaction to that from the illiberal PC campus left), but instead the late-capitalist structure within which that takes place.

    And I'm glad you approve of AMG, though I can't take any credit for that. I've also discovered a lot of great music that way!