Is Cultural Appropriation Appropriate Behaviour?

Thus Spake Zarathustra
Thus Spake Zarathustra

Following his meditation, Zarathustra went down again to the village and gathered the faithful around him. And he resolved to choose from among them twelve disciples that he might send them forth to preach in his name. But lo, he saw that they were all simple working-class people and did not have the benefit like himself of a degree in postmodern studies with a major in critical theory which allowed him to identify and root out all forms of mischief such as false consciousness, ethnophilia and institutional bias. So he chose from among them a multiracial group, which is to say in its politically correct definition a selection excluding any persons who could be construed as racially white, because he was aware from sociological research recently reported by Zoe Williams in The Guardian that there is no such thing as white working class, except insofar as it is characterised by a racist attitude.

Unfortunately there were only two in the village who satisfied his criteria, a migrant from Syria who had purportedly forgotten his real name somewhere en route, and was known by the villagers as Peter; and another man who professed to being his partner and went by the name Paul.

Anyway he sent forth the two disciples to preach, charging them thus: “Go forth in my name with the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and all those who have enjoyed the privilege of not being multiracial, multiethnic, multisexual, multigender or multifaith, except if they do repent of their privilege and offer up all that they own to demonstrate their repentance.” And the first disciple Peter appeared troubled at this prospect and questioned the prophet as to what to do if those who enjoyed such privilege were already in poverty and in receipt of government benefits (which if you counted agricultural subsidies probably accounted for most of the people in the village). And the prophet replied “Is it not written that from those who enjoy privilege what little wealth they have will be taken from them and given instead to those who have an abundance?” Of course the disciples had no idea if it it was so written because they were simple, uneducated villagers; nor indeed had the prophet for whom asking such questions was merely a useful rhetorical device to help avoid wasting time in discussions with sceptical audiences. So they took the prophet at his word.

But next Paul had a question. “Is it not the case, sire,” he began, “that according to your criteria everyone in the village except the two of us here before you is privileged and has either been trampled underfoot or else has handed over to the prophet everything which thy own?” At this Zarathustra was much vexed and chided the disciples saying unto them: “That is why I am sending you forth to other villages. Do you have any more questions?” Paul it turned out had one further question, which was how it was possible for him to go fourth when there were only two of them. “Give me strength,” lamented Zarathustra. “Just go.” And with that finally they left.

Upon the next day, Zarathustra was up early and was most surprised to see the two disciples making their way back down the road into the village, and with some difficulty because Peter was limping and Paul was struggling to help since he appeared to have the use of only one good arm. When Zarathustra inquired of them what was the matter and why they had returned so precipitately, Peter informed him that they had been accused by the residents’ society of the next village of cultural appropriation and set upon most violently by the whole village forthwith.

At this a pall descended over Zarathustra’s countenance and he chided them: “Did ye not know that cultural appropriation is a most grave offence? What did you do? Did you tie up your hair in the manner of the local people? Or prepare a meal for yourselves according to one of their local recipes?” “None of these things,” came back the reply. Paul, on being further queried replied that the villagers had over dinner asked them if they were partners, to which they had replied in the affirmative. “I ventured that we had participated in a civil partnership last year.” At this there had been some murmuring, but no particular reaction.

However Peter had gone on to intimate that they planned to marry before the summer was out under the new government legislation. This further news much displeased the villagers who were all most strongly acculturated to the idea that a marriage should only be between a man and a woman. They had immediately set about the unfortunate pair with umbrellas, handbags and whatever came to hand and chased them out of the village with loud shouts of “How darest thou appropriate our culture and deem to lecture us about appropriate behaviour!” At this Zarathustra was moved to some sympathy for them and when he was asked if they had done wrong, he struggled to find the right words. “Clearly these villagers were ignorant people and did not understand the meaning of cultural appropriation,” he ventured. They need to be taught a harsh lesson that they might mend their ways.” At this Paul looked not comforted but even more confused: “But we do not understand this cultural appropriation business either. Does that mean we deserved this beating we incurred? And what mending are we supposed to do to ensure we fare better in the future?”

Zarathustra made one last attempt to extricate himself from the hole that was rapidly opening up beneath him. “You must understand that those who profess righteousness do not always have it on their side. The culture of those who by their nature are oppressors and who benefit at the expense of those they oppress is not susceptible to being appropriated.” Now it was Peter’s turn to express bewilderment. “But the people there were even poorer than in our village. Yet they offered us hospitality and shared what food they had with us. Are they yet to be seen as our oppressors?” At this Zarathustra really was lost for words. Forgetting that it was still early morning he announced that he would need to head home for the evening and consult the scriptures before enlightening them further the next day; and with that he turned on his heel and left them. But in his heart of hearts he was rather hopeful that by the morrow Peter and Paul would have lost interest in the matter and he put more energy into thinking up some new topic he could introduce his disciples to which had less painful associations for them.

Disclaimer: references to Zarathustra in the above are an allusion to the eponymous protagonist of Friedrich Nietzche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not to the Iranian religious reformer and prophet, traditionally regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism.

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By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.


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