I have followed the Wearable Art “cultural appropriation” controversy with interest. One striking thing is the gulf between public opinion expressed in the Empire and that expressed at a meeting at the JACC. While opinion in newspaper opinion pieces and in online comments was almost entirely against banning art due to cultural appropriation, the 20 people who spoke at the February 21 JAHC board meeting reportedly all said “Doragon”, the Asian art piece in question, was offensive, which presumably means they felt it should be banned. That is a remarkable difference of opinion.
I generally agreed with the “anti-banners”, but wanted to understand the other side better, so I attended the March 9 meeting at the JACC, billed as “the first community conversation about cultural appropriation”. Unfortunately, it was more of a lecture than a conversation (the only public input consisted of answering two predefined questions), and it was more about racism than cultural appropriation. It did little to bridge the divide in public opinion.
Cultural appropriation issues arise when people feel harmed by use of ideas from their culture by outsiders. On the other hand, their proposed remedy, claiming intellectual property rights to those ideas and banning their use, harms others by limiting their freedom of expression. As we value freedom highly in this country, that is no small issue. We shouldn’t give up any kind of freedom without a compelling reason.
Controversial issues like this often result in one side being offended by the other side’s arguments. In some cases, people even seem to feel that being offended is a sufficient argument by itself. For example, someone recently said it was “hurtful” to call the outcome of anti-cultural appropriation programs “censorship”. But, by definition, it is censorship, that is, suppression of objectionable content. Whether it is official censorship, self-censorship, justified, or unjustified, it is still censorship. We should be aware of the incentives we create. If today we reward claims of being offended more than we reward reason or truth, just imagine how emotion-driven and irrational the public conversation of the future will be.
Before adopting a cultural appropriation censorship policy, proponents should be able to answer the following questions:
Cultural appropriation means theft, but does the purported victim actually own the thing taken? In the “Doragon” case, the things “taken” were Asian art ideas, thousands of years old, that obviously weren’t created by the people who wanted the art banned. Why does sharing a nation of origin, or a race, with ancient creators of ideas empower people today to deny the use of those ideas to others?
Are those who would prohibit the use of Asian art ideas by non-Asians really willing to submit to similar restrictions on their own freedom? For every right, there is a corresponding responsibility. If one claims a right to prohibit use of ideas from their culture, it follows that they should not use ideas from other cultures. That would severely limit their choices of art, clothing, food, etc.
Are people really willing to do the research necessary to understand the thousands of cultural influences on our ideas and objects, so they can avoid “appropriating” them?
How much poorer in ideas and objects would we be today if those cultural influences had been prohibited in the past out of fear of cultural appropriation?
Won’t it be difficult to determine the racial and cultural makeup of each person in order to define which cultural ideas they may use?
Cultural appropriation censorship is divisive, constraining, and difficult to implement. However, there are other ways to address the use of cultural items. For example, think how unifying, freeing, and simplifying it would be to change our mindset from “that’s my culture – you can’t use it” to, “in Juneau, we appreciate and respect other cultures, we learn from each other, we share the cultures of our past in the hope of building a better culture of the future and, to the maximum extent feasible, we support free expression in art and in life”.
• Kurt Smith resides on Douglas.