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Kwame Anthony Appiah Demolishes the Concept of "Cultural Appropriation"

I've repeatedly condemned the idea of "cultural appropriation" as a form of racist censorship and rejected the idea that a cultural practice "belongs" to a certain group of people. When I read The Lies That Bind, by Kwame Anthony Appiah, I was pleased to discover that he shares this view. Here's a portion of the book, from the section "Property Crimes", where he expresses clearly and beautifully his criticism of that concept. Then he suggests better ways for people who feel offended, and describe the causes as "cultural appropriation", to formulate the wrong that they object to.

That’s why we should resist using the term "cultural appropriation” as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture. Kente in Asante was first made with dyed silk thread, imported from the East. We took something made by others and made it ours. Or rather, they did that in the village of Bonwire. So did the Asante of Kumasi appropriate the cultural property of Bonwire, where it was first made? Putative owners may be previous appropriators.

The real problem isn’t that it’s difficult to decide who owns culture; it’s that the very idea of ownership is the wrong model. The Copyright Clause of the United States Constitution supplies a plausible reason for creating ownership of words and ideas: "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." But the arts progressed perfectly well in the world’s traditional cultures without these protections; and the traditional products and practices of a group—its songs and stories, even its secrets—are not best understood as its property, or made more useful by being tethered to their putative origins.

… Unfortunately, the vigorous lobbying of huge corporations has made the idea of intellectual property go imperial; it seems to have conquered the world. To accept the notion of cultural appropriation is to buy into the regime they favor, where corporate entities acting as cultural guardians "own" a treasury of IP, extracting a toll when they allow others to make use of it.

This isn’t to say that accusations of cultural appropriation never arise from a real offense. Usually, where there’s a problem worth noticing, it involves forms of disrespect compounded by power inequities; cultural appropriation is simply the wrong diagnosis. When Paul Simon makes a mint from riffing on mbaqanga music from South Africa, you can wonder if the rich American gave the much poorer Africans who taught it to him their fair share of the proceeds. If he didn’t, the problem isn’t cultural theft but exploitation. If you’re a Sioux, you recognize your people are being ridiculed when some fraternity boys don a parody of the headdress of your ancestors and make whooping noises. But, again, the problem isn’t theft, it’s disrespect. Imagine how an Orthodox Jewish rabbi would feel if a gentile pop-music multimillionaire made a music video in which he used the Kaddish to mourn a Maserati he’d totaled. The offense isn’t appropriation; it’s the insult entailed by trivializing something another group holds sacred. Those who parse these transgressions in terms of ownership have accepted a commercial system that’s alien to the traditions they aim to protect. They have allowed one modern regime of property to appropriate them.

Appiah, like almost everyone nowadays, takes the concept of "intellectual property" to be valid and meaningful description of a coherent thing, and disputes whether it is a good thing or a bad one. I argue that it fails to refer to any coherent thing; that it is an misleading overgeneralization about unrelated laws, so we should reject the concept entirely.