Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Why 'Cultural Appropriation' Makes No Sense

Cultural Appropriation and its connection to Yoga classes have recently been making a big fuss in the news. The concept itself, though ancient, has had a revival lately as this weird leftie notion that any act or display of culture even remotely connected to a somewhat marginalized group of people, is sacred and hence its performance belongs strictly to them. This applies to art, clothing, religious acts and so on: some examples are white people wearing dreads as a fashion statement, non-aboriginals playing aboriginal instruments or drawing aboriginal arts or names of sport clubs - and now more recently Yoga.

The idea is that when anyone but the "rightful cultural owner" of a certain tradition or practice shows interest for or are inspired by the tradition, it constitutes upholding colonial oppression and undermining non-Western traditions, again marginalizing already-marginalized groups.
It is no wonder that most lefties are up in arms about this, and for two reason. First of all it allows the leftie to keep talking about aggregated groups rather than individuals, as if they matter the least, and portray the world as one of colonial oppression and violent suppression of non-Western values. Secondly, it is the perfect tool for condemnation, giving the leftie the moral high-ground regardless of the outcome; if Westerners are practicing yoga or painting aboriginal arts ze can cry "Cultural Appropriation" and speak about colonialism, if the Westerner abstain from this activity (whatever it may be) the righteous Leftie can yell "Disrespect" and point out that the privileged white male isn't paying enough attention and respect to his (current and historical) cultural subjects. Ultimately, any notion of cultural appropriation presupposes a hierarchical stage of relationships and lends itself neatly to nonsense collectivist and anti-capitalist (economic) ideas about exploiting the marginalized.
More interestingly, however, in terms of yoga it is not even historically accurate. Michelle Goldberg, in the the left-leaning publication Slate wrote the following as a response to the Ottawa-incident:
[in the 19th century] Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism. Britain’s colonial administrators tended to be contemptuous of Indian religion; indeed, they treated the purported backwardness of Indian thought and culture as justification for their continued rule. Indian nationalists believed, rightly, that if they could popularize their spiritual practices in the West, they would win support for independence.
Thus nationalists sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s. “By preaching the profound secrets of the Vedanta religion in the Western world, we shall attract the sympathy and regard of these mighty nations, maintaining for ever the position of their teacher in spiritual matters, and they will remain our teachers in all material concerns,” Vivekananda wrote to a journalist friend.

Moreover, As Jaswir Dhillon, a Yoga instructor with what Social Justice Warriors consider the "right cultural bloodline" (ie, cultural and ancestry affected by colonial oppression and knowledge of traditions of yoga) argued:
Practising yoga 'properly' will not make the suffering less and it does not make me feel better. It actually makes me feel worse. Using my suffering to deny others access to the transformational powers of yoga is disempowering not only to me but to everyone around me.
I particularly like this emphasis, since it shows the contradictory nature of SJWs and the 'Cultural Appropriation' debate. The main harm with colonialism, in addition to its violence, military occupation and forcibly imposition of values on other countries was to interfere with other people's lives, to deny them practicing their art, music, culture, tradition, language etc and forcibly shape them in accordance with whatever values you are bringing. Now, the narrow-minded black-and-white-thinking SJW try to deny us from practicing, being inspired by or take part of any tradition not strictly belonging to the Western World, i.e. prevent us from practicing the art and music and culture that our diverse humanity has to offer - essentially keeping intact the separated cultures of the world.

Cultures are not constant, stagnant beings whose acts and traditions are eternally the same or belonging to one group only; they evolve, they change, are influenced by other people and events in history and economic circumstances, colonialism or no. Even the diversity of kinds of yoga itself should give you a hint about its constantly-evolving nature. Moreover, cultural activities, be them singing, dressing, religious acts do not "belong" to one culture, tradition, land or nation in any meaningful sense. In fact, they cannot belong to anyone. Anyone with a smartphone, a mat, pencil, gown or instrument can learn how to do it and quickly adapt it for their particular circumstances. That's the beauty of it! Yoga, in this sense, are what economists call Non-Rivalrous goods; my using it does not deter or secludes you from using it.

But, just to hammer the argument home a little bit more, let's look at a few historical examples.
  • Elvis Presley became The King by being influenced partially by typically "black" blues music. Evil colonialism or genius musician that enriched us all?
  • French, English, Spanish builders and architects in 15th-17th century dreamingly looked back at style and art forms of ancient Rome or Greece and created magnificent buildings humanity as a whole can admire. Evil colonialism?
  •  The literary tradition Magic Realism, conceived and popular in Latin America some 50-60 years ago involving such famous writers as Garcia Marquez, Borges, Isabel Allende all celebrated with countless of prizes, including the Nobel prize in literature influenced countless writers around the world. When Salman Rushdie or Alice Hoffman took interest in these trends, created their own writings in awe, were they culturally appropriating and upholding colonial rule? No, they did not - and we are all so much richer for it, culturally, spiritually, economically.

The same can be said for pretty much any tradition or era in art history, music, sports - or in this case Yoga. You may dislike the wrong sorts of people pursuing Yoga for "the wrong reasons" and we might even argue over what those reasons are, but such practitioners are in no way even remotely close to upholding colonial relationships or oppression. Paying additional respects or refraining from the tradition itself simply on those grounds are more like to ostracise and maintain marginalized and non-Western cultures than to aid them.

I'm heading off to my yoga now, hopefully not distracted by nonsense notions of cultural appropriation or undeserved blame for horrible actions committed centuries and decades before I was born.

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