In 1961, the anthropologist William Rowe documented a curious feature of Indian village life. When those of a lower caste—particularly if they were “untouchable”—wore clothing containing threads worn by a higher landlord caste, members of the landlord caste tore the garments from them, beat them and fined them. Rowe called this behavior “upcasteing” and observed that it was a serious social offense.
Similar practices barring access to signifiers of a caste or social grouping superior to one’s own can be found throughout the historical record. In the 7th century B.C., Greek law stipulated that a free-born woman “may not wear gold jewelry or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan.” In ancient Rome, only Roman senators were allowed to wear Tyrian purple on their togas—ordinary Romans could not. In feudal Japan, people of every class submitted to strict laws about what they could and could not wear, according to their social rank. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the nobility policed the clothing of the middle classes, making sure to keep them in their place. In any society in which there has been high levels of inequality—where monarchs and aristocrats have ruled over commoners and slaves—equality in dress has been considered, at the very least, bad manners.
While sumptuary laws (rules that govern conspicuous consumption, especially of food and clothing) fell mostly out of fashion in the West during the Enlightenment period, they appear to be back in style again, thanks to the orthodoxies of social-justice activism fueled by social media. On April 28, a tweet appeared which read:
My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress. https://t.co/vhkNOPevKD
— Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare) April 27, 2018
The tweet was retweeted nearly 42,000 times and “liked” 178,000 times—viral in social media terms. The flare-up was reported on internationally, and dozens of op-eds both condemning and defending the tweet and the dress spilled forth. Writing in The Independent, Eliza Anyangwe officiously declared that the teenager who wore the offending dress, Keziah Daum, was “the embodiment of a system that empowers white people to take whatever they want, go wherever they want and be able to fall back on: ‘Well, I didn’t mean any harm.’” The title of the piece was “Cultural Appropriation Is Never Harmless.” But it failed to define what cultural appropriation actually is.
For most observers, these complaints are bemusing and baffling. For many, no defense or condemnation of cultural appropriation is required, because such complaints are almost beyond the realm of comprehension in the first place. Without cultural appropriation we would not be able to eat Italian food, listen to reggae, or go to Yoga. Without cultural appropriation we would not be able to drink tea or use chopsticks or speak English or apply algebra, or listen to jazz, or write novels. Almost every cultural practice we engage in is the byproduct of centuries of cross-cultural pollination. The future of our civilization depends on it continuing.
Yet the concept was not always so perplexing. Originally derived from sociologists writing in the 1990s, its usage appears to have first been adopted by indigenous peoples of nations tainted by histories of colonization, such as Canada, Australia and the United States. Understandably, indigenous communities have been protective of their sacred objects and cultural artifacts, not wishing the experience of exploitation to be repeated generation after generation. Although one might be quizzical of complaints about a girl wearing a cheongsam to her prom (the United States has never colonized China) even the most tough-minded skeptic should be able to see why indigenous peoples who have historically had their land and territories taken away from them might be unwilling to “share their culture” unconditionally. Particularly when it is applied to the co-opting of a people’s sacred and religious iconography for the base purposes of profit-making, the concept of cultural appropriation seems quite reasonable.
Nevertheless, the concept quickly becomes baffling when young Westerners, such as Mr. Lam, of the cheongsam tweet, use the term as a weapon to disrupt the natural process of cultural exchange that happens in cosmopolitan societies in which culture is, thankfully, hybrid. When controversies erupt over hoop earrings or sombrero hats or sushi or braids or cannabis-themed parties, the concept of cultural appropriation appears to have departed from its formerly understood meaning—that is, to protect sacred or religious objects from desecration and exploitation. It appears that these newer, more trivial (yet vicious) complaints are the modern-day incarnation of sumptuary laws.
Elites once policed what their social inferiors could wear, in part to remind them of their inferiority, and in part to retain their own prestige and exclusivity. In Moral Time, the sociologist Donald Black, explains that in feudal and medieval societies, sumptuary laws were often articulated with religious or moralizing language, but their intention and effect was simply to provide a scaffold for existing social hierarchies. Writing in the 15th century, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne made the astute observation in his essay “Of Sumptuary Laws”: “’Tis strange how suddenly and with how much ease custom in these indifferent things establishes itself and becomes authority.”
New orthodoxies of social justice have arguably done the most obvious damage in the world of fiction writing. In the past five years, concerns about cultural appropriation in literature have exploded, with Young Adult writers being “dragged” online for the sins of appropriation while sensitivity readers are employed by publishers to ensure that minorities are represented in a sufficiently “correct” manner. Perhaps not coincidentally literary sales have reportedly declined by 35 percent over the same time period.
In 2016, a flare-up exploded over author Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival—where she infamously wore a sombrero hat while delivering her speech about freedom in fiction writing. This prompted Australian-Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied to publish a purple-prose version of the event in The Guardian:
The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against they [sic] grey plastic flooring, harmonizing with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question.
“How is this happening?”
Yet Shriver’s core argument was so self-evident as to be banal. She proposed that if a writer could not put herself in the shoes of her characters—who might be from a different cultural background than herself—then fiction would cease to exist: “The kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne novel to begin with,” she observed.
Abdel-Magied did not think such an argument was self-evident. On the contrary, she wrote:
In demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomized the kind of attitude that led to the normalization of imperialist, colonial rule: “I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”
The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is [sic] important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…”
Shriver’s full speech can be read here. To argue that it “drips of racial supremacy” is to project something that is simply not contained in the text. She defends fiction as a vehicle for empathy, not derision. Nowhere does she argue that the “right to identity” be “given up.”
Yet Shriver’s metaphorical kneecapping was complete. Her speech was officially disavowed by the organizers of the festival, who threw together a “Right of Reply” seminar session the following day. It is important to note that it was never suggested that Shriver actually committed colonial crimes that had harmed people of color. It was simply suggested that she was guilty by association, presumably because of the color of her own skin.
Such events are surely baffling to anyone over the age of 30. It was only a few years ago when writers were celebrated for their imaginative and empathic reach if they wrote about characters who were from a different background than the author’s own. When Philip Roth wrote probingly and unflinchingly about a character who was black but passed as Jewish in The Human Stain, his book became a national bestseller and won numerous accolades including the New York Times “Editor’s Choice” Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. When the book was released, the critic Michiko Kakutani offered the following review:
It is a book that shows how the public zeitgeist can shape, even destroy, an individual’s life, a book that takes all of Roth’s favorite themes of identity and rebellion and generational strife and refracts them not through the narrow prism of the self but through a wide-angle lens that exposes the fissures and discontinuities of 20th-century life.
In 2013, GQ listed The Human Stain as one of the best books of the 21st century. Arguably, such a book could not be written today, and would almost certainly cause a firestorm if published. That’s a pretty sharp turnaround in sensibility in a very short period of time.
The context surrounding the drama at the Brisbane Writers Festival is important for understanding why it happened. Abdel-Magied migrated to Australia at the age of two and, from a relatively young age, entered the public sphere as a “model minority.” She was an articulate activist and an accomplished student (becoming an engineer and memoir writer) who appeared capable of promoting a modern, sophisticated image of an urban Muslim-Australian. For her activism, she was showered with awards and publicly funded appointments, and given international trips for the express purpose of promoting Australia abroad. Yet for all her accomplishments, accolades, money, and travel opportunities—or perhaps in exchange for them—the young woman was stuck with the felt identity of a victim. This apparent feeling of victimhood was so strong that she interpreted arguments for creative license in art to be “lay[ing] the foundation for genocide.”
Many people—both then and now—find it hard to understand how such complaints can come from a place of good faith. Activists like Abdel-Magied seem unwilling to empathize with those who may genuinely want to show appreciation for cultures which are not their own, or writers who genuinely want to empathize with those who are different or marginalized, or simply to reach beyond a single layer or caste of the multicultural societies in which they live, an ambition for which writers and thinkers have historically been applauded.
Almost every cultural practice we engage in is the byproduct of centuries of cross-cultural pollination.
What also seems odd is that activists like Abdel-Magied rarely appear to attempt to persuade others to engage with the foreign cultures they are purportedly defending in more sensitive or better-informed ways. Rather, their complaints have a hectoring, absolutist quality, focusing on the disrespect and lack of deference that white people have shown them. Listening to these complaints, it is difficult to come away with the view that they are about anything other than exercises in power. While being an effective social-media activist, Abdel-Magied is not a particularly good writer, which means identity-as-victim is therefore valuable currency at a writers festival. If literature is not reducible to identity, and representation is not a group property, then her own claim to literary significance would be a dubious one.
It is by considering the power dynamics at play that the logic of cultural appropriation starts to become clear. In a culture that increasingly rewards victimhood with status, in the form of op-ed space, speaking events, awards, book deals, general deference, and critical approbation, identity has become a very valuable form of currency. It makes sense that people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to get some. Expressing offense over a white person wearing a sombrero hat might seem ridiculous on its face—but for those who live inside these sententiously moralistic bubbles, it may be both a felt injury and a rational strategic choice.
Complaints about cultural appropriation are not really complaints, they are demands. When Abdel-Magied walked out on Shriver, it was not because of her insensitivity, it was because of her defiance: her refusal to kowtow to the orthodoxies written up by her moral betters, from which Abdel-Magied’s own claims to significance and social status are derived.
In their newly released book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, the moral sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describe the three main moral cultures that exist today, which they give the shorthand labels of dignity, honor, and victimhood. A dignity culture, which has been the dominant moral culture of Western middle classes for some time, has a set of moral values that promotes the idea of moral equality and was crystallized in Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that people ought to be judged according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Victimhood culture departs from dignity culture in several important ways. Moral worth is in large part defined by the color of one’s skin, or at least one’s membership in a fixed identity group: i.e., women, people of color, LGBTIQ, Muslims, or indigenous peoples. Such groups are sacred, and a lack of deference to them is seen as a sign of deviance. The reverse is true for those who belong to groups that are considered historical oppressors: whites, males, straight people, Zionists. Anyone belonging to an “oppressor” group is stained by their privilege, or “whiteness,” and is cast onto the moral scrapheap.
In a recent interview in the online magazine which I edit, Quillette, I asked Campbell and Manning what they thought about cultural appropriation. They explained that they found such complaints baffling, like everybody else, but that they also “illustrate victimhood culture quite well.” One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.”
One might make the case that while complaints about cultural appropriation are annoying, they are ultimately harmless. What is the harm in showing deference to peoples who have historically been the victims of exploitation, discrimination, and unfair treatment? What is the harm in showing respect and compliance with these new rules—isn’t it a way of making up for past sins?
The short answer to these questions is, no. The notion that a person can be held as responsible for actions that he or she did not commit strikes at the very heart of our conception of human rights and justice.
We used to take calls for collective punishment much more seriously. In the 1949 Geneva Convention it was determined that: “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed.” Collective punishment was seen as a tactic designed to intimidate and subdue an entire population. The drafters of the Geneva Convention clearly had in mind the atrocities committed in WWI and WWII where entire villages and communities suffered mass retribution for the resistance activities of a few. In their commentary on the outlawing of collective punishment the International Red Cross stated: “A great step forward has been taken. Responsibility is personal and it will no longer be possible to inflict penalties on persons who have themselves not committed the acts complained of.”
In times of peace, collective punishment may come in the form of social media dust-ups over sombrero hats or Chinese dresses. Gradual softening on the taboo of collective punishment does not bode well for the health of liberal democracies. Which is also why it is important for us all to remember that social-justice activists who complain about cultural appropriation only represent themselves, and not the minority groups to which they belong. When Jeremy Lam complained about Keziah Daum’s cheongsam, other Asian-Americans and mainland Chinese people rebuked him for being “offended over nothing.” Hundreds of Chinese and Asian-American people have now responded to Daum’s original tweet commenting on how pretty she looked in the dress, and how they felt that she did nothing wrong. Replies include:
Hey, I’m a Chinese and I think you look gorgeous in that dress. Thank you for wearing it and I’m sorry for what you’ve suffered.
— Cheryl (@Cherylbxn) May 4, 2018
You look gorgeous in the dress. I am a Chinese who lives in Vancouver and I believe Mr. Jeremy’s radical view only represents himself in this diversified world. The birth of every form of culture has unique history background, but we shouldn’t live in that history forever.
— Yuzhe Niu (@yuzhe_niu) May 4, 2018
I am a Chinese, I like seeing a beautiful girl like you wearing this beautiful dress. Forget about those negative comments. On the first day it was created, qipao was born for women who wish to showcase their youth and personalities, be who you are, this is the culture of qipao.
— GleamF (@gleamfeng) May 4, 2018
As these responses make clear, victimhood culture only exists in certain insulated bubbles. It is by no means the dominant moral culture in the United States, nor any other nation—yet. Most of us still live in a dignity culture where equality, diversity, and inclusion remain paramount principles to aspire to.
As the drama of social-justice activism unfolds, one of the biggest mistakes we could make is to think that the loudest and most dogmatic voices of minority groups speak for these groups as a whole. Minority groups are not homogenous, and are full of people who are conservative, liberal, apolitical, and dissenting. Just because a progressive activist claims to speak on behalf of a marginalized group does not mean we have to indulge their delusions of grandeur.
It also would be a mistake to think that multiculturalism has been a failure. Human beings have a remarkable capacity for cooperation and solidarity with each other—including those whom they are not related to—when they feel that their neighbor is on their team. What helps people move past cultural, ethnic, or religious differences is sharing in a common goal, and feeling a common bond of humanity with their fellow citizens. When activists draw attention to differences between cultures, and attempt to draw boundaries around them, punishing those who step out of line, this sets the stage for escalating intolerance and division. We must not let them succeed.
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Claire Lehmann is the Sydney-based Editor-in-Chief ofQuillette.