Wednesday, December 03, 2014

On Offense

K. says...

"So what is your take on "cultural appropriation"? Seems to be a hot topic on tumblr and instagram. Got to an argument about this on the last one."

The primary irony here is that this conversation about cultural appropriation is being had by white Europeans.  The secondary irony is that worries about cultural appropriation are being dismissed by people from a nation whose self-identity, self-worth, and history is almost entirely about its distinct culture.

The danger with cultural appropriation is that it dilutes cultural identity, which can be extremely important. (E.g. you know how American black people often have ridiculous-sounding names? This is an extreme backlash against the destruction of their distinct identity after forced integration into the white American cultural space. Similarly, Hong Kong Chinese are very protective of their mix of Anglo and Chinese names, as this gives them a cultural identity that is distinct from the Mainland.) This is very difficult to internalize for people who are generally part of a dominant, unthreatened culture.

The difficulty with explaining this to Estonians is that at this point, they are so starved for worldwide attention that cultural appropriation would not be seen as a necessarily bad thing - the first example I thought of was a Kanye West remix of Tõnis Mägi's "Koit", but I expect most people would go "that's awesome!". Let's try to think of something more impactful: imagine yourself in a conversation with a Soviet Union apologist who is disparaging the low level of specifically Estonian culture, with its dumb and useless music like Tanel Padar; whereas in the olden days, Estonians had access to the works of superior Soviet artists like Georg Ots.

TL;DR: Be aware that even if something doesn't seem like a big deal to you, it might still be a big deal to someone else; not everyone's experiences mirror your own.

That I get and agree with. Someone talking bad about a particular culture or insulting it. But at the same time, items in itself don't have any meaning. People give them context which is important, especially for me in this case. This was a really beautiful photo of a female caucasian wearing a feathered native american headpiece to advertise it. The company selling them gets these pieces from native americans who actually make them. For me it was kinda the wrong place to feel offended. There was nothing insulting there (unless you blame the model for being born white since some other white people now and many in the past were doing bad things). Especially if you think on those cheap Halloween native american costumes and all of the 'acting stereotypical' ways. For me the interesting thing was that the main vocalists in this case were white teenage caucasians from Europe. There were quite a few fully or partially native americans who loved the photo.
If someone who is a supporter of the Soviet Union and its actions is insulting Estonian cultures or traditions, I could care less since I will certainly not be able to change his mind. Getting offended would just be a winning situation for the one doing the insulting. Maybe if they burned something on a political note? But in this case, if someone is doing it in supportive and positive way, why feel offended? But... as an article I once linked sad... offendedness depends mostly on the person who feels offended.

Okay, several points:

In the situation you described, the most relevant aspect is that this is probably being *sold* to white people. And if it's being sold to white people in America, then yes, I can see how that would be seen as a terrible thing to do - marginalizing a culture that has already been severely damaged by your own. Instead of providing life opportunities and developmental aid to Native American communities, the buyers are behaving like tourists - looking and pointing at the noble savages, throwing them a few coins and bringing back souvenirs to show their friends at home. This is not necessarily the attitude of the buyers, but it could certainly be construed that way by the Native Americans. 

Neither you nor I get to decide what Native Americans should or should not be offended by. And this extend to other situations. You don't get to tell me I shouldn't be offended at an antisemitic joke. I don't get to tell you that you shouldn't be offended at a sexist joke. As long as I realize that there is actually some reasonable historic/cultural background to explain why someone of another culture/minority *might* be offended, then I am going to be extremely weary of setting limits on their behalf regarding what is and isn't offensive. (We can have a fascinating conversation about why one joke about Jews is antisemitic and another one isn't, if you're patient.)

Now, there's certainly a good argument to be had against meta-offense; offense on behalf of another minority. But...

The situation you described - I can understand why this would horrify Europeans. Again, Estonia is sort of unique here because the community and culture has existed on this piece of land ever since there's been human habitation, and has pretty much never been in an expansionary war (but I tell you what, the people at the tourist office in Sigtuna were *genuinely* upset at me when I asked them where was the site of the former great church that the Estonian raiders burned down). So Estonians have never had to apologize, as a nation, for being extremely nasty to another nation. Almost every Western European nation has had to do that - I think the Irish are the only exception? Whereas white Americans most certainly have something to apologize for - several times over - but are, as a stereotype, militantly refusing to admit that they've done anything wrong, or at least that they are supposed to feel bad about something that their grandparents did.

So I can certainly understand the sequence of thought that leads Europeans to be embarrassed on behalf of the Caucasian race at the behavior of white Americans.

(Side note: as a member of the linguistics student minority, I am deeply and personally offended at your use of "I could care less" in that form. :P)

As for not being able to change someone's mind: that is not necessarily true. It's *difficult*, but it does happen occasionally, and when it does, it's worth the effort. Mostly it happens with the help of a strong external trigger, but that trigger needs to land on a fertile soil of awareness that there are other ways of thinking out there, and that apparently rational people subscribe to them. The long-form treatment of this is the film "American History X" with Edward Norton, which I recommend highly. The short-form is the old quote, I think attributed to Margaret Thatcher... Anyone who is not a socialist when they are young have no soul, and anyone who is not a capitalist when they are old have no brain. 

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