When Is Appropriation Appropriate?

Nabeelah Jaffer considers how culture comes together:

[Philosophers James O.] Young and [Conrad G.] Brunk are among the first philosophers to have begun exploring the morality of different forms of appropriation, and in The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation (2009) they deem it ‘reasonable’ to be offended at the inauthentic representation of your religious beliefs. But Young also argues that giving reasonable offence might not be morally wrong. …

Every nation – every community – has its dish_tartaninvented rituals and symbols, which spring up to help people grasp the terms of this intangible ‘communion’ in everyday life, fading away when they no longer do the job. And then new practices that suit new ways of life rise up to fill their place. Sir Walter Scott improvised many supposedly ‘ancient’ clan tartans in the 19th century – the cloth that had once been banned as a symbol of Scottish patriotism was being reimagined as a symbol of British unity. Middle Eastern belly dancing might originally have been connected with pagan fertility rituals or with travellers from India, just as early Christmas celebrations appropriated the festival of the pagan winter solstice. Private aural confession emerged as a Christian ritual in Ireland only in the sixth century, before spreading as a sacrament to the rest of Europe. All rituals and symbols are constructed, and inherited tradition is not always the best test of cultural authenticity. Religions and cultures – and indeed nations – have survived only by being open to new ways of representing themselves. Few have scrupled about drawing inspiration from others in the process. No matter how offensive – and even destructive – cultural appropriation can be, it is almost impossible to separate every murky incident from this wider process of exchange and adaptation.

(Photo: In a full Stewart Clan Tartan Kilt, Norm Taflinger, 3rd Air Force, RAF Mildenhall, plays “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes as part of a memorial held at RAF Lakenheath, via Flickr user Beverly & Pack)