One popular social justice cause today is the movement to stop cultural appropriation: “the adoption of elements or practices of one cultural group by members of another.”1 However, cultural appropriation should be encouraged, not discouraged, because the blending and merging of cultures can improve an existing culture and bring unity to a nation. The movement against cultural appropriation is rooted in envy. It is an unjustified grievance, an attempt to control another person’s actions and restrict their right to freedom of expression.
Except in instances where a minority culture is being mocked or misrepresented, cultural appropriation is a demonstration of respect and admiration for a minority culture. Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, merged “the sounds of gospel, country and what was then called “race music — music by Southern blacks — to make something new.”2 Elvis showed his respect and admiration for black people by writing and performing songs that were directly influenced by their music. When musicians are influenced by other cultures, they can create new forms of music. Cultural appropriation is one way to make an existing culture more vibrant.
In a nation with the right to freedom of speech, the argument against cultural appropriation has no legal standing. Stopping someone from creating works influenced by another culture is a direct violation of their right to freedom of expression. Another reason cultural appropriation cannot be stopped legally is no individual has legal ownership of their culture. Culture appropriation is not copyright infringement because culture is part of the public domain. Because no single individual created their culture, it belongs to everyone, including those who are from a different ethnic group.
Unfortunately, despite having no legal standing, people have been punished for supporting cultural appropriation. In 2017, Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, resigned from his job after complaints about an editorial he wrote in favor of cultural appropriation.3 His right to freedom of speech was not tolerated or respected by the readers of the magazine, and he could not continue in his position. Punishing someone for supporting or practicing cultural appropriation is bully behavior. In a tolerant society, citizens should be free to speak and act according to their own beliefs.
Indignation against cultural appropriation is rooted in envy: “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.”4 When members of a minority culture see that someone has created a product that is influenced by their culture, it gives them cause for complaint. They believe they are victims who have been robbed. In reality, such complaints have nothing to do with social justice. It is envy: resenting another person’s financial success, and wanting it to be taken away from them.
The social justice movement against cultural appropriation is based on a double standard: “a rule or principle which is unfairly applied in different ways to different people.”5 Anyone is free to borrow from white culture, while minority cultures are considered “proprietary.”6 One of the unintended consequences of stopping cultural appropriation is white culture remains the dominant culture on the planet. The more that artists and creators are publicly shamed for appropriating minority cultures, the more likely white culture will continue to be dominant because it is the only culture that remains “open source.”7
The movement to stop cultural appropriation is regressive. Its goal is cultural segregation, to prevent the different cultures in a nation from influencing each other. In previous generations, there were people who wanted to maintain racial purity, to stop inter-racial marriages, which invariably result in the merging and blending of two different cultures. Today, social justice warriors want to maintain cultural purity, to stop cultures from merging and blending through appropriation. Fortunately, cultural appropriation is unstoppable. As people marry and make friends from different cultures, they will naturally adopt some of each other’s beliefs and practices.
Every culture on Earth has something valuable to teach us. Throughout history, nations have appropriated elements of foreign cultures, which often resulted in the advancement of civilization. Culture has the power to unite a nation, to bring people together though a shared enjoyment of books, music, film, theater, art, etc. Culture appropriation can unite people because creative works influenced by two cultures are more likely to appeal to people from both cultures. As long as cultural values or practices are not forced upon someone, the cross-pollination of cultures can be a positive thing. When people adopt the “best practices” of another culture, they improve their lives.
- Sebastian Leck, “Magazine editor quits after outrage over column saying he doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation,” National Post, May 11, 2017, http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/magazine-editor-quits-after-writing-that-he-doesnt-believe-in-cultural-appropriation
- George F. Will, “The left’s misguided obsession with cultural appropriation,” Washington Post, May 12, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-lefts-misguided-obsession-with-cultural-appropriation/2017/05/12/59e518bc-3672-11e7-b4ee-434b6d506b37_story.html
- Leck, “Magazine editor quits,” http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/magazine-editor-quits-after-writing-that-he-doesnt-believe-in-cultural-appropriation
- Oxford Living Dictionaries, s.v. “envy,” accessed June 8, 2017, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/envy
- Oxford Living Dictionaries, s.v. “double standard,” accessed June 14, 2017, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/double_standard
- David Marcus, “All Cultures Are Mine,” The Federalist, October 26, 2015, http://thefederalist.com/2015/10/26/all-cultures-are-mine/