Identity Ad Absurdum: A Critique of the Cultural Appropriation Argument.

By Robert Hanna

“Diogenes Sheltering in His Barrel,” by John William Waterhouse

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#12: Neo-Kantianism and anti-Kantianism: a primer for contemporary philosophers.

#11: From Bertrand Russell to Brazilian carnaval: how to make the world as it could be made.

#10: The crisis in higher education–what is to be done?

#9: Philosophy and pseudonymy.

#8: A philosophy of the future is already here and now.

#7: You are identical to your life, for better or worse.

#6: Was Socrates an anarchist?

#5: Conceptual analysis from a non-conceptualist point of view.

#4: Further implications of non-conceptualism: sometimes, hell is other species.

#3: Implications of non-conceptualism: the existential counterpunch.

#2: The incoherence of public philosophy, and what can be done about it.

#1: What is “the debate about non-conceptual content,” and why does it matter so damned much?

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#19: The incoherence and impossibility of personal immortality.

#18: A new argument against capital punishment.

#17: Fear, denial, and loathing in the philosophy of mind.

#16: The political aesthetics of outer space.

#15: The paradox of distributive social justice, and what is to be done?

#14: How a priori knowledge is really possible.

#13: Is a priori knowledge really possible? Yes; here’s proof.

#12: Is human free agency really possible? Yes; here’s how.

#11: What is democracy?

#10: Fear, loathing, and Pascal in Las Vegas: radical agnosticism.

#9: The philosophy of policing, crime, and punishment.

#8: The philosophy of borders, immigration, and refugees.

#7: The philosophy of old age.

#6: Faces, masks, personal identity, and Teshigahara.

#5: Processualism, organicism, and the two waves of the organicist revolution.

#4: Realistic idealism: ten theses about mind-dependence.

#3: Kant, universities, The Deep(er) State, and philosophy.

#2: When Merleau-Ponty Met The Whiteheadian Kripke Monster.

#1: Introductory; The rise and fall of Analytic philosophy; Cosmopolitanism and the real philosophy of the future; How to socialize the philosophy of mind.

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101. Identity ad absurdum: a critique of the cultural appropriation argument. One of the ancillary rational obligations implied by the classical Kantian enlightenment exhortation, Sapere aude!, dare to know!, dare to think for yourself!, is the obligation to think clearly, coherently, and consistently, aiming at the ideal logical goal of argumentative soundness (that is, formal validity + true premises).

So when I first learned about the cultural appropriation argument I was appalled, because it seemed intuitively obvious to me that it’s unclear, incoherent, fallacious and/or inconsistent, and unsound.

But at the time, I didn’t pursue that thought any further.

As the Wikipedia article on “Cultural Appropriation” points out, various writers have already criticized it:

The concept of cultural appropriation has also been widely criticized.[26][27][28] Some writers on the topic note that the concept is often misunderstood or misapplied by the general public, and that charges of “cultural appropriation” are at times misapplied to situations such as eating food from a variety of cultures, or learning about different cultures.[29] Commentators who criticize the concept believe that the act of cultural appropriation does not meaningfully constitute a social harm, or that the term lacks conceptual coherence.[30][31] Others argue that the term sets arbitrary limits on intellectual freedom and artists’ self-expression, reinforces group divisions, or itself promotes a feeling of enmity or grievance, rather than liberation.[31][32][33][34][27]

Nevertheless, when I read this article in The Guardian recently, “Stitch-Up: Online Sewing Community at War Over Cultural Appropriation,” — no, I’m not making this up — then I decided that it’s high time for me to dare to think and write for myself on this one, and therefore to formulate my worries about the cultural appropriation argument as explicitly and cogently as I can.

102. An essential thing to note about the cultural appropriation argument is that it presupposes the widely-held moral and political doctrine of identitarianism.

Identitarianism, in turn, is the following four-part view:

(i) that people are defined primarily in terms of their falling under a certain social group-type and/or their social group-allegiance (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, national origin or citizenship, language, economic class, social roles of all kinds, social institutions of all kinds especially including religions, etc., etc.),

(ii) that special moral virtues and special positive moral value, or goodness, are attributed to all members of that social group and to that social group itself, call it the We,

(iii) that special moral vices and special negative moral disvalue, or badness, are attributed to members of certain other social groups and to those groups themselves, who are then collectively intensely distrusted, or even excoriated-and-vilified, as the Other, and

(iv) that the creation of this Other also leads to intense or even obsessive fears that We will be corrupted, infiltrated, and miscegenated by the Other culture, members of which are then perceived to exist both covertly inside (as carriers of disease, or impurities) and also overtly outside (as invasive threats surrounding the We) Our culture.

103. Identitarianism is sharply opposed to dignitarianism, especially the Kantian version of it, which says

(i) that everyone, everywhere, has absolute, non-denumerable, non-instrumental, innate moral value, aka dignity, simply by virtue of their being persons (i.e., conscious, caring, cognizing, self-conscious rational animals with a further capacity for free will), and that dignity is a fundamental, irreducible, and therefore primitively given feature of persons that cannot either be reduced or erased by any bad actions or bad habits of character, or increased or sanctified by any good actions or good habits of character, and

(ii) that everyone, everywhere ought to treat themselves and everyone else with sufficient respect for their dignity.

It directly follows from this that, properly speaking, no one can either lose their own dignity, earn their own dignity, or regain their own dignity; but at the same time, it’s certainly true that anyone can either fail to treat themselves with sufficient respect for their own dignity or succeed in doing so.

If identitarianism is true, then dignitarianism is false; and if dignitarianism is true, then identitarianism is false.

More specifically, from a dignitarian point of view, the basic problems with identitarianism are

(i) its cultural relativism,

(ii) its tribalism, and, correspondingly, its

(iii) anti-cosmopolitanism.

Moreover, while fully acknowledging the emotional attractiveness and psychological power of identitarian thinking–manifesting itself, e.g., as intense pride or even passionate love directed at the We, and intense distrust or even visceral hatred directed at the Other–dignitarians also believe that the only morally and politically legitimate use of the concept of “identity” in the identitarian sense (as opposed to, say, personal identity) is that it tells us how those who seek to oppress people, use group-identity specifically in order to create for themselves classes of Others, to whom (as I’ve mentioned above) they attribute special moral vices, moral badness, or even the outright denial of their personhood, aka, “dehumanization,” in order to rationalize (in the pejorative sense, which means self-deceivingly providing bad and insufficient reasons for justification) their fear-driven morally bad and evil treatment of those Others, whether perceived to exist covertly inside or overtly outside the We-culture.

But on the other hand, for members of that oppressed culture, now experienced from the inside as a We-culture of its own, the oppressed We, to attribute special moral virtues or moral value to themselves or their culture, just because of their being-oppressed, aka just because of their victimhood, is actually to “internalize the oppressor,” and mistakenly, even tragically, to define themselves in terms of the very features that their oppressors used for the attribution of morally negative characteristics in order to rationalize (in the pejorative sense) their morally bad and evil treatment of that oppressed group, perceived and treated as the Other.

104. Now as I mentioned, the cultural appropriation argument presupposes identitarianism.

But the cultural appropriation argument also has two importantly different versions:

(i) a generalized version, and

(ii) a specific version.

So I’ll explicitly formulate and critically analyze both versions of the argument.

105. The Generalized Cultural Appropriation Argument, aka The GCAA

1. Every culture rightly or wrongly attributes special moral virtues and moral value to its historical traditions, to all its past, present, and future members, and to itself.

2. Now let’s assume the existence of a culture C.

3. Therefore, it’s morally impermissible for any member of any other culture to adapt, use, or otherwise appropriate anything of cultural significance that belongs to C.

For the purposes of criticism, we postulate (not implausibly) that premises 1 and 2 are both true.

Nevertheless The GCAA is a clearly a fallacious and unsound argument, for two reasons.

First, if culture C is indeed correct in attributing special moral virtue and moral values to itself, then if it’s morally impermissible for any other culture to appropriate any culturally significant items from C, then

either (i) it must also be morally impermissible for members of C to intentionally and voluntarily contribute any culturally significant item in C to any other culture,

or else (ii) that any culturally significant item in C which is indeed morally virtuous or good automatically and inherently turns morally vicious and bad whenever it occurs in any other culture,

both of which are patently absurd.

Second, if The GCAA were sound, then by the same token it’s morally impermissible for any members of C, or C itself, to appropriate anything from any other culture, which is also patently absurd.

For example, if The GCAA were sound, then no member of C could permissibly speak any language that has its origin in another culture, which is nonsense on stilts.

106. The Specific Cultural Appropriation Argument, aka The SCAA

1. Every culture rightly or wrongly attributes special moral virtues and moral value to its historical traditions, to all its past, present, and future members, and to itself.

2. It’s morally impermissible for anyone, whether non-systematically or systematically, to oppress anyone else, whether white or non-white.

3. Historically, a non-trivial number of (although not all) white people and a non-trivial number of (even if not all) white cultures have non-systematically or systematically oppressed members of non-white cultures, e.g., via colonialism.

4. Large-scale capitalism is rationally unjustified and immoral because it systematically alienates, commodifies, and exploits people.

5. Now let’s assume the existence of a non-white culture C.

6. Therefore it’s morally impermissible for any contemporary white person to adapt, use, or otherwise appropriate anything of cultural significance that belongs to C.

For the purposes of criticism, we postulate (again, not implausibly) that premises 1–5 are all true.

Nevertheless, The SCAA is clearly a fallacious and unsound argument, for three reasons.

First, even if, historically, a non-trivial number of white cultures and white people have oppressed members of non-white cultures, it doesn’t follow that merely by virtue of an act of cultural appropriation, any given contemporary white person is either non-systematically or systematically oppressing any non-white person.

On the contrary, it is not only really possible but also at least sometimes (and perhaps even fairly often) actually the case that this particular act of cultural appropriation expresses mild or even profound respect for the dignity of non-white people.

Second, even if large-scale capitalism is immoral, it doesn’t follow that merely by virtue of an act of cultural appropriation, any given contemporary white person is acting immorally, since many acts of cultural appropriation either have no connection whatsoever with large-scale capitalism (although they may engage in small-scale capitalism) or else are inherently anti-capitalist.

For example, it is not only really possible but also at least sometimes (and perhaps even fairly often) actually the case that such appropriative acts have essentially aesthetic or spiritual intentions and/or implications, even if some money (or its economic equivalent) is also exchanged.

And it is not only really possible but also sometimes (even if not so very often) actually the case that such acts have essentially anarcho-socialist or otherwise socialist intentions or implications, and therefore explicitly or implicitly criticize, or outright reject, large-scale capitalism.

Third, if The SCAA were sound, then by the same token no member of C itself could ever permissibly appropriate anything of cultural significance from any other non-white culture C1, if a non-trivial number of C-people, the We-people, had ever

either (i) non-systematically or systematically oppressed a non-trivial number of members of C1, thereby treating them as the Other,

or (ii) realized anything of economic significance, e.g., profit, under large-scale capitalism, by means of doing so,

which is patently absurd.

For it is in the very nature of identitarian cultures to create Other-cultures, and at the very least to distrust them intensely but also very often to hate and oppress them, or in any case, to internalize their own oppressors; and non-white identitarian cultures are no less likely to do this in relation to other non-white cultures, than white identitarian cultures are to do this in relation to other white cultures.

We need only remember, for example, how the Imperial Japanese treated the Chinese, Korean, and other Asian peoples in the period leading up to and through World War II, or the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi and of moderate Hutu by radical identitarian Hutu in 1994, to find notoriously horrendous examples of non-white people and their cultures oppressing non-white people and their cultures.

Correspondingly, the genocidal treatment of Jewish and Roma people by Nazi Germany, and the Armenian genocide by the Turks starting in 1915, are notoriously horrendous examples of white people and their cultures oppressing white people and their cultures.

And, tragically, there are all-too-many other horrendous examples of non-white culture–>non-white culture oppression and white culture–>white culture oppression, to be found in the 20th century alone.

So if The SCAA were sound, then no member of C could permissibly speak any language that has its origin in another non-white culture C1, if a non-trivial number of C-people, the We-people, had ever

either (i) non-systematically or systematically oppressed a non-trivial number of members of C1, thereby treating them as the Other,

or (ii) realized anything of economic significance, e.g., profit, under large-scale capitalism, by means of speaking this language,

which again is nonsense on stilts.

107. Therefore, and to conclude my critical analysis,

first, not only are The GCAA and The SCAA both unsound arguments, but also they both individually lead to absurdity, and

second, since The GCAA and The SCAA both presuppose identitarianism, then identitarianism is false (or at the very least cannot be true), by reductio ad absurdum.

— And I’ll also add, as a postscript, that by way of a specific commonplace or everyday application of the conclusion of this critical analysis, it seems to me that it was and is perfectly morally and politically OK for the small New Zealand online sewing company, Papercut Patterns, to release, in June 2017, a pattern for making a “square-cut short jacket, with optional side ties, … with the name Kochi Kimono”:

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AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 288

Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 22 June 2019

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