More incoherent nonsense on cultural appropriation


More and more, I am under the impression that the people who cry foul at cultural appropriation are obstinately indifferent to any sensible understanding of what culture actually is. As pointed out at whyevolutionistrue, the Southern Poverty Law Center seems to be under the impression that a person who engages in an activity inspired by or associated with the culture of an ethnicity or nationality other than their own is committing some kind of egregious act of colonialist thuggery. This is such a high-octane distillation of straw-manning that only a true connoisseur of the art could have crafted it. Does the SPLC really think that anyone who eats a taco, dons an over-sized sombrero, or swings a stick at a pinata on Cinco de Mayo is under the impression that they have tasted the full breadth of Mexican culture? Such a person shouldn’t be chided for their failure to fully situate a taco in the tapestry of creativity and exchange, agony and triumph that shapes Mexican culture, but for being a goddamn ignorant rube.

Moreover, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that even the most obviously fumbled instances of cultural appropriation – the ones most reasonable folks can look at and say, “that was kind of gross” – actually diminish the appropriated culture. This is not a zero sum game. Mexican culture doesn’t become worth less when white people do a poor job of appreciating it. In fact, to argue otherwise is to suggest that the value of Mexican culture is contingent upon the way white people handle it. Way to empower the little guy, SPLC.

It simply doesn’t make sense to equate piecemeal engagement with unfamiliar and full-blooded bigotry and racism. This isn’t the sort of thing that makes the world better for the underprivileged. Rather, it’s the sort of thing that makes it harder to take organizations like the SPLC seriously when they try to draw attention to real problems. This isn’t the GOP trying to keep minority voters away from the polls or shatter the lives of immigrants. It’s people trying to have fun and enjoy a meal.

Avengers – Infinity War: Adventures in Innumeracy

Thanos’ motivations in Avengers: Infinity War make absolutely no fucking sense. Cast as something of benevolent maniac, Thanos wants to kill half the life in the universe to restore “balance”. Putting aside the question of whatever the fuck balance might mean, Thanos seems to be driven by the belief that overpopulation will cause more suffering for life in the cosmos than simply turning half the universe to ash with the snap of a finger. It’s a simple equation: suffering from sudden death < suffering from overpopulation.

But there are a couple of problems with this. While it is true that overpopulation can cause all sorts of problems, it rarely (if ever) directly causes extinction. In natural systems, consumer populations and resource bases fluctuate in cycles of delayed feedbacks.

Very roughly, it goes like this: The bobcats eat too many rabbits, there aren’t enough rabbits to go around, some bobcats starve. Next year, there aren’t very many bobcats to eat the rabbits, so the rabbit population explodes. The year after that, there are plenty of rabbits to go around, so the bobcat population gets a boost. Etcetera etcetera. Of course, most ecosystems have a lot more moving parts. But by and large, that’s how it works, absent some kind of catastrophe. 

Humans – and, presumably, the other advanced civilizations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – have managed to escape the constraints of fixed resource bases. Instead of following boom-bust cycles, they have engineered their agricultural systems to be more and more productive. That’s why human population growth has never led us into a Malthusian Trap where we exceed the world’s carrying capacity and experience a massive die-off as a result. Granted, our growing population has caused all sorts of ecological and environmental problems, but it hasn’t resulted in the dire human consequences some alarmists have predicted.

Still, it is possible that there could be a point where population growth speeds past a species’ ability to increase its resource base. But even in this scenario, Thanos’ cosmic holocaust doesn’t really solve anything. My humble suggestion is that he really ought to have added a mathematician (or maybe just a person who took some math classes) to his crew of Cradle of Filth cosplayers. This is the problem: A=Pe^kt. What? Gibberish? No: populations exhibit exponential growth, and that’s what that little formula captures. P is your starting population, e is a mathematical constant (an irrational number sometimes called Euler’s number), k is the growth rate, and t is the number of years the population spends growing.

The current world population is about 7.3 billion. So let’s assume that is a number that really bothers Thanos and half that number is a figure that really gets his juices flowing. He wants the world population to be 3.65 billion. Fair enough. But does Thanos think that people are going to quit fucking after his magic snap wipes out half their loved ones? If so, he’s got another thing coming.

If we assume that humans keep breeding at their current modest rate of 1.09% a year, then we can figure out how long it will take before Thanos has to murder half the universe again. That is, 7.3=3.65e^.0109t. We know everything else in the equation (e~2.71828182845) so it’s just a matter of solving for t. Which works out to about 63.59 years.

Every 64 years or so, Thanos needs to come back and kill trillions. In about 256 years, he will have caused twice the suffering he would have caused if he just killed everyone to begin with. If the dude is concerned about suffering, he has an odd way of showing it.

But maybe that’s the plot of Infinity War 2: Tony Stark sits Thanos down and does some math and the whole Marvel Universe comes to an end that would make Franz Kafka feel blue.

Granted, these are gripes about a big purple dude in a movie where a 1500 year old demigod gets zapped by something like a coronal mass ejection for a few minutes to forge a magic axe and survives. So, like the movie itself, just consider this a bit of fun – with a soupcon of criticism for a glaring failure in internal logic.

Westworld, Prom, and Cultural Appropriation

Last Friday I read an odd opinion piece about the mostly excellent TV series Westworld. The author argued that the Shogun version of Westworld due to be introduced in season 2 was inherently racist. His reasoning, more or less, is that white people might visit and get a kick out of killing robots that looked like Japanese people.

To assert that there is a special degree of moral depravity in Westworld’s Edo-period sister park simply because the hosts there are phenotypically Asian and some of the people who might visit will surely be white is, at best, a peculiar sentiment. It suggests there is something inherently wrong in a white person killing a sentient robot that looks like a Japanese person that isn’t wrong in a white person killing a sentient robot that happens to share their complexion (and vice versa). That is, killing and torturing robots that don’t look like you is somehow more unethical than killing robots that do, regardless of your motivations.

This just doesn’t scan. Taken to its farthest extreme, it suggests that it is inappropriate for a person to exhibit interest in any culture other than their own. Moreover, it suggests the bounds of propriety can be drawn along lines that neatly track the socially constructed racial boundaries of the modern industrialized West. This itself seems like a racist notion. First, it suggests that what is right and wrong for a person is defined by the color of their skin. This, in opposition to the humbler claim that what is wrong for one person is wrong for all people – regardless of their ethnic affiliations. The sadistic revelry of white folks killing white hosts is just as gross as their sadistic revelry in killing black hosts. They are getting off on perpetrating violence against beings that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. The same would go for a black visitor killing a black host or a white host or a Native American host.

Second, it presumes that cultural boundaries are concrete, definable things. In reality, humans are shaped by a swarm of fluid cultural influences. There are not – and never have been – discrete boundaries between human populations. This is even more true of culture, a phenomenon better defined by plasticity and change than rigid, resilient characteristics. In fact, the most rudimentary feature of culture – the thing that makes it possible in the first place and shapes its evolution over time – is information transmission. Individuals share ideas with one another. They modify them and pass them back and forth. Throughout most of human history this has been a matter of exchange between people that looked very similar. Over time, the networks of human interaction have become increasingly widespread and diffuse – both a sign and symptom of progress. More and more, people have been able to share ideas with people who look very different from them and access ideas shaped by unique regional histories.

Ultimately, this kind of reactionary cultural sensitivity – the impulse to say certain classes of behavior are especially fraught because they are executed by individuals who look a certain way or stand in certain relations to parts of recent history –  is a breed of thought that can’t stand without some kind of implicit appeal to racial or cultural essentialism. The idea that the elements of cultural experience open to a person can be defined by what they look like – or, more precisely, how much they resemble the people who spent the last four or five centuries brutalizing people with skin darker than their own – is hideous. It is the kind of thinking that anti-racists should be looking to eradicate.

Now, it certainly could be true that a person might visit Shogun World because they get an extra kick out of killing robots that look Asian. This would be uncontroversially racist. By that measure, Shogun Westworld opens the door to forms of brutality that are a step more repulsive that just killing things that are virtually indistinguishable from humans for pleasure. But defining such instances of racism would require case-by-case engagement with individuals, something that a growing swath of people seem to resist like the plague.

This line of tribalist, us-them thinking used to be the province of reactionary social conservatives and nationalists. But now a lot of high-minded liberal folks are buying tickets for their own version of that ride. So doing, they are eager to define the realm of the permissible for individuals in terms of the groups they best match according to recent history and superficial appearances. White people need to stick to white people stuff, because for a couple centuries some white people executed savage campaigns of murder and theft, justifying it with absurd and misguided appeals to their own innate superiority. All the while, they tried to shove their supposedly superior culture down “inferior” people’s their throats.

That captures the broad strokes of a lot of recent history, but to treat individuals – on the strict basis of the way they look – as culpable for that history just perpetuates old divisions from a fresh angle. It’s a poisonous outlook. We ought to be trying to root out our tendencies to judge and classify people according to their superficial similarities to others, not masking them behind a facade of enlightened concern for the plight of the mistreated or underprivileged Other.

These are concerns recapitulated in the strange debacle unfolding over a Utah girl who wore a Chinese-style dress to prom. Currently, she is being excoriated by victimhood police for cultural appropriation. Seriously? The girl saw a dress. She thought it looked pretty. Now she is culpable for, what, the Opium Wars? The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882? The cruel exploitation and persecution of Chinese immigrants in 19th and early 20th century America? Because she doesn’t have epicanthic folds or the right complexion? Because the recent history of her ancestors doesn’t neatly overlap with the recent history of someone else’s? Fuck that.

I have an odd piece of indistinctly Asian wall art. I don’t know where it came from. It was hanging on the wall of my house since I was a little kid and I took it with me when I moved out. I like it. Should I give it to the next Asian person I see with an apology for the heinous shit some dead person loosely related to me might have done to some dead person loosely related to them? Should I drop it off at the local Chinese Cultural Center with my sincerest regrets for the vicious race riots that took place in California, Oregon, and Wyoming in the late 1800s?

Those who look to heap opprobrium on other people for indulging an interest in unfamiliar cultures and experiences aren’t just engaging in a campaign of gibbering lunacy. They are engaging in a regressive, holier-than-thou crusade that can only serve to perpetuate cultural and ethnic divisions.

That, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean they are racist. But one of the more insidious features of racism is that you can perpetuate it without actually harboring any conscious ill will toward another group. You just have to buy in to the claim that individuals are defined by their relationship to ethnic groups or strands of history. That is the deranged thinking at the heart of all racism, implicit or explicit, and it is the kind of thinking liberals, progressives, humanists or anyone else interested in the widespread flourishing of all humans should be looking to squash.