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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s