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.

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.

Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

 This seemed to me a clear classification error. My predecessor in managing the science collections probably hadn’t been particularly well-versed in scientific methodology or the criteria deployed in distinguishing science from pseudoscience. They’d purchased or received a book that had all the superficial trappings of science and made the understandable mistake of placing it among science books.

 Curious, I decided to do a bit of research. Turns out, my predecessor had indeed made an error. Unfortunately, they were far from alone in making it. This misclassification is astonishingly pervasive. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) lists catalog numbers in the 570s (Dewey) or QHs (Library of Congress Classification) as the most frequent classification for not only Darwin’s Doubt, but a variety of similar works. I checked the catalogs of public libraries in New York, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, and the District of Columbia – in each location, the story is the same. Of course, this is hardly a representative sample, but the emerging pattern was distressing nonetheless: public libraries across the United States are failing in their charge to present accurate information to the public.

History of a Bad Idea: the Rise of Intelligent Design

In popular parlance, the perspective peddled in the books I’m referring to is called intelligent design. It is the modern incarnation of creationism, a thoroughly discredited branch of religious dogma that formerly masqueraded as science. The 1975 Daniel v. Waters circuit court and 1982 Mclean v. Arkansas district court decisions gave legal standing to the current scientific consensus on the processes that account for cosmological, biological, and geological phenomena, rejecting creationism as a suitable topic for public science education. In the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case, the U.S. Supreme Court did likewise. It was recognized that creationism is a religious perspective on the origins of life, incapable of withstanding serious scientific scrutiny and incompatible with the principles of secular education.

 Thereafter, those inclined to view religious origin stories as an essential component of science education adopted a new tactic. Creationism was stripped of all obvious references to Christianity, Biblical doctrine, and even deity. Subsequently married to a school of rather potent intellectual gymnastics, creationism sired what is now known as intelligent design – a more sophisticated and insidious rebranding of the old campaign to inject theology into the realms of scientific discourse and public science education.

 Advocates of intelligent design have worked hard to disguise their sectarian motivations and present a veneer of scientific objectivity. Despite these efforts at obfuscation, intelligent design has been consistently rejected as an appropriate topic for public science classrooms. Most recently, in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, Judge John E. Johns – a Bush appointee – ruled that, because intelligent design is not science, its presentation in publicly funded science curricula represents a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

On its own, this legal precedent makes the presence of books like Darwin’s Doubt in public library science collections a real eyebrow-raiser. Why, if it is inappropriate to inject religiously motivated thinking into publicly funded science education, is it somehow permissible to allow religiously motivated thinking into similarly financed science collections at public libraries? According to established legal precedent, every library that shelves books like Darwin’s Doubt and Michael Behe’s equally unscientific Darwin’s Black Box in their science collections stands in flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Intelligent Design Isn’t Science

This alone should offer sufficient reason for any publicly funded library to take the simple step of booting these books out of their science collections. But to drive the point home, let’s push a little further. Surely it will be protested that the courts do not decide what is and is not science. This is true. But if the courts don’t decide, who does?

 One answer might be that the scientists themselves decide. And there is a sense in which this is true. Consensus does play a role in shaping the course of scientific progress and the vast majority of scientists reject intelligent design as junk or pseudoscience. This is especially true among life scientists, who tend to have the most relevant expertise when it comes to evaluating the scientific validity of an idea like intelligent design. Scientific organizations like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have issued unequivocal repudiations of intelligent design, denying its credibility as a scientific theory and urging educators to guard against its intrusion into public science curricula.

 Of course, science doesn’t work by consensus alone. This means that the deepest reasons for doubting the scientific veracity of intelligent design come from the nature of science itself. Individual scientists have different ideas about what exactly differentiates science from non-science. But one defining feature about which there is virtually unanimous agreement is this: science must make some appeal to observable reality. Its special standing as a knowledge-gaining pursuit is granted by a thorough dependence on the fruits of observation and experimentation. Scientific claims must be testable and, more fundamentally, falsifiable. If there is no conceivable way in which your idea can be proven wrong, then it is extremely likely that it is not science.

 This is where intelligent design is dealt its fatal blow. The entire program of intelligent design consists of stubborn attempts to poke holes in a Darwinian understanding of the origins and diversity of life on earth. Intelligent design advocates do not formulate testable hypotheses, in no small part because their central claim – that the existence of life hinges upon the intervention of an intelligent designer – can’t be tested. Those sympathetic to intelligent design posit scientific-sounding notions like irreducible complexity – the notion that certain features of the biological world cannot have evolved by natural processes because they depend on an intricate interplay among essential components – as a smokescreen for the credulous, hoping clever branding will mask a paucity of strong ideas.

 Various intelligent design proponents have posited candidates for irreducible complexity in the form of biological traits like flagellar motors and complex eyes. Each of these features rests well within the explanatory wheelhouse of modern evolutionary theory. Insofar as an irreducibly complex flagellar motor is an intelligent design hypothesis, the theory has been falsified. But this is too permissive. Look deeper and you’ll find that there are no objective criteria for recognizing irreducible complexity when you see it. The claim that the camera eye is irreducibly complex doesn’t flow from the logical structure of intelligent design, so it can’t actually be seen as a hypothesis with any relevance to said idea’s explanatory potential. What is and is not irreducibly complex is all in the eye of the beholder. The notion that the Cambrian Explosion can’t be explained by established Darwinian principles isn’t a hypothesis – it’s an opinion. It is an argument from incredulity that offers no fodder for experimental or observational evaluation and therefore disallows intelligent design entry into the scientific fold.

Lying in Place: Misleading the Public Through Careless Shelving

None of this is particularly groundbreaking stuff. These ideas have been spelled out repeatedly in ponderous legal decisions, dense philosophical tracts, breezy popular science bestsellers, and from countless university lecterns across the globe. Yet somehow intelligent design books like Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin’s Black Box have managed to sneak into public library science collections across the United States.

 A mislabeled book here and there is a small thing. Surely the vast majority of the books on the surrounding shelves represent good science. Those good ideas should swamp the bad. But think of the disservice done to the laypersons that come to these topics with fresh eyes. It’s a simple thing, but the placement of books can say a lot. In this case, it may say that intelligent design – an idea regarded by the vast majority of actual scientists as either junk science or pseudoscience – should be granted the same credence as any other book in the science section. In which case, the library will have done the job of carelessly misinforming its patrons. Placing intelligent design books in science collections is a decision that carries with it an implicit suggestion that they have the same explanatory merit as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection or Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

 Darwin’s Doubt and books like it belong in the library. Public libraries have a duty to serve the interests of the theologically minded as much as the scientifically curious. These books might make good candidates for entries in philosophical collections dealing with the metaphysics of change or teleogy. More aptly, they might find a place in religious collections. Collection managers ought to have some discretion in this regard.

 There is, however, one place in the public library where these books do not belong: the science section. Most libraries weed out books on discredited ideas. If a library is doing its job, patrons shouldn’t find books advocating the phlogiston theory of combustion or offering astrological explanations for the condition of their love life in the science collection. Intelligent design is equally unscientific. Let’s do the public the service of cataloguing it accordingly.