A debate too shallow
By Jim Poling
Published Aug. 17, 2017
It is disheartening how we Canadians manage to turn interesting and important debates into spiteful squabbles. We toss emotion and hard core bias onto the path toward the clarity needed for understanding. The latest example is the foggy but vicious debate over “cultural appropriation.”
Cultural appropriation has been a vigorously debated issue worldwide for decades. It erupted again in Canada earlier this year in the writing community and cost some people their jobs.
Cultural appropriation can be defined as using another culture’s intellectual property, knowledge, expressions or artifacts for your own purposes.
One side of the debate argues that it is wrong for a writer to write about experiences from another culture. The argument is that minority cultures should speak for themselves and not be seen through the eyes of a majority culture.
The opposite view is that writers should be free to write whatever they like, and that writing about different cultures can build knowledge and understanding of a minority.
This past spring Write magazine, the publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada, published an editorial defending cultural appropriation. It said there is nothing wrong with writers incorporating myths, oral histories, sacred practices and so forth from other cultures. The editorial also suggested an “Appropriation Prize” for the best book by an author writing about people very different from herself or himself.
Controversy exploded on social media. The backlash, likely intensified by the suggestion of an Appropriation Prize, forced the Write editor to resign. The editor of The Walrus magazine also was forced out because he tweeted his support for the Write article. The managing editor of CBC’s The National news program was reassigned for sending a supporting tweet.
What should have been an intelligent debate was turned obtuse by runaway political correctness. Outrage took the place of clear-headed thinking.
Thoughtful discussion could have shown how cultural appropriation can indeed be racist and hurtful, but how it also can help us to understand and accept other cultures.
Back in the 1950s white radio stations refused to play what they considered “race music.” This was the rock n’ roll music of black artists such as Chuck Berry. When that music was appropriated by white guys like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley it became sensationally popular.
Certainly those white folks benefitted financially and otherwise by appropriating the music of black people. However, that music helped to build understanding and acceptance of black culture.
A current Canadian example is found in the controversy surrounding Joseph Boyden, author of best sellers Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda.
Boyden is an excellent writer who has achieved much success. However, there has been criticism that his success results from cultural appropriation – taking Indigenous stories and experiences for his own gain.
Much of his success came from using Indigenous history and stories. One side of the debate says this is wrong because he is a white guy writing about native people from a white perspective. The other view is: so what, he is helping to bridge the gap between the Indigenous community and the rest of Canadians.
Complicating this is Boyden’s claim to be an Indigenous person. He has won aboriginal writing prizes, and received other benefits based on his claim of Indigenous heritage.
He has no conclusive proof, however, that he has any Indigenous blood. Critics say that therefore he is simply a wannabe Indigenous who has received money and other rewards that should have gone to genuine Indigenous writers.
The Boyden case gives us one fairly easily reached conclusion about cultural appropriation: If you can’t conclusively prove you are part of a cultural group you shouldn’t promote your writing or art by saying or pretending you are.
Meanwhile, the latest general debate over cultural appropriation has been far too quick and shallow. It deserves deeper, more reasoned debate and discussion of important questions.
For instance, should minority cultures be walled off to ensure people from other cultures can’t get in? And, does walling off a culture in the name of protecting it actually lead to denial of equal rights, universal values and equal opportunities?
I, for one, would like to hear a broader, more reasoned discussion before coming to any conclusions.