Zero-sum tactics won’t cure the root cause. Systemic change demands a new system of anti-rivalry.
It’s not hard to understand the emergence of an idea like ‘cultural appropriation’ in the context of a rivalrous system. It makes perfect sense.
We live in a system driven by scarcity — there’s only so much to go around and each of us has to do what we can to get our share. Rivalrous dynamics run the show in a reflection of Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ principles. Naturally, that produces winners and losers. As we’re seeing lately, it produces a few big winners and a whole lot of losers.
These are the dynamics that create conflict and the marginalisation of populations. Take the history of America as an example. Europeans arrived and discovered a vast, fertile, and beautiful land that could allow them to thrive. But indigenous people were already there, living in deep connection with the land, as they had been for eons. When it comes to conflict, those with wealth, industry, and military strength tend to win out, so the Europeans, in keeping with ‘survival of the fittest’ dynamics, beat indigenous populations into submission and had their way with the land.
Now imagine an alternative history, where the arriving Europeans held the view that harm to any human or group of humans would have been an injury to the wellbeing of humanity as a whole. As a sacred value, it was front and centre in their worldview and determined their most important choices. How might they have reacted to the indigenous people? Would they have labelled them ‘savages’ and resolved to oust them from the land? Probably not.
If those people would have seen the world and their place in it through an anti-rivalrous lens, valuing symbiosis and interconnection above all else, the story would likely have been very different. Alas, rivalry and conflict shaped the order of things and continues to do so today. It has left huge populations of people disenfranchised and downtrodden. And that’s not to mention the natural world, the health of the environment, biodiversity, and so on, which equally feel the strain.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element or elements from a culture by people not of that culture or identity group. In and of itself it has no implicit positive or negative value but in recent times it’s come to be seen as a moral sin by many.
Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Forham University and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law describes it as:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
Discussion of this kind has been happening for decades but as with many ‘social justice’ issues in recent times it has escalated from trivial Twitter beefs to international controversies in a short space of time, and found its way into the mainstream lexicon. Among many it’s become an unquestionable line in the moral code, resulting in teenagers being pilloried for their choice of prom dress, or more recently, singer Adele catching heat for a Carnival look that is “NOT to be worn by white people in any context, period”.
Much of the anger around it seems to come from a sense of plagiarism. YouTube personality Francesca Ramsay describes it as:
“taking a test and getting an A. And then someone else copies off your test and gets an A-plus extra credit.”
Which points to an important question at the heart of the issue: who’s marking the test?
In the context of financial gain, there’s a working argument to be had. Someone who seizes an opportunity to cynically adopt certain elements of a culture to turn a profit could genuinely be doing damage. Consider a person or corporation profiteering from a superficial, under-baked rendition of traditional meditation practices. They not only skew the market and steal attention away from people that are well studied and know what they’re doing, but they also threaten to undermine the public perception of a meaningful practice that could do some real good in the world. The lack of ‘permission’ isn’t the problem, it’s the consequence that matters — to caricature or degrade meaningful cultural practices is damaging both to the culture they originate from and the wider society that might learn something from them.
In that context, the marker of the test is the free market. Getting an A is equivalent to having a valuable, marketable ‘product’. And the anger (and sin) arises when someone replicates the product to take a bigger share of the market. It’s all about scarcity. It is intensified further in the age of social media where likes and follows are the ultimate form of capital. There’s only so much approval and celebration to go around, and we all have to grab our share of it, so when someone wins points using something that ‘isn’t theirs’, they are unfairly getting a leg up.
The sin, much like the latest conceptions of racism, only goes one way — it can only be committed by those from a dominant culture, one that’s had its share of success in the system of scarcity. When the anger goes beyond the cynical profiteer, to the girl in the Chinese style prom dress, or Adele, it’s no longer driven by the outcome or the intent, it’s driven by a battle for social capital being fought at the level of identity groups. It’s driven by the mindset of scarcity and is fundamentally rivalrous.
Given the dark history of our rivalrous systems, it’s understandable. But it’s much like getting blind drunk to remedy chronic pain — it might ease the pain or replace it with something enjoyable for a while, but it won’t fix the problem that gave rise to it. The zero-sum game at the heart of our economic and social system is the route cause. Rivalrous dynamics are the cause. And by adopting a rivalrous response, we perpetuate the problem further.
The only hope we have of truly overcoming the damage of rivalrous systems is to shift toward anti-rivalrous ones. Whilst competition will always exist, as it does in nature, it can and should be a constituent part of a bigger system of symbiosis. The beauty and health of a forest are dependent on the togetherness of its parts. One giant tree that starves the rest to death, is not a forest. A small tree, insignificant among the rest, plays an important role in the ecosystem, providing life and resource to millions of organisms around it. The organs of the body don’t fight one another for resources, the cells don’t compete for dominance — they exist in harmony, working together, transferring data, shifting and adapting in unison. When one cell steps out of that balance, we have cancer, which unchecked, kills the host.
The zero-sum, “you can’t have mine” approach to culture can only ever be a battle in the same war we’ve been fighting forever. If we’re to heal old wounds and prevent similar injuries in the future, we need to shift toward reciprocation and harmony. That means a person wearing something from another culture out of reverence should be perfectly acceptable. Inconsequential cultural ‘borrowing’ or dabbling should generate good faith invitations to explore further rather than bitter attacks. When we choose to see compliments as insults, we choose rivalry over harmony. When we create conflict over inconsequential nonsense and allow in-group out-group rivalry to dominate our actions, we perpetuate war.
What if, like the Europeans of that alternative history, we see anger and hatred, bitter competition, and mudslinging as degradation of collective wellbeing? What if we make every effort to step out of rivalrous dynamics and into symbiosis where good ideas flow across cultures? What if our first instinct is to understand and accept, rather than condemn? That doesn’t mean letting the profiteers dismantle meaningful practices. But it means discerning the profiteer from the good-natured, the consequential from the trivial, and rising above the mindset of rivalry and scarcity.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘systemic change’ of late. But much of the approach to bringing it about exists squarely within the same old system. If we continue to fight power battles, fuelled by rivalry and bitterness, we steer ourselves toward the precipice. No amount of righteousness will avert that fate. We’ll simply shift power, dominance, cruelty, and marginalisation around the map, rather than moving beyond it.
But if we reject the old way, and steer from the heart, with the interest of the common good front and centre, we can escape the grip of bitter rivalry.The profiteer will have no place in the new world. The forest will thrive. How do we get there? The work* is ongoing. But one thing we know is that it will take all of us, and an unwavering willingness to love one another.
This article was published in An Injustice on Medium.