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The fine line between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Digestion

On 22nd August Quillette Magazine published an article on the subject of “Cultural Appropriation” which was written by Neema Parvini. Neema Parvini makes a passionate case for intercultural exchanges where she states a wide range of examples of wonderful cultural exchanges that have led to “curry being a ‘National Dish’ for the UK” to the Shakespearean Sonnet being created thanks to cultural exchanges with the Italians where the sonnet was invented “in the year 1235 by an Italian lawyer called Giacomo da Lentini and then popularised in the fourteenth century by Francis Petrarch.”According to Neema Parvini”.

The idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ is not only illiberal, it is spectacularly anti-progress (in the technological sense), anti-trade, and anti-global. With the exchange of goods and services across borders over the centuries has come also the flow and exchange of words and ideas.

I then watched Dave Rubin interview Jeffrey Tucker, where they discussed this matter for 6 minutes (Watch from the 14-minute mark to the 20-minute mark).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmsXeXpRPlk?start=840]

Jeffrey Tucker says “civilisation is nothing but cultural appropriation”. According to Tucker “if we had stayed isolated in our tribes we would have never progressed”. Cultures are infinitely reproducible and malleable and the beauty of the human race lies in this exchange of ideas and concepts.

Now I am in agreement with the larger points mentioned by Neema Parvini and Jefferey Tucker. But, I still feel some of the points which Rajiv Malhotra had raised in Being Different were valid and I have tried to use some of his arguments while adding my own little twist to it below. I don’t agree with Mr Malhotra’s conclusions completely, but some of the points he raises are very vital and important.

I feel dismissing cultural appropriation completely (lock stock and barrel) is not a fair assessment in my view. As a Dharmic Indian Skeptic/materialist/atheist who has lived in the West for a while and now is back in his motherland for the last 17 years I do understand the other side of the argument. We should all encourage the exchange of ideas and cultures. It makes us far richer and dynamic as a global society at large. But somewhere in all this outrage, we keep forgetting the basic reality that there is an asymmetry when it comes to cultural exchanges. When I as an Indian wear a pair of jeans they do not get called Indian clothing even if 5 generations of Indians wear jeans. But, on the other hand, if someone in the West was to make a slight modification to an Ethnic Indian garment and present it as an offshoot of something Indian eventually 3 to 4 generations down the line the connection to India will get completely forgotten/vanished.

The downside of that is that in the case of the latter, the appropriated idea or the idea which got inspired via an Indian dress basically got stuck and could not reap the benefits of further developments happening on the Indian side. While the Indian side gets constant benefits from the Western side because they never deny the origins of where the attire (jeans) came from. So I would like to differentiate between cultural appropriation (which is a healthy exchange) and cultural digestion (which is a onetime snatch and grab). I am using the term “digestion” used by Rajiv Malhotra in Being Different as a concept which is different from “appropriation”, while Rajiv Ji uses them in a far more overlapping way in his book Being Different in my assessment.

I could use another example from within my own culture. A lot of our current Indian cuisine uses a lot of vegetables that were gotten into India from Europe and other areas. I am glad Neema Parvini mentioned that in the article. But even today in India many Indians are very much aware of where those vegetables came from. In fact, the History Channel (if my memory serves me properly) had done a program where they gave a complete history of where our vegetables came from. But I have my doubts if the same thing happened in the West the average westerner would remember such a thing. Is there a power dynamic at play here? I hate to admit it but yes you could accuse me of using a slightly postmodern view here.

Someone might say how does all of this matter? And I hear you. While I hate the “you cannot celebrate another culture” crowd completely, I also find merit in the argument of paying respect to the sources. When we pay respect to the sources it leads to a much more healthy and balanced cultural exchange and leads to far greater societal benefits. To me, these are not minor quibbles, if you see it from the point of view of the other culture that is getting digested completely and all traces of the origins of the idea are being removed over time due to a variety of reasons.

I see a lot of that happening where Vipaasnaa becomes Mindfulness and eventually the average culture at large will not even know that a thing like Vipassana exists a few generations down the line. Or when Yoga Nidra gets called Lucid Dreaming without any mention to the original source i.e. the Indo-Tibetan culture.

Yoga could also get uprooted completely from its roots. There are attempts to disconnect Yoga from its ancient Hindu roots in the form of Christian Yoga here (https://holyyoga.net/). In my view, this is an intellectual property rights issue. We should all celebrate each other’s cultures and learn as much as we can from each other. But, at the end of the day what is the harm in acknowledging the real source of the knowledge? Is it ok if I start calling Richard Dawkins concept of “memes” or “Poppers Paradox of Tolerance” as some new fancy sounding Sanskrit name and spread it around without acknowledging the original source? Or to use an example from Neema Parvini’s article, can I state that the knife and fork are Indian inventions?

We have had a recent incident where newspapers outside India were rightfully mocking and taking objection to the outlandish claims made by an Indian politician about the internet being invented by Ancient Hindus. What if someone from the West comes and confronts me about it and I give them an answer “You should be happy that I am sharing the ideas that emanated from your culture because if you did it my people will not take it seriously. After all, I am presenting it in a much better/palatable way to my own audiences”.

The issue of recognising the true source matters a lot. It is a case of intellectual honesty and transparency. So while we should all dismiss the ridiculous concept of cultural appropriation as it is being presented by the modern western left, we should always stay vigilant about some of the points that I have raised above. In my view, if we really want a truly global/plural world we have to acknowledge the difference between appropriation and digestion. Appropriation is very good but Digestion is harmful because it impedes further progress.

Maybe the lines between appropriation and digestion need to be refined far more than what I have done above. I don’t claim to have nailed it completely. But, after reading the article and watching that video I felt this view is missing from the overall discourse. You are either for “all cultural appropriation is bad” or there is “no such thing as cultural appropriation”. To me, the differentiation between appropriation and digestion matters a lot.

Hope all of you who read this appreciate that I come from a place of intellectual curiosity and not malice. I am more than happy to see people from other cultures wearing Indian clothes, eating Indian food, celebrating Indian culture and benefitting from all the aspects of my culture. But all I demand in return is it stays at the level of healthy appropriation and does not become digestion.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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