"Cultural Appropriation": Moral Outrage Or Moral Imperative?

Somehow, in progressive world, there are actions that, in one context, are moral imperatives -- so morally important that the authorities must compel them to occur -- while in another context essentially identical actions are moral outrages -- so outrageous that the authorities must step in to prevent them from occurring.  When you spot one of these contradictions, you can be forgiven for thinking that something is going on here that doesn't make much sense.

Last week I considered one instance of this phenomenon, the question of economic and racial integration of neighborhoods.   There, it seems that to the progressive mind economic and racial integration of currently wealthy neighborhoods is a moral imperative, and where it is not occurring naturally it must be forced by government coercion; but it equally seems that economic and racial integration of currently poor neighborhoods is a moral outrage, and where that is occurring naturally it must be stopped by government coercion.  Perhaps one might conclude that the "integration" mantra is just a pretext for some faction to demand and collect a few political spoils for its members.

An equally fascinating instance of the phenomenon is what goes by the term "cultural appropriation."  If you haven't been following what's going on on college campuses (and why would you?), you may not be aware that "cultural appropriation" is the moral outrage of the day.  Somewhere along the line, it became a moral outrage for a member of one "culture" to "appropriate" the trappings of some other "culture."  Or at least, some such "appropriations" became a moral outrage in certain contexts.  But wait a minute, you say -- American culture a mishmash of cultural trappings of people who came here from all over the place; so it can't possibly be that all "cultural appropriations" are out of line.  You are absolutely right.  And for that reason, you are going to need an official progressive "cultural appropriation outrage meter" to tell you which cultural appropriations are moral outrages and which are not.  The funny thing is, those "cultural appropriations" that are not moral outrages turn out to be not merely morally neutral.  Instead, they are moral imperatives.  Go figure.

The first application of our official cultural appropriation outrage meter will be to that most emotion-provoking of all types of outerwear, the Halloween costume.  You have probably heard that the campus of prestigious Yale University was thrown into turmoil last fall over the critical issue of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes.  It all started with a mass email to the entire community from Yale's Intercultural Affairs Committee, warning students to avoid wearing any costume that might be considered culturally insensitive.  The email does not seem to be available online any more, but is quoted in an article in Cosmopolitan here:

"Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing 'war paint' or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface."

Previously you might have understood, for example, why wearing blackface might have been considered inappropriate -- not because of "cultural appropriation," but rather because it could be thought a form of ridicule.  But that wouldn't explain what's wrong, for example, with "headdresses" and "turbans."  Anyway, a co-head of one of Yale's residential colleges had the temerity to respond with an email suggesting that it might be OK to be a little bit offensive in a Halloween costume; and that comment caused the whole place fell apart.  It was a moral outrage!

But that moral outrage was then far exceeded a few months later at Bowdoin College in Maine.  Catherine Rampell had the story here in the Washington Post in March.   Some students, one of whom hailed from Colombia, threw a tequila-themed birthday party for one of their friends; and at the party several of the kids were photographed wearing mini-sombreros, a few inches in diameter.  When the photos showed up on social media, all hell broke loose:

When photos of attendees wearing those mini-sombreros showed up on social media, students and administrators went ballistic.  College administrators sent multiple schoolwide emails notifying the students about an “investigation” into a possible “act of ethnic stereotyping.”  Partygoers ultimately were reprimanded or placed on “social probation,” and the hosts have been kicked out of their dorm, according to friends. . . .   Within days, the Bowdoin Student Government unanimously adopted a “statement of solidarity” to “[stand] by all students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and recommend that administrators “create a space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted. . . . "  The statement deemed the party an act of “cultural appropriation,” one that “creates an environment where students of color, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, students feel unsafe.” The effort to purge . . . two [student government] representatives who attended the party, via impeachment, soon followed.

So we know that for a non-Hispanic to wear a mini-sombrero to a birthday party is a moral outrage.  Now apply that learning, if you will, to the context of food.  For example, is it OK for a dining hall at a small mid-western college to serve somewhat modified versions of Asian cuisine, such as sushi or banh mi (a kind of Vietnamese sandwich)?  It seems that that very thing is the cause of ongoing outrage at wacky Oberlin College in Ohio.  The controversy has been raging since the fall, but in just the past few days nutty actress Lena Dunham (a graduate of Oberlin) has weighed in.  People has the story on July 15:

“There are now big conversations at Oberlin, where I went to college, about cultural appropriation and whether the dining hall sushi and Banh Mi disrespect certain cuisines,” the actress told Food & Wine. “The press reported it as, ‘How crazy are Oberlin kids?’ But to me, it was actually, ‘Right on.'” . . .   The complaints arose last November, when the Ohio college’s newspaper The Oberlin Review  published a report citing multiple international students who felt the food service management company contracted by the liberal college had “[blurred] the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines.”  The paper cited students complaining about the manipulation of traditional recipes like the Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich — which is traditionally made up of grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs on a crispy baguette, but at Oberlin’s Stevenson Dining Hall was served as pulled pork and coleslaw on ciabatta bread.“  It was ridiculous,” Vietnamese freshman Diep Nguyen said. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

I love that part of the Vietnamese guy complaining that Oberlin didn't make the banh mi in the "traditional Vietnamese" way with a "crispy baguette."  A baguette is "traditional Vietnamese"?  Could this guy not know that the baguette was "culturally appropriated" by the Vietnamese from their colonial overlords, the French?  Really!

Anyway, if we might look for just a moment at the big picture, I would ask, what is the quintessential institution that arose to create, preserve and transmit the white, and particularly the white male, culture?  Of course, it is the university.  And now all the other races, ethnicities, and genders want in; indeed, claim to be entitled to be let in.  They want to "appropriate" our culture!  Is it a moral outrage?  Of course not.  It's a moral imperative!  I for one am not offended in the least.  I'm proud of the culture of my ancestors.  Let everyone else share it!  (Why don't the other ethnicities feel the same way about their culture?  Probably most of them do.  It's just a few congenital whiners who have ginned up this "cultural appropriation" thing.)

Meanwhile, if you feel like dressing up as a preppie next Halloween (say, a cardigan sweater, a pair of green pants, and smoking a pipe), don't expect to generate a lot of moral outrage.  Preppies are absolutely fair game for ridicule.