Cultural Appropriation and You!

So Pamela Geller is continuing her attempt to shoot the moon for hate-mongering, now buying ad space on Chicago’s public buses calling for American support of the Copts over ‘global jihad.’

Personally as a former resident of Chicago and a former customer of the CTA, I’m not terribly concerned, because for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you a single thing that was advertised on a CTA bus.  The only signs I remember were the terrible Spanish translations of the safety instructions, which read “Please do not hang up your arms outside the bus.”  Good advice, sure, but I don’t think that’s the information they intended to convey.

Like with her Metro ads, the general response has been a continuation of the discussion of hate-mongering versus free speech, whether overtly hateful language should be protected for the sake of the higher ideal of freedom, or whether this kind of speech is essentially dangerous and needs regulating.  I’ve talked about that a little bit before, but since the new ads mention the Copts, there is actually another aspect that I think is worth discussing, which is the issue of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is the assimilation of isolated aspects of one culture by another, generally dominate culture.  The most obvious example in the US is the use of Native American dress as a fashion trend – indeed, if you do a google image search for “is it cultural appropriation?”, that’s most of what you get.  However much you may love tassels and turquoise, many aspects of Native American garb have specific cultural or religious significance, and so to wear it as just fashion effectively discounts that significance. Moreover, most faux-Native American fashion isn’t conscious of the differences between the tribes, integrating well-known aspects of different tribes (people in feathered headdresses sitting by canoes and teepees, for example), effectively discounting the differences between the tribes. Finally, there is the dominate aspect – that style of dress isn’t common in North America anymore for a reason, and for the dominate culture to adopt it after subjugating the people who invented it is, if nothing else, pretty cruel.

Cultural appropriation, like most abstract sociological concepts, isn’t easy to pin down, however, and there is lots of debate about what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation.  Dominate cultures have always adopted aspects of subjugated cultures, so there would be no way to eliminate it entirely (for all English speakers, if we wanted that, we would have to stop using progressive verb conjugations and the meaningless negative ‘do’, both linguistic trends we adopted from the subjugated Celts).  And in heavily-immigrant-based cultures like the US, aspects of variant cultures interact constantly, even while some remain more dominate than others, so particularly locally, people can have a personal connection to cultures that they don’t share ethnically (which is why, having grown up in the Southwest, I tend to response to thank you with ‘de nada’, despite not being at all Latina).

But especially when you’re talking about global political or sociological issues, as in the case of Geller’s posters, I think cultural appropriation *has* to be part of the conversation.  By setting up a dichotomy between ‘global jihad’ on one side and the Israelis and the Copts on the other, Geller is essentially claiming to know the wants and interests of the Israelis and Copts, and encouraging all other Americans to listen to her for that reason.

Firstly, there is the claim of intimate knowledge – from what I can tell from the information on Geller’s biography available online, she has had no personal or extended contact with either Israelis or Egyptian Copts.  So at the very least, she should be expected to back up her claim of knowing the political needs of these people with some kind of evidence – polling data, long-term study, extensive interviewing, etc.

This problem leads to the next – if she had done this, she would know that there is no universal opinion on Islam among Israelis or Copts.  Indeed, there is a great deal of internal debate in Israel about the best course of action with regard to Israel’s Muslim neighbors and the Palestinians.  (Somewhere there’s a brilliant clip by Jon Stewart of all of the criticisms of Israel raised by Israeli ministers, but I can’t bring myself to go through all of the anti-Stewart pro-Zionist hate on youtube to find it – if someone wants to do this for me, I’d be eternally grateful!)  The case of the Copts is, if anything, more complex, as the Copts have always been nationalistically Egyptian, even in times when they were repressed by the Egyptian government, and the Coptic community played a major role in the Egyptian revolution last spring.  By presenting Israeli or Coptic public opinion as homogeneous,  Geller is symbolically silencing some portion of the very people she claims to be defending.

And then there’s the final problem that lies at the heart of all cultural appropriation, however well intended, which ever since I discovered Honest Trailers I will forever refer to as the Avatar problem – the underlying claim of Geller’s posters is that the cause of the Israelis and the Copts is the cause of civilization, but the definition of that ‘civilization’ seems to be one that Geller set herself, and one that she, and all of the other civilized Westerns, are going to enforce in the Middle East. That’s deeply problematic, and more than a little racist. There are times in which international intervention is needed in internal politics, but picking sides and leading the charge is not the way to do it, and the times when we’ve tried that, it’s pretty much always ended poorly. It would seem that in Geller’s eyes, the Israelis and the Copts are like the Na’avi – a strong, powerful people who for some reason are totally helpless without the white man.

If we want to help people in other nations develop their own civilizations, the best course of action is to listen to them and their own expression of their wants, weigh those requests against our own interests and resources, and progress with them at the helm, not to pick sides and lead. ‘Be the change you want to see’ is good advice for everyday life, but should not be applied to global politics.

And finally, please remember – do not hang up your arms outside of the bus.  Thank you.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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