Sunday, October 11, 2009

'Cultural Appropriation' is not a Religious Issue

Part One here.

Arguments about "cultural appropriation" are usually dishonest.

Although they often take place in venues devoted to religion, spirituality, and magic, they are not about religion, spirituality, or magic.

Instead, they are political arguments about cultural survival, usually taking the form, "We/You took everything from them/us, and now we/you want to take their/our spirituality too!"

Let me propose a hypothetical bit of "cultural appropriation."

I fetch the old Catholic missal off the shelf, blow the dust off (Colorado is dusty), and open it to the ritual for the Eucharist.

I find items to serve as chalice, platen, and all the other necessaries, make myself some cheat cards for the Latin, set up my altar, and proceed to celebrate the Tridentine Mass.

Cultural appropriation? I doubt that the Vatican will be too disturbed, and I will not need to watch out for albino assassin monks.

Is it not "cultural appropriation" when the so-called victim is large and powerful? If so, that makes me think that all talk about appropriation is merely politics.

So what are the consequences of my unsanctioned Mass? From the Catholic Church's viewpoint, Aquila non capit muscas, I suspect. Any other consequences?

Now you can discuss the religious, spiritual, or magical issues.

Postscript: This post is somewhat based on a dream I had months ago, in which I was called up to baptize someone in some Protestant denomination, and of course I was thinking (a) what baptismal ritual do these people use and (b) since I am a Pagan, will it be "valid"?



Anonymous Rombald said...

I'm not sure you're right about this. Catholics seem to have a special hostility for Anglo-Catholics, and, although they don't use the term "cultural appropriation", that is kind of what they object to - they don't like the mimicry without the (supposed) legitimacy.

Anglo-Catholicism is pretty close to Catholicism. I think that appropriation of bits of Catholic ritual for a more different religion would be seen as being a bit like a black mass. Catholics also seem to get particularly worked up about that gay group, sisters of something or other, who go around dressed as nuns.

4:25 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Sounds like we're talking about power and "turf" now, not religion, spirituality, or magic.

So why cannot someone "appropriate" from the powerful?

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Pitch313 said...

As much as I appreciate your example, a DIY Tridentine Mass, I don't think that it's a useful example of cultural appropriation. Even as it is an instance of cultural appropriation.

One reason is that the Catholic Church is a global institution that incorporates elements of many different cultures and has blended them together. I have a suspicion that if the Catholic Church held that DIY masses were heretical, they would respond to them. As heresies.

Two, there is typically a notable power imbalance between the appropriating culture and the one appropriated from, at least when the topic of cultural appropriation arises. I think that's why these days discussions of cultural appropriation often reference intellectual property laws. These laws offer possible means of redressing power imbalances, and they accept the notion that some cultural elements are, in fact, property.

But lots of cultural elements are not much like intellectual property that's owned. They are much more like languages that are usefully and necessarily shared. For instance, you used a Latin phrase in your blog post. But I think that it would be silly to say that you appropriated it from the culture of the Roman Republic.

At the same time, cultural appropriation does push a lot of us Pagans toward moral quandary.

When cultural borrowing appears to destroy or discredit the borrowed from culture, and/or when borrowed from culture bearers complain, we tend to puzzle and fret about doing harm. Or about harm done. Or about safeguarding and preserving rather than harming.

As for a Pagan practitioner carrying out a Christian sacrament, I'd say that it would be valid on the Pagan side...but probably not Christian.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Steve Bodio said...

I'm with Chas.

BTW Aquila non capit muscas was John Derbyshire's original title to his review of Eagle Dreams. The editors threw it out as too recondite.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Diana said...

I hit my limit on cultural assimilation sensitivity when I was told that white magicians should not/could not use feathers because that was an Indian tradition.

American Indians don't own birds, or bird DNA. Certainly I'm not running around saying I have heritage I don't or attributing my own stuff to them to create the illusion of legitimacy - but I'm also not going to stop using feathers that cross my path, and I'm not physically capable of not being white.

Context: For three years I lived in the highest urban concentration of American Indians in the United States.

7:26 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Anglo-Catholics? How do they come in here (except as the source of married Roman Catholic clergy after priests "swim the Tiber")?

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Got a source on the hierarchy's worked-up-ed-ness?

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

@Steve Bodio,

As much as I enjoy Derbyshire sometimes, that title would be just a little bit too recondite, yes.

7:48 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...


It sounds like you are admitting that "cultural appropriation" issues are indeed about power and turf.

That's my point. They are not about religion or magic, in most cases.

And I say, "white/Western guilt" is useless, counterproductive, and backward-looking.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Makarios said...

". . .since I am a Pagan, will [the baptism] be "valid"?"

Since you asked, it would be valid if it were performed with water, invoking the name of the Holy Trinity, and with the intention that it be the baptism of the Church. As you may remember from your own research into heresy (for your very well-done Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics), Cyprian initially got this wrong with regard to the Novatianist rebaptism controversy.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...


Ah, there you go -- in the dream I forgot to consult that book!

10:43 PM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

"Anglo-Catholics? How do they come in here?"

Well, they began with the Oxford Movement, which made the Anglican liturgy more Catholic, and offended Catholics, who saw it as empty imitation.

1:39 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

Pitch: "They are much more like languages that are usefully and necessarily shared. "

THat's an interesting analogy. However, one cannot assume that all language communities welcome use of that language, anymore than that all religions are OK with coopting of rituals.

In some ways this fits in with Chas' point that it's to do with power relations. Big, powerful language communities tend to accept learners, and some language communities, notably English and French, tend to be intolerant of non-speakers within the relevant nations. However, if one learns a local, socially-bounded language, the situation might be quite different. I met someone from Edinburgh who learnt Gaelic, but people in the Hebrides insisted on speaking to her in English, and mocked her as a "Sasanach" (Gaelic for "Saxon", usually abusive, used for English people in Scotland, but for Lowland Scots by Gaelic-speakers). If, as a white person, one learnt Jamaican Patois, say, the reaction might be more extreme - one would not be a speaker, but more like a comedy actor.

Even some big language communities are a bit like this. Eg. I am fluent in Japanese, but I have been told that my speech is not Japanese, regardless of how indistinguishable it is from Japanese people, because Japanese is, by definition, that which Japanese people speak.

7:08 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Rombald, since the Anglican church, whether Low, Broad, or High, has always claimed apostolic succession, I don't think "appropriation" is involved, and any argument about Anglo-Catholics is tangential.

The reaction against elaborate ritual began before Henry VIII's separation from Rome (during the reign of Edward IV, I believe), and has ebbed and flowed ever since.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

Another example of cultural crossover: "Christian Ramadan" (because Lent isn't ascetic enough...)

3:35 AM  
Blogger Steve Hayes said...

The problem lies in defining it as a "religious" or "spiritual" issue, or not a "religious" or "spiritual" issue, as if "religious" or "spiritual" issues can be separated from the rest of life.

5:23 AM  
Anonymous JohnFranc said...

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Pretending to be something you're not is dishonest. Keep the two separate, credit your sources, and don't worry about what anyone else thinks.

12:05 PM  

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