I attended a music festival on the weekend. Scores of millennials in their felt farmer’s hats, glitter, and braless fishnets sauntered about while droves of gender-fluid young men looked on, mouths agape and eyes agog, sporting their sisters’ cut-off chinos as they admired their counterparts in at least half of their glory. There were top knots aplenty and an assortment of thirty-somethings, most of whom had reached an age that allowed them to equally enjoy themselves at a folk festival, bless them.
It was my yuletide music festival. Approaching thirty-something and unlike my compatriots, I’d been living under a rock (since 2014, apparently) when it came to appropriate festival attire. My ignorance reared its head when I showed up wearing a native American headdress. The kind you buy in a kids’ store. A wall of police dogs greeted me and my feathery crown at the gate; the cops said nothing. They were looking for a different kind of contraband.
The previous week, I was unwittingly dragged through a costume store while shopping with a friend. Amid the boredom, a flash of inspiration saw me purchase three native American war bonnets for myself and two mates. I had the following weekend’s festival in mind. Little could I have anticipated the impact of this decision and the indignation it would cause.
For every person wanting to don the bonnets for a quick selfie, we received an equal number of eye-daggers and incendiary remarks. Our ignorance had become the butt of our amusement before a supervisory, quasi-security guard approached me in the beer line. He was the kind of guard who works their way up through the bartending ranks to be awarded an earpiece and a walkie-talkie. I recognised him as the music-guy cum bar manager at our local university. “Take that thing off.” He started, deadpan. “No” I said as eloquently as a single word answer could facilitate, unwilling to redact my hubris. Then he reached out, snatched the feathery accoutrement, called me a racist and stalked away to the safety of his confine. A non-sanctimonious de-coronation! I was incredulous.
“We were just trying to have some fun.” I called, meekly after him. Then suddenly, another white warrior for oppressed cultures on the other side of the world (WWFOCOTOSOTW) sprung from the woodwork, eager to throw her proverbial hat into the ring as I had unwittingly done. Apparently, the two disenfranchised hipsters were in cahoots. “By making fun of minority cultures, well done!” Quasi-guard’s alternative sidekick called at me in front of gawking onlookers in the bar line. “Go shave your armpits!” I volleyed back enthusiastically as the crowd eschewed hushed appreciation for this free and unexpected sideshow. Sidekick girl sought refuge among the throng as I returned to my own echo-chamber of like-minded friends, clutching my Bundy and coke with as much elegance as I could muster. The melodrama quickly resided once the offending artefact had been confiscated. We carried on, joyous as the acts bore on at full steam into the night.
There will always be a struggle between truth and semi-truth based on the necessary distillation of facts into media soundbites, and on the inherent biases of the agendas that support them. Which is precisely why compassionate self-inquiry and empathetic reasoning are so important.
In the sobering days that followed, I thought it wise to consider my run-in with the self-appointed PC constabulary. I conducted a brief literature review in an attempt to gauge the amplitude of my misdeeds. Subsequently, I uncovered the name given to the gaudy act for which I was brought down by fire like the feather-clad Icarus. They call it cultural appropriation. This is nomenclature that I now proudly use, excessively and in all situations to assert my intellectual superiority over the less educated unfortunates who haven’t read the latest edition of Monocle magazine. The literature, however, did have some effect on my perspective. I can honestly say that I almost regret donning that native American headdress. Indigenous Americans, after all deserve not to have their cultural iconography cheapened by a sunburnt, Australian festival-goer who didn’t earn the right to wear it, I get that. But they also sure as hell don’t need to have their cultural sensitivities zealously whitesplained by a conformo-hipster at a festival in the great island-of-down-under. I mean sure, I wouldn’t wear a Victoria Cross on Anzac Day but I wasn’t at a military parade, I was at a fucking festival. Please excuse my alliteration. Amusingly, the only thing that made my sartorial transgression worthwhile, IMO, was the over-the-top reaction it received.
Scapegoats and social ostracism
Traditionally, we channel hostilities toward the unknown tribe. The unknowns, or those of whom we don’t identify with, tend to stimulate our primal brain and raise our hackles. This causes our inner animal to growl at others for bad things that happen to those we DO identify with. What’s more, if we fail to fully support our tribes, we are threatened with social ostracism (historically a life and death scenario). This acts as another contributing factor to sycophantic acquiescence. These elements are compounded by the more contemporary phenomenon of superfluous access to information, often from barely credible sources. ‘Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories.’ said Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes. Due to the reasons above, the proverbial waters for contentious issues can appear murky. Inexorably, this leads to gaps for more unscrupulous tribal leaders to draw new battle lines, often at odds with noble foundations of the movement from which they were birthed.
On a geopolitical scale, perhaps this is a pretense for social crisis? The age-old ‘with us or against us’ mentality in preparation for all-out factional warfare? A long bow to draw, perhaps, but not inconceivable. Blame, under these conditions, is assigned without much thought for a sensible, underlying cause. In this case, diatribe was directed at the miscarriage of a symbol, which bore with it the all-too-common fallacy of perceived contextual relevance and mal-intent.
But oh, the hypocrisy!
Was my feathery display seen as boastful self-expression; maligning with the mock-modesty and indoctrinated views of the ‘you-should-be-shocked-if…’ cultural Marxists? Or was their reaction to my ignorance justifiably handled? Perhaps, but how do they explain the dichotomy of their virtues when failing to question someone wearing a faux cowboy hat or a Papal mitre at a party, for example?
I agree that cultural solemnities have their place. Ceremonies, for instance. But is everything important and intrinsic to somebody’s culture now off limits? Should we be foster the Brave New World and snatch a stick from a little boy’s hand when he pretends to play Cowboys and Indians?
It may be reasonable to assert, that compassionate self-inquiry is critical for empathetic reasoning. This goes beyond the echo-chamber of the loud minority. The others, of course, are mostly apathetic; the silent majority who prefer not to challenge the status quo, either for their genuine apathy or an unrelenting need to blend in. This is also fine. However, if fire is going to be dished out we need to determine the facts on both sides for ‘wisdom can indeed be found amongst the maidens at the grindstone.’
Safety in numbers
There is safety in numbers; until you follow sheep off a cliff. If my temporary assailants found themselves facing an affront to their opinions similar to mine, could they have better questioned the tenets of their own beliefs before lashing out with vitriolic, reactionary catchphrases? As it stands, I would do well to take my own advice. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best when he appropriated Aristotle’s musings in Nicomachean Ethics. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” My opposing neophytes would then do well to protect their realigned views with some fervor. It is, after all, a right they’ve now earned.
It’s been pointed out to me since posting this, that not identifying with an oppressed culture doesn’t mean you can’t speak out against injustice on its behalf. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and I agree that the powerful majority should speak out if injustice is apparent. However, if cultural relevancy is in question and the protagonist isn’t fully aware of their discrepancy, should they be hung out to dry at the expense of all rational argument? A cachéd thought expressed through popular media often doesn’t allow for nuanced debate and can give its proponents a false moral high ground. For me, in this instance, I wasn’t given much space to argue and it was obvious they wouldn’t have listened if I’d tried.
Effort and perception
Is it all worth the spike in cortisol levels, you might ask? It really depends on how you want to be perceived. My pretense is to learn as much as possible and then act well the character I assign myself. And should everyone have to put this amount of effort in to get their head around a contentious issue? Probably not. Ideally, people have better things to do but it does leave them vulnerable to clichéd messages. There will always be a struggle between truth and semi-truth based on the necessary distillation of facts into media soundbites, and on the inherent biases of the agendas that support them. Which is precisely why compassionate self-inquiry and empathetic reasoning are so important.
On native accoutrements
This article from a blogger who goes by the name of Waves was written way back in 2011. It would seem I’ve been out of the loop for a while. She raises the subject with a refined eloquence that I can’t begin to evoke in my own writing. Here are her words:
“But there is one more question I haven’t asked: why are we “Westerners” drawn to culturally specific and indigenous fabrics, jewellery and pieces of clothing? It is just because we are greedy thieves and imperialists? Or are we looking for beauty? Is it only human to be attracted to something that is different from what we know? Or perhaps our quest for indigenous cultures and their spiritual symbols and fabrics is telling of the lack of meaning and spirituality in the lives of many Westerners today. What many cultural appropriation critics see as “one destructive, white, void Western world” carries with itself a tragic, torn history of many complex, destroyed or disappeared cultural heritages that we, as citizens of the world, sorely miss.”
On the issue of cultural theft or usage without permission. Quasi Philosopher makes a good point about identification not implying ownership.
“Of course, cultural artifacts like clothing and music might be held very dear by people, even to the point of it constituting who they are. However, no amount of caring about something gives you ownership over it. This is true for people who think liking a band before they get famous somehow makes their love special, and its true for people who think being associated with a culture for a long time makes it theirs.”
The anointed vassal
Often it seems, a little bit of education goes a long way. There are few things that reduce credibility more than blatant ignorance tantamount to bigotry. Yet sometimes narrow-mindedness prima facie, just isn’t what it appears to be and reactionary political correctness is an answer that falls short on reasoning. As for next year’s festival, I may swap out the headdress for a Papal hat. The sniffer dogs wouldn’t dare fuck with the anointed vassal of God, now would they?