Why Language Matters…More on a Different View of Cultural Appropriation

I had planned on writing this yesterday, but got caught up in school stuff.

Anyway….Joel Monka over at CUUMBAYA asks people to rate the misappropriation in a particular scenario. I was going to write a comment over there, but decided that (for me) the real issue is about language and who can use it and who shouldn’t.

Joel’s scenario is about a Pagan “Seder”. In my mind that is an abomination. Pagans cannot have Seders. Seders are a Jewish ritual to commemorate a particular event. Pagans can have a ceremony that is inspired by the Jewish ritual, but they cannot have that ritual because it is a particular thing. Just call it something else and say that it is inspired by the Jewish ritual.

This is why I think the language one uses matters. If the words can be used by anybody at anytime about anything, then the words lose their meaning. And while words can (and do) change meaning over time, just because you want to use a word doesn’t mean that word should be used.

I’ll probably have to write more on this later, but I have to get back to writing my reflection paper for my Spiritual Prep class.

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10 thoughts on “Why Language Matters…More on a Different View of Cultural Appropriation

  1. Thanks- this is exactly the kind of input I was looking for to figure out guidelines for cultural misappropriation. I felt I was getting mixed messages from Steve Caldwell in our discussion.

    How do you feel about things that didn’t originate in a given culture, but were so thoroughly adopted by it that they now feel ownership? I was thinking of the songs some have mentioned, like “Summertime” and “This Little light of Mine”, and words like “Shaman”.

  2. Excellent point, Kim.

    I was mulling it over, trying to figure out what bothered me about Joel’s example case.

    In itself I couldn’t find anything I found objectionable. I think you hit it–it’s that it was still being called “a seder.”

    And with that, I’m going back to what I have to write for today, too.

  3. I’ll briefly call Joel on the implied verbal putdown about the “mixed messages” comment.

    The reason for the “mixed messages” is that this is a new and complex area for Unitarian Universalists — this discussion in religious education circles has been ongoing for the past decade at least.

    I’m suspecting that the average person sitting in the pews is not aware of these discussions — this would be the UU equivalent of the “disconnect” between the conversations in seminary and the conversations in congregations. The proposed Article II bylaws revision may raise awareness of this for the average person sitting in the pews.

    I think that one overlooked aspect of the cultural misappropriation issue are the issues of power and privilege. This is related to the history of past interactions between the groups as well.

    That’s why I think the examples of cultural misappropriation in the “White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men” video clips on YouTube (and my blog) are clear-cut examples.

    However, it’s more complex (or “mixed message” to use Joel’s term) when one looks at one marginalized group (Pagans) borrowing from another marginalized group (Jews) where there hasn’t been a history of oppression by either group on the other (at least not since ancient times).

  4. Kim wrote:
    -snip-
    “This is why I think the language one uses matters. If the words can be used by anybody at anytime about anything, then the words lose their meaning. And while words can (and do) change meaning over time, just because you want to use a word doesn’t mean that word should be used.”

    Would an example of this be calling a “covenant” a “creed”?

    :^)

  5. Hi

    Would one of you academic types please explain why UU Judaism is not OK, but UU Buddhism is OK. There is probably a good reason, and I am too ignorant to see it. This whole cultural misappropriation thing confuses me. UU atheists have been celebrating Christmas forever.

    Best wishes

  6. Dudley,
    I don’t know enough about UU Buddhism to say anything. However, I do not hear of UUs ripping off Buddhist ceremonies the way I hear of UU Seders all the time.

  7. Kim wrote:
    -snip-
    “I don’t know enough about UU Buddhism to say anything. However, I do not hear of UUs ripping off Buddhist ceremonies the way I hear of UU Seders all the time.”

    Kim,

    This example isn’t a ripping off of Buddhist ceremony example but rather a misuse of Buddhist cultural artifacts.

    I’ve been told that simply clanging on a singing bowl is inappropriate in most cases.

  8. How about this example:

    A queer couple wants to get married in a Roman Catholic church, because they were both raised Catholic and they feel a deep connection to their faith. They would like to adapt a Roman Catholic ritual – the marriage ceremony – to fit the circumstances of their wedding – between two people who chose identities of the same gender.

    Is this cultural misappropriation? After all, the queer couple, in the eyes of Roman Catholic Church, are no longer members in good standing of the Roman Catholic community, by virtue of their being in a same-gender intimate relationship. Under your guidelines, it would seem that, as non-members, they would not be entitled to adapt the ritual for their own needs. Nor would they would have a way of challenging a Roman Catholic priest who might decide that, as non-members, they are not allowed to have their wedding in a Roman Catholic church.

    The point that I am making is that there is a crucial question that is left out of your analysis of cultural misappropriation: Who gets to define “membership” in a group? If we say that membership is the criterion for “owning” a ritual and thus for being able to use it and adapt it, are we not giving too much power to the traditional arbiters of group membership, like the clerical hierarchy in the Roman Catholic church?

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