Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Why the Theory of Cultural Appropriation is Pro-Capitalist"—a guest post by Jonas Kyratzes

Jonas made a comment on My opening remarks at Fourth Street Fantasy Convention that deserves more attention, so I've made it a guest post. -WS

Why the Theory of Cultural Appropriation is Pro-Capitalist

by Jonas Kyratzes

Of course the concept of appropriation is pro-capitalist: it treats culture, inherently diffuse, messy, mixed up and impure, as an ownable good available in limited amounts. It’s an even more extreme version of the logic applied to software piracy. It’s turning everything into a product.

Even the excuse that the point supposedly is to protect people from that culture (and not to police cultural borders) comes purely in capitalist terms – the function is to protect those artists who make a living by selling a purist fantasy. And usually, to be clear, these are Americans who have some ancestral connection to that culture, not people from another country. Because people from those countries are rarely threatened by “outsiders” taking on elements of their culture; in fact, they celebrate it. In Greece, when some element of Greek culture becomes popular worldwide, it tends to make the news. As a good thing. As in hey, we’re poor and miserable and everything is shit, but at least we’re still relevant in the world. People like our stuff! If you all start loving the bouzouki, we’re not suddenly going to run out of music over here.

And the irony is, of course, that this demand for cultural purity actually *diminishes* opportunities for artists from these countries. If certain elements of their culture become part of the global mainstream, that’s actually a chance to have an impact! It makes you more easily understood, makes what you have to offer more accessible. It builds bridges. But the anti-appropriation argument actually just has the effect of limiting “cultural authority” to the tiny minority of English or American middle-class artists who take on the role of “authentic” representative/consultant and perpetuate these rigid Maoist-style ideologies to safeguard their position.

The people outside the US most likely to be against appropriation, i.e. against the mixing of cultures, are fascists. The people most likely to make a big deal about “their” culture are extreme conservatives. That’s what you’re supporting on a global scale when you fight against appopriation – the very worst parts of society, the equivalent of your very own white supremacists. The rest of us are deeply opposed to nationalism, to cultural chauvinism. We’re not insecure about “our” culture. We’re fighting against borders, against segregation, for unity and understanding between cultures. Cultures which, incidentally, simply cannot be ranked in some convenient hierarchy – our histories are way too messy for that.

Why American leftists insist on supporting the extreme right, the worst enemies of the very oppressed you claim to want to help, will never make sense. We could really use your solidarity, but that would require an internationalist, transcultural perspective.

Yes, some people literally did not understand that Steve Brust was speaking metaphorically

A footnote to Ideology makes you confuse the literal and the metaphorical--a bit about the 4th Street Kerfuffle:

I completely understand why people find it hard to believe anyone did not understand that Steve was speaking metaphorically. That croggled me, too. But the difficulty of understanding metaphor began with the first comments at 4th Street Fantasy Society:

David Cummer Are you saying Steve intended to make people feel threatened?

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ReplyJune 17 at 2:29pm
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Alex Haist David Cummer He said so explicitly, so yes.

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ReplyJune 17 at 2:30pm

I answered,

Will Shetterly Alex has trouble understanding metaphors, so she did not hear what he was saying. This would not have been a problem had she asked him if what she inferred was what he intended to imply.

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June 18 at 12:30amEdited

Even after considerable discussion about metaphors, there were exchanges like this:

Karen Osborne Because he literally said that we should feel threatened. Good heavens.

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June 20 at 3:54pmEdited
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Will Shetterly Karen Osborne Did he say it literally or metaphorically?
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Will Shetterly I asked Matt Smit this, and he hasn't answered yet: Is it no longer possible to use "threaten" as a metaphor? I'm old, and language changes, so if that's so, it'd be good to know. In my day, anything could be meant literally or metaphorically.
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Matt Smit You asked Reuben, not me, Will.

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June 20 at 3:58pm
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Karen Osborne Will - You already know what he said.

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June 20 at 3:59pm
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Will Shetterly Karen Osborne Yes, I do, and I know it was a metaphor.

ETA: At Steven Brust’s Fourth Street Fantasy Remarks Generate Heat | File 770, Hampus Eckerman doubles down on the idea that Steve's metaphor was a literal threat. I replied, "All metaphors are said literally. That does not mean metaphoric speech is literal speech, even though English would let us say that."

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Three thoughts about cults

If you know a cult's buzzwords, you know when people who say they want discussion are only after your conversion.

Secular cults are harder to spot than religious ones. But not much harder.

Cultists always give themselves away when they get angry: they love the insults for outsiders that their group uses.

Ideology makes you confuse the literal and the metaphorical--a bit about the 4th Street Kerfuffle

This year's 4th Street Fantasy Convention was generally fine, but Steve Brust's initial comments were badly misunderstood. His text is here: My opening remarks at Fourth Street Fantasy Convention 

Ideally, you will read that before continuing so my comments won't color your interpretation of what's there.

I'm writing this post because I said something in the discussion on Facebook that I regret, but though I said it snarkily, it seems to be true:
I see several people here are not familiar with a literary device called the metaphor. Perhaps metaphors should be the subject of a Fourth Street Panel next year.

Out of curiosity, why would anyone think Steve would want to turn a literary convention into a place where people are physically threatened?
The people who're upset by Steve's talk are unable to see that his opening lines are metaphorical:
Fourth Street Fantasy Convention is not a safe space. On the contrary, it is a very unsafe space.
And they're unable to see that his third line is literal:
Of course, it ought to be safe in the sense of everyone feeling physically safe, and in the sense that there should be no unwanted harassment, and it should be free of personal attacks of any kind.
If you think about his statement logically, there's no reason to interpret the first two lines as saying he wants 4th Street to be a place that's physically unsafe, and there's every reason to think his third line means exactly what it says.

But humans aren't logical. To people who think of safe spaces as sacred spaces, any questioning of the idea is taboo.

At least one of Steve's critics insists they do understand metaphor. But if that's true, why are they upset?

The answer: Ideology affects our ability to interpret text. Someone first pointed this out to me with Christian sects: they often disagree over what's literal and what's metaphorical, so some Christians think they should be able to handle vipers and some do not.

Secular cults also struggle with what's literal and what's metaphorical. Though Strong Whorfianism has been discounted, they police words fiercely, sometimes to the extent that they treat words as deeds. Cognitive dissonance keeps them from recognizing the inconsistencies in their understanding. When the possibility that an article of faith might be doubted arises--like the idea that a "safe space" may have both good points and bad--they react with anger, then comfort themselves with platitudes.

And so they confirm that Steve's fears are justified. Safe spaces only allow for safe ideas.

ETA: Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces on College Campuses Can Silence Religious Students - The Atlantic:
Trigger warnings and safe spaces are terms that reflect the values of the communities in which they’re used. ... These advocates routinely use the word “ally” to describe those who support their positions on race, gender, and religion, implying that anyone who disagrees is an “enemy.”
How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus - The Atlantic:
...trigger warnings are sometimes demanded for a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find politically offensive, in the name of preventing other students from being harmed. This is an example of what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—we spontaneously generate arguments for conclusions we want to support. Once you find something hateful, it is easy to argue that exposure to the hateful thing could traumatize some other people. You believe that you know how others will react, and that their reaction could be devastating. Preventing that devastation becomes a moral obligation for the whole community. Books for which students have called publicly for trigger warnings within the past couple of years include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (at Rutgers, for “suicidal inclinations”) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (at Columbia, for sexual assault).
Trigger warnings: more harm than good? - Telegraph

Three essential points about trigger warnings, Neil Gaiman, and Kameron Hurley; or Trigger warning: Shetterly

Part 2: Yes, some people literally did not understand that Steve Brust was speaking metaphorically

Frederick Douglass and Henry Louis Gates on free speech and hate speech

Frederick Douglass

"To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker." —Frederick Douglass, "A Plea for Free Speech in Boston"

Henry Louis Gates

From "Critical Race Theory and Freedom of Speech" in The Future of Academic Freedom, edited by Louis Menard, University of Chicago Press, 1996:
What you don't hear from the hate speech theorists is that the first casualty of the MacKinnonite anti-obscenity ruling was a gay and lesbian bookshop in Toronto, which was raided by the police because of a lesbian magazine it carried.
From Presidential Lectures: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
People do bad things, things they know that are bad, for what they feel at the moment were good reasons. One is to institute speech codes. Trample all over the First Amendment, the right of free speech, because we decide that using certain language hurts our fellow human beings—it demeans their humanity. While that might seem like a good idea, the long-term consequences on the right to free expression are far greater than whatever immediate hurt or pain a woman would feel for being called a bitch or a black would feel for being called a nigger. If we're talking about actual physical harm, laws against that exist already. It's not worth it to me to assuage the pain by killing off the First Amendment.
Speech codes are symbolic acts. They let a group of people say, 'This symbolizes that we at the University of Wisconsin are not the sort of community where we would tolerate someone saying the word 'rigger.'' Well, big deal. But there are other symbolic consequences, like what's the effect on freedom of inquiry. I think we're all bigger and more secure than that. I think we have to allow people to say even unpopular things and nasty things in order to protect the right of us to attack our government and say whatever's on our minds.