So after commenting in a discussion of cultural appropriation on Jim Hines’ blog (which I linked to in last week’s Writing the Other post), I’ve been thinking about the topic. And I think I have two or three posts I may want to write on the topic, but the only clear thoughts I have are listed in the title: sex, intent, time.
•Sex. In the intro to this paperback edition of The Sinful Ones (cover art uncredited, all rights to current holder), Fritz Leiber says that dealing with loosening sexual mores while working on this book (it came out 1953) was a real challenge. If he played it safe and stuck to the old consensus on what was acceptable, he’d look like an old fogey; if he amped up the sexual scenes and went further than the new rules allowed, he’d squick readers out. The awkwardness of the scenes, he says, came from trying to thread that needle.
Leiber was obviously not dealing with a cultural appropriation problem but I wonder if it doesn’t compare to some of the current debate in figuring appropriation out: what stories or ideas constitute appropriation, what’s legitimate borrowing, how do you tell the difference? The standards are changing, we’re trying to hammer them into some sort of (maybe) consensus, but there’s still lots of disagreement and uncertainty.
•Intentions. Speaking of disagreements, one of the argument other commenters made at the blog post was that if you’re appropriating someone’s culture and causing pain to the victims, it doesn’t matter what your intentions were. The pain is still there whether you were well-meaning or not, just as the injuries and pain from a car accident exist regardless of whether you intended to hit someone.
I’ve heard this elsewhere, but I can’t get behind it. Intentions do matter in a car accident: if I hit someone while drunk or texting I’ll be judged differently from if I tried to stop but skidded uncontrollably; or if the victim ran out in front of my car before I could stop; or if I’m a crazy racist who hit them because they were black or Latino. The whole point of hate-crime legislation is that intention matters: if A assaults B out of bigotry, it’s different than if they just got into a regular brawl. So I don’t buy intention is irrelevant, though I haven’t thought out what would constitute a good or bad intention.
•Time. Is there a point in time after which appropriation, even if we still acknowledge it, doesn’t matter?
Take vampires. In Dracula Bram Stoker took Eastern European legends, combined them with a historical figure and distorted both out of recognition (folklore vampires aren’t at all like Drac). I’m fairly sure that by most of the standards I’m reading about, that’s cultural appropriation. But it’s been more than a century and generations of Americans have grown up with vampires as part of their own culture. Even if there are Eastern Europeans who resent their legends being tampered with (I know some Romanians resent the negative portrayal of Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula), I don’t think it’s still morally objectionable to write vampire fiction.
Ditto Arthur. Arthur was (most probably) a Celtic warlord rapidly turned into legend after his death. I know at least some Britons (Brittany, now part of France, influenced the legends a lot) resent the legend being turned into books, TV, movies that have nothing to do with Arthur’s roots. But I think pop culture has as good a claim now as his source cultures do.
At what point does this happen? I don’t know. I don’t think it should be an argument to brush off current issues (“It’s been appropriated, it’s everyone now, end of story.”) but like copyright expiring eventually, at some point appropriation should be a non-issue.
It’s possible these assessments are full of shit, but I’m more likely to find out if I put them down in print than if they just lie around in my head.