the sublime narcissism of getting offended on other people’s behalf

A few months back I got into a Twitter argument about the uselessness of complaints about cultural appropriation, in particular a muscular form that takes it as offensive to consume the goods of cultures to which one does not belong — food, clothing, music, and so on. I pointed out the usual problems with this thinking. All culture is hybrid; there is no place where legitimate appreciation ends and shameful appropriation begins; a world without cultural borrowing is a bleak and terrible place; and as I’ve said many times, saying “you should only consume that which comes from your own culture” is functionally identical to the efforts of white supremacists to keep the people pure.

Maybe most importantly, given that cultures are always large, diffuse, and made up of lots of different people, the idea of appropriation has to inevitably posit some ideal member of the group, when in reality all cultures are made up of many people. I had very earnest Twitterers telling me that American Chinese food is appropriation, not seeming to grasp that it was Chinese people who spread their cuisine in the United States, in order to make a living. In much the same way, thought white people doing yoga has been attacked as cultural appropriation, it was in fact a concerted effort by Indian people to spread the practice that has caused it to become an economic juggernaut in the West. Certainly members of those cultures can get mad at the other members of the cultures who spread these things. But they can hardly do so by claiming cultural appropriation on the part of those who they disagree with. Nor can any of us from outside those cultures rightly decide who’s an “authentic” member of the Chinese or Indian culture. But in order to make these complaints, you have to: you are, by definition, asserting a right to define the authentic for a culture you don’t belong to in order to claim that the authentic has been somehow corrupted.

What inevitably happens, when white progressives complain about culture appropriation, is the denial of the agency of people from other cultures. To accept the idea that, say, an art museum holding an event at which people wear kimonos is necessarily a heinous act of appropriation is to presume that you know that no Japanese people would ever approve of such a thing, even though actual people in Japan will be very happy to at least sell you a kimono. I’m sure some Japanese people wouldn’t like Kimono Wednesdays. I’m sure some Japanese people would find it flattering. I’m sure many wouldn’t care either way. A common response to the controversy, in Japan, appears to have been bewilderment that anyone could be upset about it. But to become offended on the behalf of Japanese people, you have to presume that Japanese people have no agency. You have to presume that no Japanese person could say to him- or herself “I’m gonna make a choice, not as an avatar of a culture of millions of people but as an individual, to accept/encourage/facilitate white Americans wearing kimonos.” In place of their agency, you put your own righteous judgment.

I’ve heard very passionate white academics talk about “the legacy of colonialism” at play when it comes to the love of some white people for aspects of Japanese culture. This is a confusing moment; I’m never sure if they’re aware that Japan was never colonized in traditional terms by white people, though of course the forcing open of their ports and the end of World War II involved many of the same functions. The point is that Japan can’t be simply forced into some simplistic conquering Europeans vs. conquered Others narrative, in large measure because Japan was itself a colonial power. To point that out isn’t to excuse the horrific historical crimes that have been committed against Japan, the greatest of which is the unforgivable bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The point is that the dialogue of cultural appropriation presumes impossible weakness on the part of other countries. It claims to speak from a place of ultimate respect towards the nonwhite people of the world, but it treats them as permanently neutered children, incapable of making change in the world or having their own ideas about the proper spread of their own cultural artifacts.

There’s a profound sense in which appropriation presumes the desires of white supremacists: it assumes out of existence the power of non-white people.

I thought about that when I read this post about the pickup line Jason Sudeikis used on his fiance, Olivia Wilde. The post concerns whether or not Sudeikis’s line is “skeevy or sweet.” It seems to be of little interest to the writer, Christina Cauterucci, that Olivia Wilde clearly found it the latter. Cauterucci acknowledges that, clearly, Sudeikis’s line worked, but then goes on to ruminate on its appropriateness herself and brings in the opinion of Slate’s personnel and the “Bro internet.” Well, Cauterucci is free to decide if that line would have been creepy if used on her. But the important point is that it wasn’t used on her. Slate’s personnel has no more right to decide for Wilde if Sudekis was inappropriate than it has the right to vote on his marriage proposal. Wilde’s opinion isn’t just an important criterion of whether it was creepy; it’s the only criterion. The things that we say to each other aren’t objectively good or bad but depend on the subjective interpretation of the people we’re saying them to.

In other words, Olivia Wilde has agency, and made her own adult decisions about the nature of Sudeikis’s pickup line, and she is the sole and inviolate authority on her own life. Like, for example, her decision to marry him. Ultimately, so much of contemporary progressive politics involves trampling on this authority, on sticking our own subjective ideas into the lives of others. Like so many other elements of contemporary culture, the economy of offense is revealed to be just another expression of our own ego. We need to remember that we are not the cosmos, that the world is full of other people making their own adult decisions. To forget that isn’t progressive. It’s, well, a kind of imperialism.