Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Dunces: Jeremy Lam And The Cultural Appropriation Police”

Huh! I didn’t know this was traditional Chinese business attire! Imagine: This is what Marco Polo must have seen!

The most amusing reaction to the apotheosis of progressive silliness that was the attacks on Utah high-schooler Keziah Daum for wearing a Chinese-style prom dress came from China, where the South China Post’ s Alex Lo, who authored a column titled, “Go ahead, appropriate my culture.” He wrote in part,

If anyone thinks social media is harmless, this incident should prove otherwise. A person called Jeremy Lam apparently first tweeted about her transgression, which is now being called “cultural appropriation”. “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress,” he posted…I apologise in advance for contributing to the silliness, but just needed to get it off my chest.  A publication as esteemed as The Independent of London ran a column supportive of the criticism.“The debate her prom pictures have prompted is justified,” the columnist wrote. “Cultural appropriation is about power, and to many she is the embodiment of a system that empowers white people to take whatever they want, go wherever they want and be able to fall back on: ‘Well, I didn’t mean any harm’.”

I would argue those who scream loudest about cultural appropriation are themselves after power…Why does Jeremy Lam think Chinese is his culture? Is his the same as mine? Is it some kind of property like an inheritance? If so, where is the will, written in our DNA, perhaps? And is it taxable or payable, and by whom? Why did Lam write in English? Isn’t he inappropriately appropriating English-speaking culture? …SJWs turn culture into some kind of finite asset, a zero-sum rather than a growing-sum game. They are oblivious or ignorant of how human cultures actually work: culture is cultural appropriation.

The topic sparked many excellent comments here, including this Comment of the Day by Alexander Cheezem…on the post, Ethics Dunces: Jeremy Lam And The Cultural Appropriation Police:

It’s worth noting the issue of what I can only call — with much irony — aggregation bias here. There _has_ to be a term for it that doesn’t rely on punning off a statistical concept, though…”

In reflection, I suppose that what’s going on is technically a variant of the ecological fallacy — but it’s manifesting as a form of bias (in the non-statistical sense) based on the aggregation of behavior… so the term isn’t quite right, leading me right back to punning off of the statistical concept. I can’t explain the issue without a massive amount of technical language (e.g. “the emergent nature of many features of a complex system”).

And that is a huge problem with modern liberalism.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the ecological fallacy is the confusion of things between levels of aggregation: inappropriately drawing conclusions about individuals from group data, for instance. Something that’s true about inner-city students as a group isn’t necessarily true about a particular student who happens to be from the inner city, so even if they have lower test scores on average than other groups, it doesn’t mean that a particular student from the inner city didn’t get a perfect SAT result.

In research, the classic example of this is a 1897 study by a French sociologist named Durkheim on religion and suicide. While the book in question (Le Suicide) is quite fascinating for a variety of reasons, one conclusion he drew was that Protestants were more likely to off themselves than Catholics… because suicide rates were higher in Protestant countries than in Catholic ones.

While it’s perhaps somewhat apocryphal, I was once told in a lecture that a follow-up analysis found that Protestants were in Protestant-dominated areas were being jerks to Catholics, leading to the higher rates of Catholic suicides in Protestant countries. I have no idea whether it’s true or not, but the story helps illustrate the problem with Durkheim’s inference quite nicely.

We see a similar failure in reasoning when dealing with racism all the time. Just to throw out an example, there’s a good bit of credible evidence for racial bias in jury decisions. One study — I can’t remember the citation offhand — showed “jurors” the exact same evidence in regards to a crime, with the only difference being the skin color of the defendant in the provided photograph. The “jurors” who got the dossier with a “black” defendant were more likely to both think him guilty and to support harsher sentencing.

However, this doesn’t mean that any particular defendant was convicted or acquitted on the basis of their race — or that their sentencing was due to it, either. The inability to see this distinction, however, contributes tremendously to a wide variety of fiascos — and the entire Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown affairs come immediately to mind.

In this case, “cultural appropriation” is a term that describes a systemic issue in the way our culture treats the iconography and practices of minority cultures… and there are very much legitimate issues there (hint: it’s only polite to respect other people’s cultures and ways of life). However, rather than understanding this nuance and addressing things on a systemic and cultural level, an absurdly large number of people are instead indiscriminately focusing on individual incidents and “examples” regardless of any elements of intent, context, or nuance in general.

And yes, there’s nuance there: a sliding, multidimensional scale of respect and mockery in the inevitable cultural cross-pollination that occurs when groups of people meet or interact. Because of this, there’s plenty of room for a nuanced conversation on how we should treat other people and other cultures… but we aren’t having it because of the current trend of throwing all nuance and perspective out with the bathwater-isms.

And, in the end, that trend of discarding nuance and understanding in order to cater to immediate emotional reactions simply isn’t going to do us — or any minority groups — any good. It is, after all, a good bit of what brought us President Donald Trump.

5 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Dunces: Jeremy Lam And The Cultural Appropriation Police”

  1. Many years ago I was one of those claiming ‘cultural appropriation’ from time to time, so I have some sympathy for Lam’s attempt at culture control. Mr. Cheezum is right that it’s difficult to have any real dialogue on the subject when there is an accuser pointing at individual acts, rather than a nuanced discussion.

    The day I took my brain back on the matter was when I saw a black kid with a mohawk. At first I assumed this kid appropriated the mohawk he was rocking. Then suddenly I realized I’m both Native & black & that this kid may not be appropriating anything because maybe he was part Native too (and he was a kid for crying out loud). The truth was there was no way to know unless I decided to ask this kid what his racial background was. Which would be ironically racial profiling.

    Expand this scenario to my wife’s family where a full sister & brother are the same exact racial mix, yet one is whiter than white & the other looks more like he’d be my sibling. Then add that my wife’s younger siblings never spent time living on the rez, whereas my very Irish looking wife grew up on one & was directly effected by the circumstances of living there. So who is the real Native and who gets to wear that mohawk?

    At the heart of the cultural appropriation movement is theatrical grievance. It’s the Church of the Perpetually Offended and often it’s those who receive no direct harm from another’s so-called appropriation that yells the loudest. It’s about being an ally, a warrior, a hero, and most importantly, an expert who yields his outrage to gain personal power/attention.

    A ‘change agent’ is just a nice way of saying – one who seeks to discipline others into conformity. Sadly I was one of those people, thinking I could guilt others into making the world a better place. Now I eat taco pizza on Cinco de Mayo, which is a lot more fun.

  2. Good COTD. I agree most with Alex Lo, especially:

    “I would argue those who scream loudest about cultural appropriation are themselves after power[…][The loudest American] SJWs turn culture into some kind of finite asset, a zero-sum rather than a growing-sum game. They are oblivious or ignorant of how human cultures actually work: culture is cultural appropriation.”

    • And no culture has ever in human History appropriated more cultures into its own. They couldn’t be separated out even if ….. Oh, wait! Isn’t that what the SJW’s want?

      Okay, say we’re now cut up into 42,000 groups (by a couple of DNA percentages). Now what? Do they think even a California minute ahead??

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