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Thoughts on Cultural Sharing

Brian D. Rude    March 2015


       This is the text of a talk I gave at my church the other day. "UU" means Unitarian Universalist, for those who might not know. It's a pretty small denomination, but traces its history in America back to our Puritan founders of Massachusetts. We are lay led, meaning we do not have a professional minister. We have a part time lay leader who gives one service a month. The other services are given by church members, or non-members, who want to do it. I led this service just because it was an opportunity to share some ideas on a topic that I considered to have some moral, philosophical, and religious significance. I was not able to get every idea I discuss below in my talk due to time constraints, but this was the text I spoke from.

       Today I want today to mention a few ideas about cultural sharing. Is cultural sharing a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Are there ways it can be done poorly, or ways that it can be done objectionably? I'm going to give a few examples and ask you to think about them.

       Imagine this scenario. It is a fourth grade classroom. Kids read pretty well at this level, but reading still needs to be taught, and it is taught pretty much by reading stories and discussing them. One of the stories of this fourth grade has a setting in a Mexican village. Two characters in this story are a brother and a sister in elementary school, and several things about their culture are described briefly in the story, a pinata, a fiesta, a mariachi band, perhaps a few Mexican foods. Is this a good thing? Should reading books in American elementary schools have stories which give a picture of another culture?

       This is not meant to be a trick question. My answer is very simple. Yes, I believe it is a good thing. I have a vague memory of such stories in my elementary school education. I didn't give them a lot of thought at the time. We had to read stories, so I read them. I did what I was told, though generally I didn't have a whole lot of interest in stories. Even by fourth grade I think I was more interested in reading for knowledge, than in reading stories. I think if you were to ask me in the fourth grade if it's good to read stories about people in other cultures, I would say yes. Actually, I think I would interpret the situation as having a politically correct answer. I would try intuit that correct answer. It would only take me a second or so to decide that "yes" is the correct answer. So I would answer that yes, it is good. It's good to read about characters out of our immediate neighborhood, and it's good to learn about other cultures.

       Today I still have no argument with that answer, though at the moment, of course, I'm not trying to intuit a politically correct answer. I am trying to analyze and come up with an answer that I believe in. Yes, I believe it is good to read about characters outside of our immediate world, and to learn about other cultures. I would go farther now than I would have as a child. I would say it's good to identify with people of other cultures. It seems a part of my universalism values to do so. I might even say it's part of my universalism identity to do so.

       Would anyone argue with this general answer? Would anyone say that it's not good for elementary school children to read about, and identify with people from other cultures? Would anyone say that we don't need stories about children in Mexican villages in fourth grade American classrooms? Or stories about children in Toyko, or children in colonial America, or children in a twenty-fifth century space colony, or children in Samoa, or children in a Muslim village in Indonesia, or children in a primitive tribe of headhunters in nineteenth century Brazil?

       Okay, that last one might be something to think about. But all the rest seem good to me. I have a vague memory of a story in my elementary school days, perhaps fourth grade, about children in Finland. Was that bad? Was that good? At the time I gave it no thought at all, but looking back I would say, yes, it was good. It was nothing special, but yes, it's good for elementary school children in American classrooms to be exposed to stories set in other cultures. And I think everyone here would probably agree with me on that. If you don't, I'd be interested in knowing why, but let's not open the floor for discussion at the moment. I have a few other things to mention.

       Here is my next example. Some years ago, probably 2002, my wife and I went to a Jewish folk dance event. It was free. The announcement said something to the effect of, come have fun, learn some Jewish folk dances. So we we did. And indeed it was fun. There was probably about ten or twenty people who came. Two young women taught us maybe half a dozen dances. Does that qualify as cultural sharing? Was it a good thing to do? Can a grinch find fault with it some way?

       Well, I often call myself a grinch, but I was not a grinch that night. The announcement said to come have fun, and we did. I'd like to say we learned a few traditional Jewish dances, but actually you don't learn a dance by going through it only once. We learned a little, but nothing remained of that learning after a day or so. But was it cultural sharing? And was that good? Would you say it's good, just from what I have described? If not, why not?

       Again this is not a trick question, and again, it is not my intention to open the floor to discussion. There might be ways to find fault with this event, but that is not my aim at the moment. At the time it was simply an enjoyable event, and it remains in my mind that way today. The goal of the event, we learned, is indeed cultural sharing. It was sponsored by some Jewish organization at the university there. The idea, we gathered, was to to promote good relations between the Jewish world and the general public. I'd call it a success, but not because we learned a whole lot, about Jewish dancing, or Jewish culture, or anything else. It's relevance to my talk today is simply that the event happened because cultural sharing was seen as a good thing, by both the organization that sponsored it and the people who came to it. That seems to be the general idea in modern American life, or, I think, in the entire civilized world. Cultural sharing is good. And I agree.

       Now I want to go back in history a bit. A year or so ago I did a service on Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island. I've forgotten most of what I learned, but I do remember that Roger Williams was way ahead of his time in some ways. One very important thing he did was to reach out to the Indian tribes in the area. I think he actively cultivated good relations with them, though I don't know any details. And I think in general he was rewarded for his efforts by many years of peaceful relations with them, though I don't think we should be surprised if there were some unpleasant happenings along the way. I'm afraid I don't know much about that. I think the important thing is that in that time if people thought about cultural sharing at all, they probably didn't think much of it. I presume the conventional wisdom at the time, among both Europeans and Indians was that the other guys were savages and we shouldn't want anything to do with them. So there was a lot of conflict and bloodshed for a few centuries. The relative peace between Rhode Island and neighboring Indian tribes would seem to be an argument that cultural sharing is a good thing.

       Or was there cultural sharing between Rhode Island and Indians? I really don't know much about it. Maybe they managed to simply maintain a truce for many decades while knowing nothing about each other. I really don't know about that. But it seems reasonable to me that cultural sharing must have occurred to some extent. From what I've read I think it was something more than just a military truce that managed to hold for a long time. I think it is a matter of historical record that Roger Williams and his followers had enlightened attitudes, compared to others at that time, I would think that some cultural sharing must have occurred, and it must have done some good.

       What about foreign exchange programs in which high school students from one country spend a year going to school in another country? They have the express purpose of cultural sharing. Is that good? I think it is.

       You're probably thinking I must be coming to a “yes, but . . .” somewhere in this talk. You may be suspicious that at some point I am going to say, “Yes, cultural sharing is good, but . . . . . “ No, that's not where I'm heading, but I am going to change a bit now.

       What I want to do next is share an article that I came across about a year ago on the internet. I don't remember just how I came across this article. I suppose it was a link from something else I was looking at. Anyway it's an article titled “Why I Can't Stand White Belly Dancers”. I'll quote a few sentences from the beginning of this article.

       “Google the term “belly dance” and the first images the search engine offers are of white women in flowing, diaphanous skirts, playing at brownness. How did this become acceptable?”

       I think right there you can see the general tenor of this article. The author, apparently is Arabic, or at least has some Arabic connection, and in her view it is simply not okay for a person who is not Arabic to belly dance.

       Next in this article is a paragraph or two about the author's personal experience with belly dance and Arab culture. Then comes this paragraph.

       “One of the most awkward occurrences for me when I go out to an Arabic restaurant is the portion of the evening when the white belly dancer comes out. This usually happens on weekends, and I've learned to avoid those spaces then, but sometimes I forget. The last time I forgot, a white woman came out in Arab drag—because that's what that is, when a person who's not Arab wears genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as “Arabic” because it's metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind—and began to belly-dance. She was not a terrible belly dancer. But she was incredibly thin and didn't remind me, in any way of . . . . .”

       Here she mentions several names of what must be Arabic belly dancers.

       What are we to make of this? Isn't cultural sharing good? I set out examples in which you were invited to agree that yes, cultural sharing is good. But here we have a bit of evidence that maybe it's not always good. This author, as best I can tell, argues that cultural sharing is not good. It's not okay to enjoy something that comes from another culture. She calls it “appropriation”. It's not okay to appropriate something from another culture.

       I disagree with her profoundly. But her article certainly gives us some food for thought. Maybe it's not always okay to take something from another culture. Can you think of examples?

       Is it okay to enjoy jazz? Well, I think it is okay, though I've never warmed up to jazz a whole lot myself, especially improvisation. As I understand it, jazz originated from black culture. So maybe we should keep our hands off it. Some might argue that, but I am not one of them.

       Two or three years ago while serfing utube video clips on the internet I came across Slovenian music and took an instant liking to it. Is that okay? I not only liked the music, I stole it. I and one or two others do most of the music for our church, and often we'll do an instrumental piece as prelude music, or a short meditative piece during offertory. A number of melodies that we have used for prelude or offertory music are slovenian tunes that I discovered on the internet and laboriously transcribed so we could play them. I am unrepentant. I'm not done stealing slovenian tunes yet. I think culture sharing is a good thing. I intend to keep right on doing it.

       Here's a similar example that is pretty close to home. We have a few songs in our church that, so far as I know, are distinctly Unitarian. “Come Sing A song With Me” is a good example. Would you be offended, (I asked the congregation) if I took that song, our song, and passed out copies at a singing circle? Would that be a good thing to do? Well, I think it would be a good thing, and I think you would agree that it's a good thing, and indeed I have done exactly that, on two different occasions, and people liked that song. So I consider that I have done a good thing.

       At this point I want to differentiate between three levels of cultural sharing. Perhaps “level” is not the right word, and the boundares between the levels are not always clear cut, but I think the differentiation is useful. The first level is simple curiosity. The second level is contact and communication. The third level is what I will call incorporation. By this I mean pretty much what the author of this article calls appropriation.

       I won't say much about curiosity, other to say that we have plenty of evidence that people have a certain amount of curiosity about people who are different from them. In the musical Camelot, King Arthor wondered, “What do the simple folk do?”. Is that a part of human nature? Is it realistic to portray King Arthor as having a curiosity about how different people live? I think it is realistic. I think a curiosity about other people is a part of our human nature. And it's not hard to see how it would have evolved. I would expect that societies that are curious about other societies can benefit in various ways.

       Curiosity by itself is something short of actually acquring knowledge about people different from ourselves. I'll call that the second level of cultural sharing. Do we have an evolutionary tendency to want to contact strange people, to communicate with them, and learn from them? Well, I observe that it happens a lot, so I think it's built into our species. But if someone wants to argue that is a product of culture, not nature, I'm not sure it would be worth arguing about. Either way it happens a lot. My question is, is it okay to learn about other cultures? I think it is. Roger Williams apparently made contact with neighboring Indians, with good results. Cultural exchange programs typically promote learning about different cultures. In general I think the civilized world sees contact and learning about other cultures as good. I certainly do. We can imagine some cultures that discourage any contact or learning about other cultures, but we would consider them not very enlightened. We have foreign exchange programs because we do believe that learning about people different than ourselves is good. Should we revisit that idea? No, I don't think we should.

       The next level of cultural sharing, which I tend to call incorporation, and the author of this article calls appropriation, consists of adopting into one culture something from another culture. Is that okay? Have you ever adopted something frrom another culture in to your culture? Or, has your culture ever adopted something from another culture? Or have other cultures ever adopted something from your culture? Of course the answer to that is yes. There is no end of examples.

       The author of the bellydance article seems to think incorporation is not good. Of course she only talks about belly dance. We would have to guess on her attitudes of other examples of incorporating of a trait from one culture into another culture. My perspective is that only in a few specialzed cases is incorporation, or appropriation, as the belly dance author calls it, not admirable, or not even moral.

       The examples of incorporation are endless and easy to come by. I'll mention a few. Is it okay that the American language has lots and lots of words of spanish origin? Should you refuse to buy a package of frozen burritos at the grocery store because burrito is a word of Mexican origin, and a burrito is a food of foreign origin? Should you complain to the manager of the store? Should the english word “rodeo” be replaced by some word that doesn't have a hispanic origin. Should we not go to redeos because the whole conceptof rodeo developed in spanish cultures?

       How would you feel if you discovered that people in foreign lands have appropriated English words? Would you be offended? Should you be offended? Well, I don't think you would be, and I don't think you should be. English has been in the process of becoming a world language for a long time now, and I don't think that process is going to stop anytime soon. If you're offended, you're a little late. If you are offended that the term “tee shirt” has found its way into many foreign languages, what are you going to do about it? And why should anyone think you should do anything about it?

       The French, I understand, don't like it when foreign words enter their language. Should we follow their example? I don't think so.

       The author or of the belly dance article wrote it in English, or at least I read it in English. Is that okay? From what she says in the article I don't think English is her native language. Is she guilty of appropriation by publishing her article in English?

       Is it okay for people not of European descent to adopt anything European? Remember Urkel? That's Steven Urkel, if I remember right. You may remember him as a kid in a situation comedy on television a few decades ago. I don't watch much TV and I don't know much about that show, but I do remember that Urkel played the accordion. Is that Okay? Urkel is black. Is it okay for a black kid to play the accordion? Isn't that appropriation?

       Well, you can guess my opinion on this. Yes, it's okay. I have played accordion half my life and I'll celebrate anyone playing the accordion.

       Do you know the name Charlie Parker? I don't know much about him. I'm sure he's dead now. But what I do know is that he played jazz on the saxophone. He was one of the greats on saxophone. And he was black. Should somebody have told him when he was a kid that he shouldn't play a European instrument? I think you can guess my opinion on that. I don't have to be a fan of jazz to say that I like the idea that American Jazz has spread to the whole world.

       But the author of the bellydance article argues that it's wrong for white women to belly dance. She calls it appropriation and considers it a bad thing. I disagreed with her when I first read the article and I continue to disagree with her. I think cultural sharing is good.

       Is it a good idea to have foreign exchange students? I have always thought it was a very good idea, for the other guy of course. I would be awful anxious having a son or daughter in a foreign land. But isn't cultural sharing the purpose of having foreign exchange programs? So if the author of the belly dance article is saying that cultural sharing is bad, then I guess she wouldn't care for cultural exchange programs.

       There are a zillion other examples of incorporation of one cultural trait into another culture that I could mention. However I would not argue that such incorporation is never wrong. I can give one example of incorporation that I back away from.

       This example is again from music. You may know that for years I have taken tunes I liked, mostly Christian hymn tunes, and tried to find Unitarian words for them, or in some cases, to actually write words suitable for Unitarians. However I can name you two beautiful tunes that I won't steal. One is “Were You There” and the other is “The Old Rugged Cross”. I think of both of these hymns as deeply meaningful and moving to believing Christians, and so I simply don't want to use them.

       And then there is the issue of intellectual property rights. Copyright laws may sometimes prevent some cultural sharing, but that is not their intent or their purpose. Indeed I think it can be argued that intellectual property rights promote cultural sharing. Copyright holders want to make money. They do that by sharing with everyone they can. They want to sell to the whole world, and in today's world, they often do.

       Can you pirate a dance that is copyrighted? I don't know. Think about variety shows on television. There's a lot of dancing and a lot of music. I don't know much about such things. I know music is routinely copyrighted, and when anyone, a television or movie producer, for example, wants to use a popular song in a show he will be careful to know he is entitled to use it, or he will take steps to get permission. Perhaps the same sitution applies for at least some dances. But I think it is important that in either case, a song or a dance, issues of copyright are quite separate from issues of whether or not it's okay to incorporate something from one culture into another culture. If a producer of a variety show discovers a special type of rock and roll has evolved in some obscure region of Kentucky, he will be concerned about possible copyright problems, but would a producer take an attitude like the author of the belly dance article? Would the producer think, “I just don't think we should show footage of that kind of music. It's their music. We should leave it alone.” I don't think he would, or should. I think he wants to make it available to the world. He wants to make money, of course, but I think he also would hold the common opinion that culture sharing is a good thing.

       So after all this conjecturing I am right back where I started from. I think cultural sharing is good. My concern with the article on belly dancing has shifted. I started out wondering if we really should put limits on cultural sharing, but now when I think about that article I think about the author. I would use the term “culturally defensive” to describe her, or perhaps “culturally possessive”. I think of that as not a good thing for a person, or for a culture. So, of course, I wonder how she got that way. There might be lessons to learn if we could figure out how she got that way, but at this point I surely don't know what those lessons would be.

       The phenomenon of cultural defensiveness seems to me to be a wholly different thing from the basic question of whether cultural sharing is a good thing or not. From all the thinking I have done on cultural sharing, I conclude that cultural defensiveness is not usually a problem. I took a year of Spanish in high school and three semesters of German in college. In these classes we explicitly were expected to learn at least a little about the cultures that speak the language, but I don't recall any mention or consideration given to dealing with cultural defensiveness. The two young women who conducted the Jewish dancing event I mentioned said nothing that I would interpret as having anything to do with cultural defensiveness. Should there be issues related to cultural defensiveness in stories in elementary school books that have settings in foreign cultures? I wouldn't think so.

       I know nothing about foreign exchange student programs. Perhaps organizations that administer such programs have some guidelines, or advice, or training on dealing with cultural defensiveness. That would seem to make sense, but I've never heard anything about it.

       I think cultural defensiveness, or cultural possessiveness is relatively rare. Most cultures are glad to propagate themselves throughout the whole world. Indeed I had never even thought about cultural defensiveness until very recently when working on this talk.

       So I will leave the topic of cultural defensiveness. It might be a good topic to pick up at some other time.