Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 26, 2016

cultural appropriation, defilement, rituals of purification

I think it's now generally understood that the disaffected cultural left and the disaffected cultural right have become mirror images of each other: the rhetorical and political strategies employed by one side will, soon enough, be picked up by the other. At this particular moment, the right seems to be borrowing from the left — in ways that make many on the left distinctly uncomfortable.

See, for instance, this recent post by Michelle Goldberg, who notices that conservatives who want to protect women from sexual predators disguised as transgendered women are using the same language of “safety” more typically deployed by the left. And Goldberg admits that it’s not easy to say why they shouldn’t:

There’s no coherent ideology in which traumatized students have the right to be shielded from material that upsets them — be it Ovid, 9½ Weeks, or the sentiments of Laura Kipnis — but not from undressing in the presence of people with different genitalia. If we’ve decided that people have the right not to feel unsafe — as opposed to the right not to be unsafe — then what’s the standard for refusing that right to conservative sexual abuse victims? Is it simply that we don’t believe them when they describe the way their trauma manifests? Aren’t we supposed to believe victims no matter what?

And if conservatives can’t logically be denied use of “safe space” language, then they can't be denied appeals to “cultural appropriation.” As I’ve noted before, I don't have a great deal of sympathy for that concept — appropriation is what cultures do — and I found myself cheering when I read these comments by C. E. Morgan:

The idea that writing about characters of another race requires a passage through a critical gauntlet, which involves apology and self-examination of an almost punitive nature, as though the act of writing race was somehow morally suspect, is a dangerous one. This approach appears culturally sensitive, but often it reveals a failure of nerve. I cannot imagine a mature artist approaching her work in such a hesitant fashion, and I believe the demand that we ought to reveals a species of fascism within the left—an embrace of political correctness with its required silences, which has left people afraid to offend or take a stand. The injunction to justify race-writing, while ostensibly considerate of marginalized groups, actually stifles transracial imagination and is inextricable from those codes of silence and repression, now normalized, which have contributed to the rise of the racist right in our country. When you leave good people afraid to speak on behalf of justice, however awkwardly or insensitively, those unafraid to speak will rise to power.

(Morgan also says “I was taught as a young person that the far political right and the far political left aren’t located on a spectrum but on a circle, where they inevitably meet in their extremity” — which is the point I made at the outset of this post.)

But if you’re going to say that cultural appropriation is a thing, and an opprobrious thing, then you can be absolutely certain that people whose views you despise will make the concept their own. Enter Pepe the frog. Pepe has been appropriated by lefties and normies, and the alt-righties who think he belongs to them are determined to take him back:

“Most memes are ephemeral by nature, but Pepe is not,” @JaredTSwift told me. “He’s a reflection of our souls, to most of us. It’s disgusting to see people (‘normies,’ if you will) use him so trivially. He belongs to us. And we’ll make him toxic if we have to.”

Anything to avoid the pollution of Our Memes being used by Them.

The more I think about these matters, the more I think my understanding of them would benefit by a re-reading of Paul Ricoeur’s great The Symbolism of Evil (1960), especially the opening chapter on defilement. Ricoeur brilliantly explains how people develop rituals of purification in order to dispel the terror of defilement. Our understanding of how we live now would be greatly enriched by a Ricoeurian anthropology of social media.

And with that, I’ll leave you to contemplate the rising political influence of people who think that Pepe the frog is a reflection of their souls.


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