a richer sense of cultural interchange

Some people (I have no idea how many) presume that cultures belong authentically and originally to specific groups of human beings, and when we see aspects of a culture diffuse from their source, that is usually a sign of appropriation (wrongly taking someone else’s property) or else imperialism (imposing one’s culture on others).

These are real phenomena that deserve critical analysis–and sometimes recompense or other kinds of solutions. But they are by no means the only conditions under which ideas (concepts, values, aesthetic principles, styles, stories, technical solutions, artifacts, etc.) diffuse. People also:

  • Peacefully propagate their ideas to others
  • Advertise and sell their ideas
  • Exchange ideas voluntarily
  • Voluntarily exchange goods that also have cultural significance and influence
  • Borrow ideas respectfully
  • Borrow ideas competitively
  • Subversively borrow ideas from more powerful groups
  • Accidentally misunderstand others’ ideas, thereby creating new ones
  • Collaborate voluntarily to create new ideas
  • Discover forgotten ideas from their own past that resemble ideas that are popular elsewhere
  • Create new cultures or nations (ethnogenesis), which usually involves (selective) memory plus imagination and creativity
  • Choose to accentuate their own roots in specific places and times instead of other roots, thus adjusting their sense of who they are
  • Literally intermarry
  • Combine ideas from diverse sources

Sometimes, these processes are good, sometimes they are bad, but they are not automatically one or the other. And they are not exceptional. Once you recognize them, you see them happening all the time, all the way back through history. And that undermines the premise that specific ideas authentically belong to specific groups in the first place.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?; when is cultural appropriation good or bad?; the Oberlin cultural appropriation controversy, revisited; the ethical meanings of indigeneity; diversity, humility, curiosity.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.