The Cultural Appropriation Controversy

Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary

The controversy surrounding “cultural appropriation” has received a huge amount of media attention. The newspapers are full of it, and CBC has seemingly endless panel discussions on the subject. Good people have lost their jobs, and abject apologies have been issued for offending a principle that was unknown until a few short years ago. The fact is that none of these things should have happened. “Cultural appropriation” is an idea that at one time would have been summarily dismissed for what it is: a bad idea. I can write what I want to write. Readers can read what ever they want. You can decide not to read my work, you can praise it, or you can criticize it. Case closed.

But “cultural appropriation” is just one of many bad ideas that receives unmerited attention. Academics spend angst filled days wrestling with the bad idea that “aboriginal science” is the equivalent of real science. It isn’t. Or that “Traditional Knowledge” is the equivalent of five thousand years of accumulated debate, writing, and revising. It is not. They are very different things. In the Courts, judges write volumes about the bad idea that oral history, as interpreted by people with agendas, is the equivalent of written history.

And witness the recent idiocy concerning Senator Beyak’s common sense observations that most of the teachers at Residential Schools were not perverts, and that some good came from the schools. The circus that took place after her mild remarks, with political and religious leaders falling over themselves to denounce her, with feverish comparisons to the Holocaust and slavery, makes one wonder whether Ottawa’s water supply has been compromised. Of course, most of the teachers were decent people who thought they were doing good work. Of course, some good came from the schools. Most of the aboriginal leaders of the last few generations were Residential Schools graduates, for heaven sakes!

But the most alarming thing about how bad ideas are now taken seriously by the mainstream media is that most people in the media don’t seem to recognize a bad idea when they see one. Bad ideas are certainly not confined to the realm of aboriginal issues. I first noticed the alarming decline of the mainstream media during the time of the Danish cartoon controversy. At that time it was very clear to many of us that the media of the Free World should have immediately republished the offending cartoons in all western papers. Perhaps they could have included rude cartoons of Jesus, Buddha and maybe even some of Richard Dawkins, to make the point that the issue was free speech, and a free press, not Islam. The freedoms that had taken hundreds of bloody years to obtain were not about to be sacrificed to salve the feelings of people whose holy book told them it was bad to publish rude cartoons. Our freedoms are far more important than that.  And they are far more important than “cultural appropriation” or any other new term dreamed up by any vocal aggrieved group. But the media didn’t do that. Instead it gave in to intimidation, and decided that mollifying an aggrieved group was more important than defending the press freedom that their forbears had given lives for. Maybe that was the day when the rot set in.

It is time to reverse that trend. We can start by recognizing bad ideas, and not being afraid to call them that. A bad idea is a bad idea, and being offended when others appropriate your culture is a bad idea. It happened from the beginning of time and it will continue to happen till time ends.

Will we recognize this, or when the little boy says “I can see the Emperor’s bare bum” will we turn away and pretend that we did not see?

Brian Giesbrecht, a retired Manitoba Judge, is Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy