The term "sumptuary code" is new to me but it's an interesting concept.
In 1961, the anthropologist William Rowe documented a curious feature of Indian village life. When those of a lower caste—particularly if they were “untouchable”—wore clothing containing threads worn by a higher landlord caste, members of the landlord caste tore the garments from them, beat them and fined them. Rowe called this behavior “upcasteing” and observed that it was a serious social offense.
Similar practices barring access to signifiers of a caste or social grouping superior to one’s own can be found throughout the historical record. In the 7th century B.C., Greek law stipulated that a free-born woman “may not wear gold jewelry or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan.” In ancient Rome, only Roman senators were allowed to wear Tyrian purple on their togas—ordinary Romans could not. In feudal Japan, people of every class submitted to strict laws about what they could and could not wear, according to their social rank. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the nobility policed the clothing of the middle classes, making sure to keep them in their place. In any society in which there has been high levels of inequality—where monarchs and aristocrats have ruled over commoners and slaves—equality in dress has been considered, at the very least, bad manners.
Not too difficult to see where this is going, eh? But if you haven't caught the drift of the argument it becomes more forward.
While sumptuary laws (rules that govern conspicuous consumption, especially of food and clothing) fell mostly out of fashion in the West during the Enlightenment period, they appear to be back in style again, thanks to the orthodoxies of social-justice activism fueled by social media. On April 28, a tweet appeared which read:
My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.
2:34 PM - Apr 27, 2018 · Salt Lake City, UT
The tweet was retweeted nearly 42,000 times and “liked” 178,000 times—viral in social media terms. The flare-up was reported on internationally, and dozens of op-eds both condemning and defending the tweet and the dress spilled forth. Writing in The Independent, Eliza Anyangwe officiously declared that the teenager who wore the offending dress, Keziah Daum, was “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.’” The title of the piece was “Cultural Appropriation Is Never Harmless.” But it failed to define what cultural appropriation actually is.
For most observers, these complaints are bemusing and baffling. For many, no defense or condemnation of cultural appropriation is required, because such complaints are almost beyond the realm of comprehension in the first place. Without cultural appropriation we would not be able to eat Italian food, listen to reggae, or go to Yoga. Without cultural appropriation we would not be able to drink tea or use chopsticks or speak English or apply algebra, or listen to jazz, or write novels. Almost every cultural practice we engage in is the byproduct of centuries of cross-cultural pollination. The future of our civilization depends on it continuing.
Yet the concept was not always so perplexing. Originally derived from sociologists writing in the 1990s, its usage appears to have first been adopted by indigenous peoples of nations tainted by histories of colonization, such as Canada, Australia and the United States. Understandably, indigenous communities have been protective of their sacred objects and cultural artifacts, not wishing the experience of exploitation to be repeated generation after generation. Although one might be quizzical of complaints about a girl wearing a cheongsam to her prom (the United States has never colonized China) even the most tough-minded skeptic should be able to see why indigenous peoples who have historically had their land and territories taken away from them might be unwilling to “share their culture” unconditionally. Particularly when it is applied to the co-opting of a people’s sacred and religious iconography for the base purposes of profit-making, the concept of cultural appropriation seems quite reasonable.
Well, in American academic terms the colonization could be thought to happen in terms of enforced labor on the rail lines and things like that. Critiques of American exceptionalism and imperialism don't have to assume that the United States colonized China to find white appropriation of Chinese cultural customs or objects problematic. Still, the counter-proposal that those objecting to cultural appropriation seeming to be attempting to enforce sumptuary codes could stand. What can seem to those attempting to prevent cultural appropriation might see as a battle against colonialism or imperialism (and I'm not necessarily trying to say that can't really be how they see it) can ALSO be interpreted as the enforcement of sumptuary codes on the part of a self-designated implicit aristocracy that might balk at the prospect of being labeled an actual cultural aristocracy. What kind of aristocrat? Well, at the risk of just being too snarky, the kinds that can afford to go to liberal arts schools and get degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences are the aristocrats ... even if they would exempt themselves by dint of not being the proverbial one percent.
Lehrmann goes on to make the case even more explicit.
Lehrmann goes on to make the case even more explicit.
Nevertheless, the concept quickly becomes baffling when young Westerners, such as Mr. Lam, of the cheongsam tweet, use the term as a weapon to disrupt the natural process of cultural exchange that happens in cosmopolitan societies in which culture is, thankfully, hybrid. When controversies erupt over hoop earrings or sombrero hats or sushi or braids or cannabis-themed parties, the concept of cultural appropriation appears to have departed from its formerly understood meaning—that is, to protect sacred or religious objects from desecration and exploitation. It appears that these newer, more trivial (yet vicious) complaints are the modern-day incarnation of sumptuary laws. [emphasis added]
Elites once policed what their social inferiors could wear, in part to remind them of their inferiority, and in part to retain their own prestige and exclusivity. In Moral Time, the sociologist Donald Black, explains that in feudal and medieval societies, sumptuary laws were often articulated with religious or moralizing language, but their intention and effect was simply to provide a scaffold for existing social hierarchies. Writing in the 15th century, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne made the astute observation in his essay “Of Sumptuary Laws”: “’Tis strange how suddenly and with how much ease custom in these indifferent things establishes itself and becomes authority.”
Now that doesn't necessarily mean I'm all that on board with the Lionel Shriver spiel, which I've blogged about in the past.
Yet Shriver’s metaphorical kneecapping was complete. Her speech was officially disavowed by the organizers of the festival, who threw together a “Right of Reply” seminar session the following day. It is important to note that it was never suggested that Shriver actually committed colonial crimes that had harmed people of color. It was simply suggested that she was guilty by association, presumably because of the color of her own skin.
I wasn't really all that won over by either Shriver or Shriver's critics a couple of years back and so while I get why Shriver's talks would be pertinent to discussing sumptuary codes as protesting cultural appropriation I'm just not sure Shriver's approach is the best alternative. In the sense that any white author could be guilty of cultural appropriation by dint of having the "default" culture there's nevertheless a problem with that in that cultural appropriation tends to have just a "punching down" element to its deployment in academic and polemical discourse. If anyone is unclear on what I'm getting at a "punching down" cultural appropriation would be when middle class or upper class whites get into jazz or blues or whatever African American music may be at hand in a big at a kind of artistic authenticity (cf Raymond Knapp's monograph on Haydn and Camp). "Punching up" could be the ostensibly lowbrow jazz musician quoting Chopin at the end of a piece like Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy".
And that gets at a paradox about preventing cultural appropriation in connection to sumptuary codes. People who are I a position to see cultural appropriation as "punching down" have to be educationally high enough to see something as "punching down" in a way that the truly uneducated (whatever we mean by that) may not. or to put things another way, when people say genres in music don't exist but were invented by record labels to sell music there's another way to put that, a way not preferred, perhaps, by college students and graduates--the lines between white and black working class music may not be as big across that real divide as the divide between working class music (white or black) and the middle class or upper class standards of art and artistic achievement and art history that would cordon off the high and low.
Victimhood culture departs from dignity culture in several important ways. Moral worth is in large part defined by the color of one’s skin, or at least one’s membership in a fixed identity group: i.e., women, people of color, LGBTIQ, Muslims, or indigenous peoples. Such groups are sacred, and a lack of deference to them is seen as a sign of deviance. The reverse is true for those who belong to groups that are considered historical oppressors: whites, males, straight people, Zionists. Anyone belonging to an “oppressor” group is stained by their privilege, or “whiteness,” and is cast onto the moral scrapheap.
... maybe ... but even Jewish people can be against applied Zionism. That gets complex and delicate really quickly. The implications of this can be more complex in both theory (!) and practice than Lehrmann may be granting. Intersectionality means that at one level merely being a person of color is not necessarily sufficient if you are to advocate against cultural appropriation. You might theoretically rate high on sexuality but low on the basis of skin color and class. Which is to say that a gay man who is white and votes for Republicans may get no quarter on the matter of being part of an oppressor caste merely by dint of sexuality/orientation. Caitlyn Jenner is no longer thought of in heroic terms in the LGBTIQ orbit simply for having decided to transition ... which may or may not indicate another, more paradoxical element about elements that are tangential to cultural appropriation concerns. Merely being trans isn't enough, either, to keep a person from being seen as basically sympathetic to an oppressor group.
Lerhmann's proposal that those concerned with preventing cultural appropriation are enforcing sumptuary codes more than they are actually combating cultural appropriation or even defining why it's bad draws on some other writing, which is not too surprising. Victimhood culture gets invoked.
In a recent interview in the online magazine which I edit, Quillette, I asked Campbell and Manning what they thought about cultural appropriation. They explained that they found such complaints baffling, like everybody else, but that they also “illustrate victimhood culture quite well.” One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.”
One might make the case that while complaints about cultural appropriation are annoying, they are ultimately harmless. What is the harm in showing deference to peoples who have historically been the victims of exploitation, discrimination, and unfair treatment? What is the harm in showing respect and compliance with these new rules—isn’t it a way of making up for past sins?
The short answer to these questions is, no. The notion that a person can be held as responsible for actions that he or she did not commit strikes at the very heart of our conception of human rights and justice.
This reminds me of an incident a family member had. There was an American Indian guy who declared to my relative, "You stole my land. You sent me to Vietnam." The relative pointed out that, having been born in the mid-1970s they could not have stolen the man's tribal lands or sent him to Vietnam. Since this was Seattle the relative asked the American Indian man, "What tribe are you?"
"I'm Apache." the man replied.
"Well, go back to Texas. This was Duwamish land."
"I ain't ever heard of a Duwamish tribe." the man said.
"Well, then, you're out of luck because my dad's American Indian and his tribe was always here. So, if anything, this is more legitimately my homeland than it ever was yours and you should go, if that's how this has to be."
That is a general reconstruction of how the conversation went, give or take some necessary imagining since I wasn't there for the incident myself. One of the risks of an American Indian randomly claiming to a guy who looks white that said white-looking guy stole his land and sent him to Vietnam is that there's a chance, however tiny, that the accosted guy turns out to be descended from a native PNW tribe that couldn't possibly have been involved in sending an Apache to Vietnam in the 1960s or 1970s. If the best rebuttal at hand is to say you've never heard of the Duwamish tribe then, well, it blunts the potential power of the claim "you stole my land." The tribes of the PNW couldn't really have been much involved in dispossessing the Apache.
But that doesn't mean that people willing to deploy lazy racist stereotypes won't keep using them, obviously.
Despite the length and breadth (if not always depth, perhaps) of the Western tradition of liberalism it seems as though groups have a hard time shaking the notion of real and lasting group guilt. In Christian theological terms a term that comes to mind is imputation. It can seem weirdly easy in the abstract for someone to say they don't see how or why it's fair for a person to be held to the consequences of a sin that some primal human like Adam or Eve may have committed ... and yet the cases against celebrating or observing Columbus Day suggest that it's really, really easy to understand collective guilt and imputation when the subject is Western European colonialism. Since I affirm that original sin is real and significant it's very easy for me to affirm collective guilt in connection to Adamic sin on the one hand and the outworking of that Adamic legacy in Western imperialist terms. The tension is arguably for those who insist on rejecting altogether one conception of imputation while insisting on the relevancy of inherited group guilt in some other context.
So ... while urging us to remember that in the West we argue that a person is responsible for their sins alone (Ezekiel 18:20 comes to mind) ...
We used to take calls for collective punishment much more seriously. In the 1949 Geneva Convention it was determined that: “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed.” Collective punishment was seen as a tactic designed to intimidate and subdue an entire population. The drafters of the Geneva Convention clearly had in mind the atrocities committed in WWI and WWII where entire villages and communities suffered mass retribution for the resistance activities of a few. In their commentary on the outlawing of collective punishment the International Red Cross stated: “A great step forward has been taken. Responsibility is personal and it will no longer be possible to inflict penalties on persons who have themselves not committed the acts complained of.”
In times of peace, collective punishment may come in the form of social media dust-ups over sombrero hats or Chinese dresses. Gradual softening on the taboo of collective punishment does not bode well for the health of liberal democracies. Which is also why it is important for us all to remember that social-justice activists who complain about cultural appropriation only represent themselves, and not the minority groups to which they belong. When Jeremy Lam complained about Keziah Daum’s cheongsam, other Asian-Americans and mainland Chinese people rebuked him for being “offended over nothing.” Hundreds of Chinese and Asian-American people have now responded to Daum’s original tweet commenting on how pretty she looked in the dress, and how they felt that she did nothing wrong. Replies include:
Lehrmann could have, perhaps, been even more explicit and outright suggested that victimhood culture seems to exist in those insulated bubbles of generally better-educated college students and graduates who are attempting to enforce sumptuary codes in the name of social justice.
...As the drama of social-justice activism unfolds, one of the biggest mistakes we could make is to think that the loudest and most dogmatic voices of minority groups speak for these groups as a whole. Minority groups are not homogenous, and are full of people who are conservative, liberal, apolitical, and dissenting. Just because a progressive activist claims to speak on behalf of a marginalized group does not mean we have to indulge their delusions of grandeur.
It also would be a mistake to think that multiculturalism has been a failure. Human beings have a remarkable capacity for cooperation and solidarity with each other—including those whom they are not related to—when they feel that their neighbor is on their team. What helps people move past cultural, ethnic, or religious differences is sharing in a common goal, and feeling a common bond of humanity with their fellow citizens. When activists draw attention to differences between cultures, and attempt to draw boundaries around them, punishing those who step out of line, this sets the stage for escalating intolerance and division. We must not let them succeed.
For my part I can never see myself as strictly or purely white or Native American. While I'm able to have some sympathy for the "why" of some worries about cultural appropriation and even see that as a legitimate concern I can't do so as someone who has a purity of cultural or ethnic lineage from which to sympathize. Fusion and hybridization do not seem like they are automatically bad to me for what I trust should be obvious reasons. And by and large my hunch is that people from Russia or the Ukraine or Japan or Latvia will, I hope, not be upset if I decide to blog about music from those regions or draw inspiration from them.
Cultural appropriation has certainly been raised as a concern in music-making but ... now that I'm thinking about it ... it has seemed like some of the more headline-getting scuffles over cultural appropriation have involved food and clothing, more literal sumptuary code issues.