To Appropriate Or Not To Appropriate: That Is The Question

I have two things I want to post about and not a lot of time, so I don’t doubt that there will be some typos here.  I was thinking about appropriation again this morning, and once more how it is used today irked me.

Yes, no one has to convince me that Hitler stealing painting, or stealing of artifacts is inappropriate.  Notice the similarity of the word appropriation and appropriate.  If I think of stealing artifacts, or creating artworks, which are fake copies of an originals promoted as created by someone famous with just a little integrity we know this type of appropriation is not appropriate.

But is there another type of appropriation that is appropriate.  Think about it.  In most cultures, there are take-ons from other countries, which have made cultures richer.  The Chinese written language was appropriated by the Japanese who had no written language of their own, and so was much of their food and the medicines of the time.  They have also appropriated Western dress at least in most people’s daily life (and we were happy for their taking on Western ways) , but interestingly enough the add-ons to their writing system, of their own making, includes words which have been appropriated from other countries with an intentional desire to show them as not being originally Japanese. Yes, there is a separate symbology for foreign words with, I must say a, butchering of the original pronunciation.

Confusing, right, so let me clarify.  The basic Japanese writing, called Kanji, are Chinese characters, although they may have changed the pronunciation from the Chinese and added new meanings to the characters with new pronunciations, thus leaving many Kanji to have six or seven meanings or more with not all of them sounding the same and some changed from the Chinese sounds.  As a result, a Chinese person may be able to read the Kanji, but not know how to pronounce it or all of the added meanings.

If that is not complicated enough, the Japanese place the verb at the end of the sentence to which they have added their own symbology for the sounds of the Japanese language, since they have more verb endings than any language in the world.  They also use this symbology for prepositions, but the icing on the cake is the other modified symbology of Japanese sounds distinctly for foreign words, which distinctly stand.  As in how air conditioner becomes ‘airu con’. At the upper echelon of appropriation, the Japanese language went from having no writing system to having four: Chinese characters (Kanji), Japanese add-ons to Kanji (Hiragana) and a simplified version for foreign words only (Katakana), plus Romanji, which is the use of the English alphabet with Japanese sounds (for foreigners).

Although Japanese is probably the most convoluted, taking from other languages has been a pattern in the development of many languages where if you learn one language, you will know much of another language–such as Spanish and Portuguese.  And what about the very English language that is spoken in numerous parts of the world, and not just the United States and Britain.  Whether or not this has happened through the usurping of boundaries or imperialism is not the question here.  We know those things are not pretty, or appropriate ways of being, though humanity reeks with it.

The thing is about giving credit.  With music this has always been the case.  You learn the roots of different styles of music.  With food, we learn the roots of many dishes with some explicitly called fusion.  With mathematics, we know Algebra comes from the Middle East.  In fact, there are stories that indicate it was formulated to know how to distribute inherited wealth at the time of one’s death.

As I grew up, I learned about many things through appropriation.  To be truthful, what would have been my impression of American Indians or Africans, if I had not learned anything about their culture back in my youth through clothes, beads, music dream catchers and the like.

Wrapping up here, there are two things that I have found that disturb me.  One came to me when I heard about a book now popular to help children go to sleep.  What they were working with were techniques found in hypnosis, Ericksonian therapy and Neuro Linguistic Programming.  But the Media promotion on a newscast gave no credit to where the books ideas came from. Someone gave me a hard time because I said the idea was nothing new without realizing that for me it was really appropriation, which I refrained from saying to them.  So then, we have the issue of people not giving credit where credit is due.  For me, this is not fair play.

So what has hit my heart in an unnatural way are the shrieks about appropriation when it has to do with something that society is learning from, acknowledges where it came from, and makes the world a better place.  Please don’t scream at me about the cheap labor that created many products.  Yes, I know, and I am against our sweatshops overseas, and many things that happen in the global marketplace much of which is too long to go into here.  The thing is how do we learn to appreciate other cultures and their gifts? It is not in a vacuum, right?

The type of appropriation that I rally against inside myself is something different.  It is the appropriation of words,which have had really negative meanings in the past and using them in some trendy way that makes them now hip while overlooking the inhumanity that was behind the words in a prior time and space.  ‘Uber’ is a fine example, so is ‘Grammar Nazi.’ I would not take the scoop that I cleaned the kitty litter with and repurpose it to stir the spaghetti. But some of these repurposings of words feel that vile to me.

Along with this is the taking of humane words (and doctrine) and thwarting them for the sake of power politics.  But alas, all language is a kind of appropriation and metaphor leans in that direction too. It is just, as with so many things, where we draw the lines and why.

P.S.  This is a link to a small piece I wrote two years ago about how the sense of the benefits of appropriation have changed, and how we were starting to look with the eyes of extreme negativity.  In it is a link to what happened at a famous museum when they  tried to make an interactive exhibit using cultural clothing.


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