The common academic issue of whether or not one engages in ‘cultural appropriation’ has divided the Pagan community. I have been very explicit in my dislike of the idea, but in working out just why I dislike the concept I have been led to a very different understanding of just what culture is and what our place in it amounts to. Exploring this issue transformed my understanding of culture- and in a way deeply enriched with some common magickal and Pagans insights.
The Charge of ‘cultural appropriation’
Some people within the Pagan community object to practices such as smudging with sage, seeking a power animal, and celebrating Day of the Dead, as somehow stealing another culture’s practices or other values. I argue here they are confused about culture, confused about appropriation, and even confused about what it is to be a human being. I am not criticizing their motives in this paper, but rather arguing that by misunderstanding these issues, they are misdiagnosing the problem, like those who thought ‘night air’ caused malaria.
No NeoPagans practice traditions with an unbroken connection to pre-Christian times. Almost all old Pagan traditions have been overwhelmingly oral, and the core of those teachings have long been lost. The most respected mystery tradition in the Classical world, the Eleusinian Mysteries, remains a mystery despite having been practiced for over 1000 years and described by highly literate people. When once-Pagan practices have survived, their interpretation has changed, as Sabina Magliocco has described from her research in rural Italy.
To more deeply develop NeoPagan practices some of us have studied living Pagan traditions, hoping to learn from others what may be useful for ourselves. Many of us have sought to fill gaps in our own knowledge and traditions with what we have learned from teachers or books, about other non-Western traditions. Sometimes we have adopted common indigenous practices as a way of bringing our Euro-based practices into greater harmony with the energies of this continent. Consequently, when some NeoPagans smudge with sage or seek out spirit animals, integrate decorative skulls from Day of the Dead into Samhain, or even meet in circles, some claim we are supposedly engaged in “cultural appropriation.”
Most contemporary NeoPagans are citizens of countries that long subjugated most of the world to their will. During the centuries of Western domination, other ways of life were often attacked and undermined and religious traditions other than certain kinds of Christianity were suppressed, often violently. Places with viable indigenous Pagan practices are also places in nearly every case were subjected to Western domination, exploitation, and oppression. And sometimes far worse.
Today, people within cultures once subjugated and still dominated by Western powers seek to preserve as much as they can from their former ways of life, either by adapting it to the modern world or trying to safeguard it from Western modernity’s homogenizing and secularizing impact. Theirs is not an easy task.
The result is a complex relationship between people seeking to preserve their cultures and Westerners seeking to learn from them, and in the process inevitably changing them to some degree.
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is said to consist of two basic traits. For example, Jarune Uwujaren defines cultural appropriation as “when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” In addition, a “power dynamic” exists because “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Maisha Z. Johnson agrees, writing “Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” Cultural appropriation also “refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Cultural appropriation, then, is said to be a continuation of an exploitive and dominating relationship over a weaker culture. This sounds clear enough, but only when not carefully examined.
Let me offer a few very different counter examples.
The Romans conquered and sometimes enslaved Greeks, and in the process ultimately incorporated much of Greek philosophy and art into their own culture. The Roman writer, Horace, said Rome’s military dominance was ultimately second to Greece’s influence: “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive and brought the arts into rustic Latium.” Greeks were conquered and Greek culture in turn ‘conquered’ Rome in many ways.
The Romans practiced “cultural appropriation.” However, by adopting so much Greek culture, Rome strengthened Greek cultural influence in the Western world. It was not Rome’s adopting elements of Greek culture within their own culture that was bad, it was their military conquest of Greece. The Renaissance might never have happened had not Rome preserved important elements of Greek culture.
A very different example is Christian Rome and the Catholic Church. The church destroyed Pagan temples and statues and then appropriated many Pagan sites and practices, Christianizing them. Where did the date Dec, 25 come from? It was not when Jesus was born. Magnificent churches were built on the sites of destroyed Pagan temples or places of veneration. It is not just by chance Easter and Ostara are similar names. Ostara was a Pagan goddess. St. Brigit was an appropriation of Bhride, a wonderful Irish Goddess. Christmas trees play no role in Christian practice before conquering Pagan Europe, where such trees did play a role. As mentioned above, old Pagan folk rituals have been wrapped in Christian terminology while otherwise remaining the same.
Are we worse off as Pagans today because the Church and its political allies did not simply suppress all Pagan practices and symbols rather than appropriating them? I know of no Pagan who would say yes.
Some of Classical Paganism’s greatest philosophical works survived the monotheistic holocaust that destroyed so much of the older culture and knowledge. For example, Plato and Aristotle were reinterpreted to fit Christian priorities. In the process, much of their work was also preserved, and even made more available. Now some of us can refer to their writings both to grasp what leading Pagan intellectuals of the time thought, and also for hints illuminating then taken-for-granted practices that Christian and secular philosophers now ignore. For example, Socrates going into trance with a Dryad, with no one being at all surprised, and then their sitting around criticizing her words, indicates an openness to this kind of thing unimaginable today.
If the Christian world was to dominate the Pagan one, as it did, we are glad it appropriated so much and wish it had appropriated more. In doing so, it preserved seeds from the past we could study, water, nourish, and sometimes revive. Had the Christian West utterly destroyed these remnants we would have far less to work with. That they survived at all speaks to the power and magic in our heritage.
These are not trivial examples and suggest the ‘cultural appropriation’ model is missing something.
What is appropriation?
For me to appropriate something from someone is to take what does not belong to me. If I appropriate your car, I have it, and you don’t. When Christians appropriated Pagan sites, they stole them. I can also appropriate your identity, as happened to me once when my wallet was stolen. You may have my ID and credit cards, but you are not me. The first kind of appropriation is theft, the second kind is fraud aided by theft. I can also appropriate your practices, but in doing so, I take them away from you only if I prevent you from continuing as you had.
I can appropriate music or teachings or writings not my own. That description works if I claim to have created them, or do not give credit to those who did. Otherwise, much that is described as “appropriation” applies the language of property to something that doesn’t quite fit.
If I have truly made these ideas, tastes, and beliefs my own, I am not pretending to have incorporated a cultural element from elsewhere, I have in fact done so. I am a different person for having done so. If I give credit to my sources, I am not committing fraud or lying. If anything, I am praising those who introduced me to something I find valuable. If I do not credit those from whom I learned, it is my dishonesty, not my use of what I learned, that is wrong.
By adopting these ideas and practices I have expanded their scope and made them more available to others. If ideas were life forms, (an issue I will return to), they would be pleased at this expansion. The language of possessing things does not fit regarding ideas, tastes, beliefs, and other contents of our minds, once they enter into the public. My thoughts are private only when I do not communicate them.
Once they enter the public on their own, ideas are far more complex and interesting than things. Even our legal attempts to treat ideas as property recognize this. A specific creation can be copyrighted for a period of time and a discovery can be patented, again for a limited period. The reasoning behind doing so is different from the reasoning to protect physical property. Physical property can in principle be owned privately forever. Copyrights and patents reward the creator for their contribution to the larger community. Once the copyright expires they are part of humanity’s common-wealth. Whatever ideas are, they are not property.
There is one example where the term “cultural appropriation” might make sense, and it is related to these examples. In some cultures, songs and stories are the recognized property of a family or other group. They are shared with others outside the group as gifts. In such cultures, using these stories and songs without permission is akin to stealing another’s story or song in the West. In such cases the legitimate owners should have legal protection, just as creators and inventers have in the West with copyrights. In these cases the stealing is not from ‘a culture,’ it is from a specific person or group of people. Without their permission, no one else in their culture would know of it or even have the right to use it.
An idea can be yours, someone else’s, or so culturally embedded that we have no idea where it originated. Within a culture, most ideas are the latter. It makes sense to say I stole your idea, if I do not give you credit. But it makes no sense to say I stole a culture’s idea. Cultures do not have ideas. They are, in part at least, composed of ideas in relationship with one another in ways independent of anyone’s control. These relationships shape ideas in the same way an environment shapes the organisms living within it. Cultures are ecosystems.
II: Cultures as Ecosystems
In defending the common view of cultural appropriation, Jarume Uwujaren argues cultures should relate as equals when they take something from another, and contribute something to the other in return. This statement is like someone confusing ecosystems with the organisms within them. And while the difference between ecosystems and organisms is no longer as clear as scientists once thought, one distinction that matters is that organisms are centers of action, ecosystems are networks of patterns arising with no such center needed. An ecosystem has many centers of action, all influencing one another as well as the ecosystem itself.
The same is true of people in cultures.
I think we all can agree people can and should have equal rights, but, when we look carefully, we see it makes no sense to say cultures should have equal rights. For exchanges between people, if I have what you want, we are not equal unless you also have what I want, and want it with about the same intensity. Ideally we exchange different things but with equal need to make the exchange. Equality here has a subjective element.
To be sure, a formal equality exists if we voluntarily decide to make an exchange. But as every reasonable person knows, this equality is modified, sometimes drastically, by differences in the intensity each feels to make the exchange. The more desperate one party is compared to the other, the greater an important kind of inequality.
This way of looking at exchanges works for understanding people, but not cultures.
If I see a fashion I like in Italy, Mexico, or Botswana, and I buy the clothes there, I have exchanged with the seller, not the culture. If they wear out when I get home, and I make replacements, I have exchanged with no one. Similarly, if upon getting home I copy what I remember seeing as designs in these places, no exchange took place.
According to cultural appropriations advocates, what I did with Italian fashions after my clothes wore out, or if I later copied what I saw, is not cultural appropriation because Italy is in some sense our equal. But for Mexico and Botswana, I am guilty of “cultural appropriation,” because they have been colonized or otherwise exploited. Rights to voluntary action are distributed unequally among people in the name of cultural equality.
Cultures are contexts shaping the relationships arising within them, rather than themselves participating in exchanges. They do not own anything, nor do they create anything, although they shape the context within which creation happens. Their members do the owning and creating.
Let us delve more deeply into grasping cultures as ecosystems.
Looking deeper . . .
Our cultures provide most of the concepts we use. The richness of our cultural environment plays an important role in enabling and enriching our own creativity. In this sense cultures support and shape our mental environment in ways like the physical and biological world supports and shapes our bodily environment. Absent either, we would not exist.
A culture is defined by the networks shared among its members. But even when they share the same ones, individual members often weigh these commonalities differently. There are American Christians who put being American ahead of being Christian, and American Christians who put being Christian ahead of being American, and yet all would call themselves both Americans and Christians. The same is true for we Pagans.
Cultures can overlap with other cultures (not all Pagans are Americans and not all Americans are Pagans) and a culture can also exist within another culture. These are called “subcultures,” but what counts as a subculture depends on what counts as the larger culture, which varies with the observer. From the perspective of people analyzing Western or Anglophone culture, American culture is a subculture. If American culture is the inclusive one, the unique culture of Taos, New Mexico, where I live, with its blending of Hispanic, Anglo, and Indian cultures, none of who constitute a majority, exists as a subculture. Within American culture some subcultures are more based on belief than location. There are Mormon subcultures, NeoPagan subculture, subcultures of mountain climbers and chess players, and many more. If we consider American Indians, the Hopi constitute a subculture and within them there are traditional Hopi and Christian Hopi, with very different outlooks, and often values.
We are often members of many culture whose importance can vary with context. For example, my NeoPagan subculture in some ways shares more in common with non-Western Pagan cultures than with mainstream American and European cultures, and in other ways shares more in common with mainstream American and European cultures than with any non-western culture. Which set of identifications should matter most, and who makes that decision?
The ecosystem model helps us to understand these intricate patterns of distinction and inclusion. Like cultures, a biological ecosystem is also a network, all of whose components are engaged in a complex process of mutual adaptation that creates a discernible pattern even though no one planned it that way and every element in it is changing. And like a culture, an biological ecosystem will have smaller ecosystems within it, such as the ecosystem of a glacial lake within the larger ecosystem of a boreal forest.
As within a culture, a biological ecosystem’s identifying pattern emerges from the relationships among its parts, and while the parts are always changing, the pattern persists. A oak savanna remains an oak savanna even if every plant living there at one time has passed away, to be replaced by others.
The only complete ecosystem we know of is earth. But within it are rain forest ecosystems, some of which are tropical and some temperate. Within a rain forest we can examine the ecosystem of a river, such as the Amazon. The Amazon also extends above rainforests into the high alpine ecosystems of the Andes. The Amazon rainforest is maintained in significant part by Saharan dust, which supplies important nutrients carried by wind across the Atlantic. Ecosystems overlap and interweave. The ecosystem we focus on is defined by our interests and other than the earth itself, has no truly independent existence. Like cultures.
Some non-native species fit easily into established biological ecosystems, others are very disruptive. In time the ecosystem’s patterns adapt to include newcomers, transform or extirpate them, or they change into a different ecosystem. The same is true for cultural ecosystems.
We recognize ourselves as fellow Americans when we read Alexis deTocqueville’s Democracy in America, even though no one living then has been alive for well over a century and many details about American life have changed dramatically: slavery existed, women did not have the vote, the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural, and communication across distances was slow. But, especially for Euro-Americans, many of us recognize ourselves when we read him.
Cultures are not seamless wholes, and the bigger the cultural unit we are describing the more this is the case. This is another characteristic that prevents us from describing cultures as things rather than processes. While they share common histories of subjugation and exploitation by European invaders, Native Americans cultures at least as distinct as Italians and Danes, often more so. Many have long histories of mutual animosities. For example, conflict between the Lakota and Crow was so intense many outside observers thought the smaller Crow would be annihilated.
Within particular tribes there will be groups nearly as opposed. The more traditional Native American differ from those who have adapted Christianity to their needs. And within these groups there will be further divisions. In his history of the Crow Indians, Rodney Frey writes
Because the Sun Dance religion recognizes, and even encourages, individual interpretation and realization within the spiritual, no dissonance generally arises when individuals hold contrasting understandings of the nature of the cosmos . . . .the need for a consensus on cosmology is subordinate to the function of the religion as a means to the spiritual. (The World of the Crow Indians, p. 67)
Asking who ‘speaks for’ a culture is like asking who speaks for an ecosystem. No one does. To say those who are most powerful speak for their culture privileges power and would be rejected if said of our society. Does Mark Zuckerberg speak “for Americans?” The same holds in other societies as well. If someone claims to, there will be other cultural members who think that person lacks authority to do so.
To summarize my conclusions to this point, culture is a label we apply to incredibly complex networks of relationships between people sharing certain identifying commonalities, but doing so in individually distinct ways. Unlike people, cultures are not centers of action, but rather provide contexts within which many such centers act. Cultures are very real, but they are real in a very tricky way for Western culture to grasp. Ecosystem helps a lot, but what are the organisms in an ecosystem? No ecosystem is a pure monoculture.
Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme helps get us on firmer ground and leads us to some very surprising discoveries.
III. Memes as organisms in cultural ecosystems
I used to think Richard Dawkin’s term, “meme,” was simply a fancy word for “idea.” I now realize I was mistaken. Memes are ideas or actions in their social context, and never private thoughts that live or die with me. Broadly defined, a meme is any mental creation, considered in its capacity as an independent entity that survives, declines, adapts or mutates over time depending on the mental energy people supply them as part of a culture.
As I have come to understand them, they open us to the venerable occult concept of a thought form, and, especially when considered together, memes and thought forms transform how we might think of ourselves and societies. But before taking that step, I need to explain what a meme is from a secular context, and why it is important.
Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ from ‘gene,’ the basic building block from which complex life emerged through evolutionary processes. Genes have been described as ‘selfish,’ but, catchy as that phrase is, it has led to misunderstanding Dawkins’ meaning. A gene does not have a self, but if it did, and wanted to replicate, it would act as successful genes do, because genes that replicate more prolifically are the ones that produce evolution. Unselfish behavior such as altruism and parental care, can evolve via this process through kin selection, or reciprocal altruism.
Many major biologists today argue that there is more to evolution than this, but at least the ones I have read say Dawkins’ describes a central part of the evolutionary process. Some major figures such as E. O. Wilson and Richard Prum modify Dawkins’ original formulation in exciting ways, but not in ways influencing my argument here.
Now, on to memes.
Ideas in their social context, such as democracy, justice, equality, god, and marriage, are memes. But some memes are not words and may lack any identifiable clear meaning at all, such as the opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th. So is shaking hands. We are developing new memes today as shaking hands declines due to the pandemic. Symbols, such as our flag, are also memes, and their meanings here can be contradictory. Memes are patterns of mental energy that influence our behavior and are sustained within cultural networks existing independently of any particular individual.
A meme is not a physical thing, though it can shape what physical things do. Nor is it mental in the sense of existing solely within our heads. It exists independently of each of us, but not from all of us. In return, while we can separate ourselves from some memes, we can never separate from all of them. A cultural ecology provides a coherent pattern of meanings and practices within which we live, most of which we accept. We are as much its creation as they are ours.
Memes populate the cultural ecosystem, enabling us to be social beings with a language sharing mutually understandable meanings so we can communicate beyond simple signals. When we uncritically accept them, as we usually must, from a meme’s perspective we are their tools, giving them mental energy and helping them replicate. For us, they are just a part of the reality within which we live, and in the process of living, we reproduce some of them.
Memes as organisms
From this perspective, memes are mental organisms that, along with us, exist within a cultural ecology. Within this ecology memes can replicate, adapt, mutate, go extinct or simply go dormant for a time, using our minds as the means for their preservation and dissemination. Memes replicate by attracting the mental attention they need to survive and increase. They do this within individual minds that then spread them to other minds through words or other actions. A meme’s success or failure rests on the degree it is picked up by many people. But memes are independent from any particular individual mind.
Is a meme “alive?” Their frequent comparison with viruses is a useful guide here. Viruses exist on the borderline of life and not-life, as they depend on cells to reproduce. By themselves they are not usually considered alive. A meme is the same in the mental realm. And like viruses, to persist they must ‘infect’ hosts and adapt to overcome barriers to their spread.
The common language regarding viruses is mostly negative, but the reality is more complex. Scientists have discovered while some viruses cause illnesses, others play an important positive role in biological evolution. Memes play such a role in human evolution- and like viruses, they can also cause ‘infections’ that threaten a culture’s survival.
Necessary as they are for a complex society to arise, a meme might have a number of meanings, depending on its particular context. Think of “bad” and “wicked,” which still have their traditional meanings, but in a different context have the opposite meaning. Even so, the impact of that meaning is connected to the traditional one. Otherwise we would just say “good.” Over time, a meme rarely used in its once common form, like “wicked,” could in time come to be a synonym for “very good” as its use in different contexts changes. Translators can be driven crazy by this kind of thing, but it is also why we describe a language as “alive.”
When we repeat a meme, it may not mean to others what we mean when use it. But the more it is used, the greater its memetic success. It possesses a field of meanings and, like “wicked,” its dominant meaning can evolve within that field. Consider how the meaning of marriage has changed over time to become a celebration of loving commitment- the meme-as-organism had evolved, and as it did it influenced the larger cultural ecosystem, so that interracial and later gay marriages became possible, neither of which entered anyone’s mind that we know of when the meme ‘marriage’ first changed to embrace love.
We are not merely replication agents for memes. We can evaluate particular memes, even if always in the context of the others, and decide to accept, change, or reject them. Here is the point where human creativity enters, ultimately leading to a meme changing or even abandoning one of its meanings. It is also where new memes arise: we give them birth and they are then set free to flourish or not, independently from us.
Our ability to change, empower, or dis-empower memes at the individual level frees us from being simply their vehicles for expression. When we step outside a meme and consider it critically, or creatively if we continue to use it, the meme becomes our vehicle replicating our influence and contribution throughout society rather we theirs. We have changed it, like a mutation, and that change might help it spread more widely, generate another meme, or cause it to go extinct, if people reject it. As individuals, our independence is real but partial, and we each play a role in how a meme maintains or changes its meaning. We and memes are interactive agents powered by our mental energy, and over time both they and we coevolve together.
Far from being centers of society, we are organisms sharing a mental realm with memes, and society is the collective creation of people and memes. Again, this is like a biological ecosystem. (As a Pagan I know more is going on, but we don’t need to go there now.)
Most of the time, we flow pretty effortlessly within a network of meanings, without really thinking about them. For example, in normal conversation we rarely if ever pause to choose our words – they emerge pretty automatically.
As elements of ecosystems, neither culture nor the memes within them are static. American culture is relatively patriarchal, has grappled for centuries with an entrenched racism, and, when convenient, from Indians to Iraqis and Afghans, has consistently acted aggressively towards militarily weaker peoples. As a young boy, I initially imbibed the memes that contained these values largely unnoticed, experiencing them as linked with other dimensions of our culture which I had learned to admire. For example, our military preserved “freedom.” But like all cultures, ours is not monolithic. As we grow up we encounter competing memes, or see contradictions between different memes that once seemed in harmony.
I still consider myself an American but now support feminism, oppose racism, and have a long record demonstrating, speaking, and writing against American military aggression. These changes emerged from my encountering and noticing contradictions and then evaluating them. The mix of memes that contribute to my self-identification as an American has changed in some respects, though not in others. If the same happens in enough Americans, the culture will have changed, but still be American.
Consider the triumph of gay marriage. The meme ‘marriage’ is complex, containing different cultural meanings involved in the term. In the West, at one time, marriage was usually for creating a family, making an alliance, or assuring security in old age. Love didn’t matter. Montesquieu observed, a “husband who loves his wife is a man who has not enough merit to engage the affections of some other woman.” In such a context, gay marriage was unthinkable.
Once the meme, ‘marriage,’ incorporated love as a reason for its existence, the stage was set for a transformation. In our culture, ‘love’ quickly came to dominate all other reasons for marriage. A meme thousands of years old shifted in its characteristics. As it did, the unthinkable became thinkable. As this happened it began to transform other basic memes, and therefore the institutions expressing them. First, marriage as being for love legitimized interracial marriage in a racist society. Now it has legitimized gay marriage as well. This was a kind of mutation that changed the meme’s ideational ecosystem and the cultural institutions that arose from it. Because so much is linked, the evolution of a single meme can be a powerful force in a society.
IV: A living world: language, memes, and thought forms
Many memes are communicated through language, and, like any tool, language shapes how we look at the world when using it. Language facilitates some memes’ replication and makes the survival of others more difficult by shaping what relations are easy to notice and what relations require more effort. Different languages have different biases in this regard. One linguistic feature is particularly relevant here: do we experience our world primarily as objects, or primarily as processes and relations? Clearly there is value in both perspectives, but which gets emphasis is in no small part shaped by language.
For example, English and most other Western languages are noun-heavy and verb-light compared to many Native American languages. These languages possess fewer nouns but many more verbs. Nouns are things, verbs are processes. Our basic sense of a thing is it needs an outside force to act. This bias once encouraged scientists to think of animals and the human body as machines. Most people have grown beyond this today, but the bias remains, as in the perpetual debate among scientists as to whether consciousness is really real.
By contrast, a verb is action. In the Potawatomie language 70% of the words are verbs whereas in English 30% are. This difference shapes how they and we see and experience the world. As Robin Kimmerer explains in Braiding Sweetgrass: “A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun it is defined by humans, trapped between shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa – to be a bay – releases the water from bondage and lets it live.” (55) Kimmerer describes Potawatomie and similar languages as languages of animacy.
Some might say this Native American approach is simply a subjective judgement importing human traits into the wider world. It is nice for writing poetry, but bad for understanding reality. However, this view ignores, or evades, how language shapes perceptions. We all have heard the saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is seen in terms of its potential for being a nail. The same applies more subtly with language. When everything is described in terms of being a noun, everything is a thing.
Kimmerer explains “Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has grey hair.’ . . . In English we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as an it. . . . So it is with Potawatomie and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55) Indeed, from an animist perspective such as theirs, (or mine), the dichotomy subjective/objective is a cultural meme that very imperfectly describes the world and has led to much confusion.
We have a hint of how this transforms our vision when we consider that Buckminister Fuller received considerable attention during my college years when he titled a book I Seem to Be a Verb. At the time, Fuller’s title impressed many of us as profoundly mind-stretching, but he simply recognized a dimension of who we are that our language tends to hide. We are more process than thing.
Native languages such as Potawatomie recognize this dimension as more basic to reality than beings’ “thing-hood.” Many Pagans will have sympathy with this perspective, and it certainly frees us from making errors such as treating ideas as things.
Thought forms and memes
As I came to a better understanding of how very secular scientists talk about memes, their similarity with the occult idea of thought forms and many Wiccan’s ideas about how magick is frequently linked to intensity and focus of will grabbed my attention. The objection many have to treating memes as real is the claim they are simply subjective imaginings. But we know from some of our more successful magickal practices that they have very real impact on our most tangible actions. Those of us who have done much healing work with energy also know that intention and focus can influence not only our actions, they can influence what takes place in others’ bodies.
In magickal terms, thought forms are usually described as deliberately created centers of focused mental energy possessing existence independent from any particular person. One fascinating account us Conjuring Up Philip. They exist so long as they possess sufficient mental energy. If they are to last they must be able to renew the energy that gives them power- and often this is through being ‘fed’ by those who created them. But not all such phenomena are deliberate creations.
A meme is a center of mental energy with independent existence from any particular person, which exists so long as it is fed mental energy, but memes are not deliberate creations. They arise through a selective process that incorporates many minds in their maintenance. However if a meme attracts considerable emotional attention from a large number of people, and there is truth to occult understandings of thought forms, as I believe there is, then powerful memes will share important characteristics with thought forms. I am not the first to notice the similarities between a key concept in magickal traditions and an increasingly important concept in the social sciences. Two discussions I have found useful are here and here.
In occult terminology an egregore is also a mental field with certain qualities that arises from the more diffused focus of many people in a common context, whether it be a football game, a Nazi Party or Trump rally, or the energetic feel of a city or neighborhood. Like a meme it can exist independently of particular people and influence them. I have described how they are able to put those influenced by them into a kind of hypnotic trance.
Darth Vader is most certainly a meme. Very early in my study of magickal realities I was a close but somewhat outside observer of a person afflicted by the thought form Darth Vader. No one deliberately created such a thing, and yet it had the power to cause very physical damage to people.
Appreciating the subtle psychic dimensions of memes, particularly powerful ones, deepens our understanding not only of memes, it transforms our view of ourselves in society to an even deeper degree than did memes considered in purely secular terms.
We live within a natural ecosystem and we live within an ideational ecosystem. In both cases we and the contexts that shape us influence one another. Our freedom as human beings is in significant degree rooted in our ability to actively and deliberately understand and manipulate our natural ecosystem. Exactly the same point applies to the memetic ecosystem that provides us the tools by which and through which to think.
Our unique freedom comes when we do NOT identify with these memes. When we do identify with them, we become their tools, not they ours.
V. Memes and cultural appropriation
What does all this have to do with the issue of cultural appropriation? We get into trouble when we subordinate ourselves to memes, and so blind ourselves to what might not fit them. This is what those who emphasize the wrongs of ‘cultural appropriation’ do.
A culture is not a thing. It is an ecosystem of memes and their co-evolutionary impact on the people who comprise it. Cultures are not monocultures. Their members will see many issues differently, even issues important to their cultural identity. Cultural identities are always dynamic in their details.
Of Hound Dogs, Appropriation, and Memes
Elvis Presley’s blockbuster hit, “Hound Dog” is a commonly cited example of ‘cultural appropriation.’ As the common story goes, Big Mama Thornton, a Southern Black Blues singer, first sang the song four years before Elvis did. It was a modest success and she never received the recognition Elvis did. Blues, the story goes, was a product of Black culture, as was rock ‘n roll, having direct roots in the blues. Rock ‘n roll did not make it big in America until Elvis sang Hound Dog, through which it entered the American musical mainstream. Until then, this kind of music was largely ignored outside of African American circles. Some people now say Elvis ‘stole’ or ‘appropriated’ what was properly an unacknowledged element of Black culture.
There is some truth to this account, although it misunderstands what happened. The blues, and rock n’ roll which grew from it, have vital roots in African music brought over by the slaves. They were allowed to perform it at Congo Square in New Orleans, where French Catholic slavery was less totalitarian in its impact than was the equivalent in the Protestant South.25 There would be no blues, no jazz, and no rock ‘n roll without Black culture as it developed in New Orleans. Our nation’s defining cultural contributions to the world’s musical heritage owe their existence to Africa. (Michael Ventura, Hear That Long Snake Moan, Shadow dancing in the USA, (Los Angeles: Tarcher 1985, pp. 103-16)
But there is more to the story.
Imran Rahman-jones writes that, like Obama, the blues have two parents. The first is African music and the second is European folk music. Blues’ harmonic structure is European, not African. Its “12-bar progression comes from European chords. European instrumentation was also adopted: the guitar in its classical form, comes from Europe. And no instrument is more strongly associated with one particular genre than the harmonica,” which originated in Vienna. (White people, blues music, and the problem of cultural appropriation, Oct 23, 2016.)
Rahman-jones observes it was “quite remarkable that the mix in cultures happened at all” given the power of segregation when the blues arose. Perhaps because their common love of music mattered more than race, more than in most realms of racial interaction, musicians ignored or circumvented racial divides. From the beginning, many were White musicians, although more were Black.
Far from ‘stealing’ Black music, Presley was explicit about his enormous debt to Fats Domino. For example, at a 1969 press conference in Las Vegas, as Craig Philo recounts the incident, “When a reporter referred to Elvis as the ‘King of Rock ’n’ Roll’ . . . he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, ‘one of my influences from way back.” Philo added “He often paid homage to Fats recognizing no one could sing those songs like he did.” In turn, Domino was a fan of Presley: “Boy, he could sing. He could sing spirituals, country and western, everything he sang I liked.”27 This mutual admiration between two greats is what we would expect within a musical subculture where all involved were using and exploring common musical memes they loved.
Rahman-jones explains the split in identifying musicians that led some later to complain today of ‘cultural appropriation’ came from commercial recording, not musicians. Record companies categorized Black musicians as playing blues or race music, and Whites as playing country or hillbilly music. Rahman-jones writes “The music was so similar that even the record labels got it wrong sometimes,” confusing the artists and their race.28
The musical cultural ecosystem resists any simplistic reduction into racial or cultural
categories. Rahman-jones ends his article by pointing out that Hound Dog, first played by Big Mama Thornton, was written for her by two, 19 year old American Jewish kids, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. The language of cultural appropriation cannot begin to grasp this complexity, but viewing culture as the intertwining of people and memes easily can.
Historically, art has been more a part of the gift economy rather than the commodity economy where people seek to make advantageous exchanges. A successful artistic creation becomes a meme, and then develops on its own. Many of our culture’s greatest artists borrowed from other works. Leonard Bernstein reworked Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in West Side Story. Chris Sprigman points out the line of descent is even longer. “Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1591) was taken from Arthur Brooke’s poem Romeus and Juliet (1562), and . . . most of Shakespeare’s historical plays would have infringed upon Holingshead’s Chronicles of England (1573) . . . had today’s copyright laws then existed. For the third movement of the overture to Theodora, Handel drew on a harpsichord piece by Gottlieb Muffat (1690-1770).” Artists inspire one another and many build on one another’s work. In this sense, in many ways the arts are a gift economy. Once the well-being of actual creators is safeguarded, we all benefit from access being as open as possible.
This point brings us to the unfairness of creative Black musicians relegated to the shadows while White ones make money. Here the language of cultural appropriation is of no help at all. Brihana Joy Grey cuts to the chase:
“the life stories of early 20th century black musicians are stories of poverty and exploitation by a predatory music industry that lifted their sounds and left them with nothing. The trouble isn’ t that Elvis sang the songs but that he did so in a viciously racist economic landscape that didn’ t reward black cultural innovation with black economic success. Using cultural “ownership” doesn’ t help us here—after all, “Hound Dog” was written by white songwriters, albeit specifically for Thornton, who added her own improvisations. But it’s still obvious we’re dealing with a racially unequal music industry.”
Gray’s indictment was not of musician, the supposed appropriators. It is of racism combined with capitalism, an indictment with which I completely agree.
Gray herself claims there is something important in the idea of cultural appropriation, but it fits poorly with the rest of her analysis. Referring to the claim Presley ‘appropriated’ Hound Dog, she wrote “But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating ‘black’ music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle – the civil rights movement – to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.”
In addition, she writes music “is inherently appropriative.” In fact, it “thrives on creative allusions, sampling, and embellishing the groundwork laid by earlier artists.” Nevertheless, she claims “‘borrowing’ becomes a problem when a piece of art is given preferential
treatment because of preexisting racial hierarchies of value – causing the work of people of color to be devalued, and artists to be undercompensated for their innovation.”
But in her own often perceptive analysis Gray has granted the real problem is not cultural appropriation, but racism and a social structure that maintains it. She is caught between a understanding of how art actually develops and the evils of racism, and a harmful conception of culture as in some sense a people’s possession.31 Once we grasp what memes are we are better able to understand how creativity shapes our cultural lives and be better able to focus on the core problem the ‘cultural appropriation’ meme obscures in the name of clarifying: racism and the social institutions that empower it.
Indians and headdresses
To give example, some people argue the term ”Indian” is a word imposed upon the people who inhabited this hemisphere before Europeans invaded. But many of these people have no problem with the term, and use it to assert their distinct identity from Euro-America. In Lawrence, Kansas, the most important university for ‘our’ indigenous peoples proudly proclaims itself as Haskell Indian Nations University.
Indian Nations. I find this a powerful statement affirming the worth of these peoples and their culture, not seeking assimilation or demonstrating cultural weakness. Note also the depiction of an eagle feather headdress. It was not a feature of significance for many tribes, for example, the Cherokee, and Mohawk, both of whom were major tribes and are still important. However, it was iconic in the popular eye for those plains tribes that were among the last to be conquered. The headdress has become a meme connected with its original cultural role among the Lakota and other peoples, but now it is also a universal symbol depicting Indians- in the eyes of many Indians as well as other Americans. In some contexts it no longer has the narrower cultural meaning it had for plains tribes, even for the plains tribes. The meme has a life of its own.
The headdress as symbol for Indians has broadened even farther. It includes the long-time celebrations of New Orleans’ “Black Indians,” with their roots in slavery and gratitude to tribes for having sheltered runaway slaves. To call this centuries old practice ‘cultural appropriation” demonstrates the toxicity of the term as a description of any social or cultural reality. On the other hand, to say it is an example of the progressive development of the meme of feathered headdresses as a symbol connecting with Indians is pretty obvious.
We live in a living world of multiple dimensions. In both biological and ideational dimensions, we are important but not controlling members. We share the ideational ecosystem with memes/thought forms, and they as much as we survive by acquiring energy from within the relevant ecosystem. We seek to flourish, and so do memes. And each does so through the other.
If we look at human history, people have always borrowed from cultures, regardless of whether one group was stronger than another. In the process the ideational environment for all people has been enriched. At the same time the boundaries of specific cultures always interpenetrate others, possibly excluding very small isolated tribes. Given porous boundaries it is only natural to expect some memes to replicate across them, and in the process of doing so, sometimes change. Just as happens with organisms in ecosystems.
In short the language of cultural appropriation is inadequate to understanding either cultures or the relations people enter in to with members of other cultures. Identifying people with, and subordinating them to, “culture” disempowers them for it is in our ability to separate ourselves from a meme that we have some agency with respect to it. It is sad that many good people are losing sight of the desirability of empowering people wisely, preferring instead to subordinate them to a rigid conception of culture that cannot adequately understand culture, ideas, or the people involved.
VI: Replacing ‘Cultural Appropriation’ with Clear Thinking
I have argued culture is a network of living processes best understood as an ideational ecosystem. We are inhabitants of this ecosystem, as we are inhabitants of a biological one. As in biological ones, we are neither alone nor in charge. We share our cultural ecosystem at least with memes, and as minds, we coevolve with them. With this brief summary, let’s look again at the argument for ‘cultural appropriation.’
Flawed key assumptions of cultural appropriation arguments
The cultural appropriation model views the cultural world as objects that can be owned, controlled, given away, or stolen. Cultures are human creations and are valuable to their owners. Their value is lessened or lost when ‘appropriated’ or ‘stolen’ by others without their consent. However, these cultural possessions can be given to others, becoming their possessions as well. Our language biases us to see culture this way, a bias reinforced by our living within a capitalist society. Indeed, the closest modern analogy to ‘cultural appropriation’ is a copyright or patent, and when ownership is clear, whether it be an individual, family, or group, these tools offer a viable way to address those concerned about appropriation. But copyrights and patents are always temporary because people recognize that their justification is to enrich society as a whole, and so creators need to be supported in their efforts.
Ironically, perhaps, corporate capitalist enterprises are the only major modern institution actively seeking to turn copyrights and patents into permanently owned and controlled property. To the extent they succeed they impoverish us all. No concept could be farther from any traditional society’s outlook.
At the same time, people concerned with ‘cultural appropriation’ treat cultures as if they were unitary things. There is “Black culture,” a “Navajo culture,” and a “Mexican culture,” and what makes a culture Black, Navajo, or Mexican is what it possesses that other cultures do not. A style of music, a kind of sand painting, or celebrating Day of the Dead, are examples. When people within White American culture make use of these things they are ‘stealing.’ However, when a Black, Navajo, or Mexican, makes use of something unique to a dominant culture, let us say blue jeans or classical music, they are not stealing.
If mine is a fair description, this view contains four serious errors.
First, cultures have blurry edges, with memes flowing in both directions. As they enter another culture memes can change both it and themselves. Shinto influenced how Buddhism was practiced in Japan and in turn influenced by Buddhism. Encountering Bon changed how Buddhism was practiced in Tibet, and Bon was itself changed. While Zen and Tibet’s practices are both Buddhist, they are very different from one another.
Second, within a single culture different members will attach differing degrees of significance to the same practices. Consider the war bonnet symbol for Haskell Indian Nations University as an example. Cultures are not monocultures.
In response to this second issue, those concerned about ‘cultural appropriation’ often say a culture’s proper leaders should make those decisions. But anyone knowing much about any human group knows most of the time there are many divisions within them. The cultural elite at any moment will have its challengers, some of whom may become future elites. Again, a culture is not a thing, it is a process. On balance, the bigger the group the more this is true. Close to home: who speaks for Wicca? For Gardnerian Wicca? For Christianity? Outsiders privileging one elite over another impose a set of values that might be quite alien to many within that culture.
Third, and related to this issue, cultures are often comprised of many sub-cultures, and what counts as a subculture is not an objective category. An extraterrestrial anthropologist might first distinguish human culture from that of chimpanzees or ants. It might then differentiate human culture into many subcultures based on geography or whether they are foragers, agricultural or industrial. Or by some other externally applied criteria. Those with tribal identities can split as the Cheyenne did or combine, as the Haudenosaune (Iroquois) did, Through conquest many smaller groups can become one, as happened in Italy. Alternatively, what was once more or less one culture might fragment along existing lines that become more important to identity than a larger identity that once unified those lines. Consider the fragmentation taking place in the U.S. before the Civil War, or even today as an example.
Smaller subcultures can exist within a larger one, or overlap with several, such as the Pagan subculture of which we are all a part. We share some larger identities with the U.S. or other nation in which we live, but also share important identities with other Pagan societies, identities that we do not share with Christians or atheists in the U.S. or wherever else we live. Cultures are at least intertwined patterns of relationships of people and memes, and relationships are dynamic.
Fourth, while copyright and patent protections make sense for cultural practices which have recognized specifiable owners as individuals or organizations, the culture itself is not an organization let alone an individual.
By contrast my alternative description of cultures as human/mimetic ecosystems has no difficulties at all with any of these issues.
Taking memes seriously.
A meme has a life independent of those individuals making use of it, and so can develop in unpredictable ways, as with my discussion of ‘wicked’ becoming in some contexts a term of praise. Pepe the frog was created by an artist who is deeply opposed to how it was used by the fascist and racist right.
The same is true for terms like “culture” as a thing, a collectivity distinct from the individuals who comprise it. In actuality the language of cultural appropriation has reinvigorated this dimension of the term, but not in the way expected by those initially using it.
Ironically, White supremacists would agree cultures are discrete units and people from one do not have legitimate access to another without permission. They would be delighted if African cultural influences were eliminated from Euro-American culture (except perhaps barbecue and the banjo). Consider Peter Cvjetanovic, a White supremacist who traveled to Charlottesville from Reno. He explained:
I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture.“ He told Channel 2 News “It is not perfect; there are flaws to it, of course. However I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland.
Cvjetanovic, and those like him, use the same frame of reference to ‘cultural integrity’, and same logic of dividing cultures sharply from one another, but with a different set of collectivist values. Their reasoning is that we are better off free of lesser cultures and their members. Unlike those concerned with cultural appropriation, they believe the superior culture should dominate the inferior. The language of cultural war and domination is the preferred terrain of the fascist right
This point illustrates the importance of understanding memes as independent from us. Treating cultures as independent things constitutes a meme, a very destructive one for human well-being. The idea might be created or emphasized by people for one reason, but once created, it has a logic of its own, and this meme emphasizes separation, and separation is easily shaped by ideas of purity and infection.
David Marcus, a conservative writing for The Federalist, an outfit I normally strongly disagree with, makes the same basic point.
Treating people equally has given way to making all of us ambassadors for our race. This is a classic theme in critical race theory, that people of color carry a burden of representation that white people do not. But foisting the baggage of representation onto white people doesn’t solve that problem. It makes it worse.
White people are being asked—or pushed—to take stock of their whiteness and identify with it more. This is a remarkably bad idea. The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal. The result of this tribalism will not be a catharsis of white identity, improving equality for non-whites. It will be resentment towards being the only tribe not given the special treatment bestowed by victimhood.
That we have come from different political, and probably other perspectives, to the same conclusion essentially proves my point:
Charlottesville has given us a taste of where this leads.
VII: Addressing the Real Issue: Power
What appeals to many people about the cultural appropriations model is its seeming sensitivity to the crimes committed against militarily weaker peoples by various Western nations, particularly by the United States. Once a people is subjugated, it is usually looked down upon by their conquerors. They and their customs are treated as inferior and best suppressed, or maintained as colorful curiosities for entertaining the more powerful. These are serious problems facing indigenous peoples and descendants of slaves today.
There are two separate dimensions to understanding these issues today. The first in itself is not bad: the growing ease of travel and communication allowing people even from the most far removed cultures to communicate and get to know one another. This is a massive increase in a millennia-long process. By encouraging cross-pollination between different cultures, it enriches human well-being.
The second issue is power. The abuse of power led to genocide, terror, robbery, destruction of families, and totalitarian efforts to destroy a people’s language, religion, and sense of themselves as a people. Sadly, the record of this country is no better and often worse than that of many other peoples.
BUT, and this ‘but’ is important, virtually every culture that has enjoyed a significant power advantage over its neighbors has abused that power and oppressed its neighbors. Abusing power is not a European trait or a White trait, or even a Christian trait, it is a human trait. The Lakota abused their power when they were top dog in their region. So did the Japanese, Aztecs, Incas, Iroquois, Zulu, Assyrians, and Chinese.
The solution is not to fight over who is entitled to what cultural values, nor to obsess over privilege, (an intimately related concept I addressed in a three part piece on Patheos: Part I, Part II, and Part III but rather to address the inequalities of power that lead to these abuses.
These issues can best be addressed in the language of rights and respect, not appropriation. Human rights are universal values that, however inconsistently, our Founders claimed should apply to all. Rather than carving humanity up into ever smaller tribes, recognizing the universality of rights welcomes all on a common ground of peaceful relations. The cynics will say this was never achieved, and they are correct, but to the degree it was achieved, here and elsewhere, the results have been good, and the best moments in our history have been when Americans sought to make them apply even better. The cynics are mentally lazy and morally obtuse.
These universal values provide a framework that, when honored, limits the damage differences among us can generate while maximizing safe spaces for cooperation. In this respect, they are like the rules of a game that prevent it from degenerating into a brawl among competing players. Thinking in terms of rights provides a foundation on which genuine conservatives, genuine liberals, and genuine progressives can find common framework, within which to argue and struggle for the superiority of our views. When that common ground of agreed upon rules is eliminated, differences degenerate into civil war, as we are witnessing around us today.
Ironically, they are also the chief protection for whoever is weakest. I am defending genuine liberalism, the belief that individuals are the fundamental moral unit in society, from which all its other dimensions get their value. As Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1932, during the years of growing fascism in the last century,
Liberalism—it is well to recall this today—is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet. It announces the determination to share existence with the enemy; more than that, with an enemy which is weak. It was incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so anti-natural.
Rights and Respect
Both the rights we all have as human beings and the rights we have as members of a society are important. In the first case are rights applying equally to everyone, such as the right to speak freely and enter into voluntary cooperation with whomever we wish. In the second case, these rights should apply equally to everyone as a member of a common community, such as, for Americans, the right to trial by a jury of peers or the right to Medicare.
It is at this level that many of the issues so inadequately addressed by ‘cultural appropriation’ can be addressed. If a practice, such as a song, can be connected to ownership by specific individuals or membership groups, it can be trademarked or copyrighted. Others cannot use it without their permission, and there is legal enforcement available.
But once they enter the public realm and become memes, ideas cannot be owned. It they are copyrighted, their owners can continue to seek to enforce them, but they almost immediately begin transforming and at some point the copyright becomes useless. The creator can copyright a song, but not the new approach to music that song embodies. At most the original sources if those memes can offer a seal of approval for those using them in their name, or bring charges against them for fraud.
There us another dimension here, one I believe is deeper than rights: respect. Respect is vitally important and difficult to define in the abstract. At its best, respect flows both ways. In a human context, respect is a relationship recognizing intrinsic value in another. In practice this means that if something matters to individual A, that carries weight for all who respect that person. It may or may not be enough to determine what I do, but it is not nothing. It means I will not treat religious and cultural symbols of great importance to someone disrespectfully in their presence – without good cause. That people within a culture value something is not what gives it value worthy of respect, it is its impact on rights, both universal and membership. Suttee and cliterectomies are not worthy of respectful treatment even if some people believe they are religiously required, because they violate individual rights.
Combined with a focus on eliminating the abuse of power, this ethical approach, focused on individuals and their actions, gives us all we need to address the legitimate complaints people have about how a cultures values are most appropriately treated by others. If smudging is used respectfully, it may or may not be identical on the surface to its use within a traditional ceremony, but it is best understood as a meme getting spread more widely. If it proves useful it will persist. If smudging is used disrespectfully, say to impress someone with the person’s supposed spiritual’ wisdom, it is a fraud. The term appropriation adds nothing here.