When is it appropriate to appropriate? Why appropriation can be good. (Part 2)

“Not all appropriation is bad” may seem like an odd statement since in Part 1 of this topic I talked about all the reasons why appropriation is bad. In this part I intend to talk about one aspect of human culture that needs to be appropriated and if it isn’t appropriated then problems happen. I am talking of course about the good news of Jesus Christ.

Get this. The gospel is supposed to be appropriated. No one culture can claim ownership over it. No one group can say that they are the final authority on how the gospel should be understood and applied — such decisions need to happen in dialogue with everyone else. This is something very hard to do, granted, but also something that should be done. We know this because Jesus’ final command to his disciples — often called the Great Commission — is to spread this good news around the world.

Andrew Walls spent his life developing a framework of Transmission and Appropriation when it comes to the good news of Jesus Christ. What’s significant about Walls approach is that he sees not only the transmission side of things but also delves into the appropriation side as well. Appropriate is as intentional as transmission — eventually whatever is being transmitted is to subsequently be appropriated by the recipient. 

Walls talks about two types of recipients of the good news: Proselytes and converts. Proselytes adopt some one else’s encounter with God as their own while Converts adapt their own culture to reflect a new encounter with God. It may seem as if this is a two-stage process starting from proselyte and moving towards conversion but that is an over simplification of how things work. In fact in every culture we see examples of both co-existing. For example the practice of baptism, while debated as to its mode, is a nearly universally accepted practice among Christians, in spite of the fact that it originated in the Jewish religion.

The fact that the gospel is to be transmitted also implies that it will also be appropriated. Thus, Appropriation and Transmission must occur together. What’s also interesting is that ultimately the process also happens in reverse to create a richer transmission culture: The appropriator becomes the transmitter and the transmitter becomes the appropriator — or at least it should 🙂 Cultural hybridity is not a bad thing. In reality there are very few cultures that exist that have no interaction with other cultures. 

We have seen the dangers of what Bakhtin calls monologues — where only one person is allowed to speak. The results are staggering. 

Church participation in Cultural Genocide. I have already written a lot about this topic particularly as it relates to the Canadian Indian Residential Schools System but suffice it to say the church’s failure to listen to the voices of the Other in their missions efforts has been nearly universal. The “Other” is “someone or something who is perceived, either consciously or not, as alien or different.” In this example, while missionaries may recruit some of those they are on mission to into their own ranks, their otherness is often maintained as seen by the second example.

Marginalisation of Other clergy. My great-great-great-great grandfather, Rev. James N. Settee, was the second person of First Nations ancestry to be ordained as a priest in the Church Missionary Society (Anglican Church of Canada). He devoted his entire life to spreading the gospel among first nations peoples in Manitoba and Saskatchewan but was also forced to spend much of his time combatting the inconsistencies and discriminations that he himself experienced on a daily basis to the point that it hindered his ability to do actual ministry. What’s interesting is that he clearly appropriated the gospel into his life’s work but found baggage that needed to be peeled away in order for it to work in his context. 

Other examples. This can also been seen in the many Church splits and schisms that have marked church history as people took stands on where they thought the gospel should end — I suspect all done without acknowledging different contexts.

Rather than monologue, dialogues need to take place and it’s only through the use of dialogue that the appropriation of the good news of Jesus Christ can take place. We talked about Enriquez’ approach to what he calls indigenization from within, which is in effect a system of appropriation governed by insiders rather than outsiders and perhaps this is the best way for appropriation to take place — under the control of the Other!

Salin a Tagalog root word that means “translate” and also “pour” and talks about the process involved in making something one’s own in a different language or culture. Just as liquid is decanted from a pitcher into a glass, and thereby made useful, so also concepts can be decanted from one culture to another and more more understandable. But translation is more than simply making something more understandable — translation means that ownership is taken of the new word or phrase and making it one’s own. So how does someone make something one’s own? Here are a couple of examples from the Philippine context.

Sometimes this combination is more complex than merely combining indigenous and exogenous theories. Regardless of theoretical origins, other factors come into play that exert influence on human decisions, including sociopolitical purposes, religious institutional ends, and religious practitioners’ ends. The various actors, whether those in authority or those under oppression, are each able to exert their own will and influence outcomes. Wendt and Guazon each talk about the interaction of these three factors in the Philippines. Both describe situations where the original intent of the transmitters was re-purposed by the appropriators according to their own needs.

Wendt (1998) talks about fiesta, looking at both historical origins as a means of Spanish control that eventually was co-opted by Filipinos and reformulated into a real part of Filipino identity. Wendt says, “The functions originally intended to implement colonial rule, cultivate specific attitudes and stabilize the colonial system were counteracted to the same degree by the Filipinos’ incorporating the fiesta into their own ways of life and social structures.”

Guazon’s Crisis in the Formation of provisional members of a religious congregation in the Philippines is a study of the interactions between “formandi” and “formators” in the CICM, which is “Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae, the institute’s Latin name. CICM is a Roman Catholic male religious missionary institute of Belgian origin.” The formandi are acolytes desiring admission to the order and the formators are those charged with overseeing the initiation process. One would assume that the process is quite straight forward since the acolytes are the ones seeking admission and will presumably submit. This is not the case, however, with tension occurring on multiple levels. In the end, Guazon concludes that the formandi … are “active participants” in the process and appropriate the requirements of their new social system “according to their own cultural matrix.”

Feedback is always welcome.

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Image by Tyler Nix on Unsplash.

When is it appropriate to appropriate? Why appropriation is bad. (Part 1)

Cultural Appropriation has made the news again. Nuseir Yassin runs the popular video log Nas Daily. He recently made the news (herehere, and here) when he offered a tattoo course by Whang-Od on his Nas Academy. Whang-Od is a traditional tattoo artist from the Philippine province of Kalinga who was honoured by the Philippine government with the Dangal na Haraya in 2018. The controversy started when Whang-Od’s grandniece called the course a scam. It turns out that Nuseir didn’t follow the proper procedures in making the deal with Whang-Od. According to Dr. Nestor Castro, 

“Whang-od is not just an individual artist but she is also a member of the Butbut Tribe of Kalinga. Her skill on the art of traditional tattooing is derived from the indigenous knowledge of generations of Kalinga ancestors. Thus, this indigenous knowledge is collectively owned (although it may be individually practiced) by the Butbut. Thus, the consent of the members of the Butbut is necessary if this knowledge is to be shared to outsiders. Getting the permission of one individual is not enough.” [Click here to read the entire post].

Apart from this, the agreement also doesn’t conform to Philippine laws on the rights of indigenous peoples. In the end, Cultural appropriation of this type is inappropriate because it is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. The issue is culture or people’s right to be the gatekeepers of their own cultural wealth, whether that means protecting that wealth from other’s exploitations, or benefitting themselves as the owners of that cultural wealth.

Virgilio G. Enriquez, whose Pagbabangong-Dangal: Indigenous Psychology and Cultural Empowerment is from the Philippine context, presents six phases of cultural domination to which “indigenous psychology and culture have been subjected” throughout the world. Included in the stages are:

1. Denial and Withdrawal, where the “colonizers outrightly reject the very existence of what they perceive as an inferior culture.” This inferiority includes language, sport, food, law, and religion. “As the dominant culture denies the existence and worth of the indigenous culture, it also attempts to replace it with its own.”

2. Desecration and Destruction, where the “oppressive culture attempts to destroy whatever vestiges are left” of the indigenous culture. “Clearly, as the dominant culture atemts to destroy element s of the supposedly inferior culture, it tries to institutionalize and strengthen its own.”

3. Denigration and Marginalization, where the indigenous is labeled, giving the impression that it is inferior or damaged. This includes terms like Juan Tamad, quack doctor, ningas kugon, Filipino time, and talangka mentality as well as inaccurate portrayals of Filipinos in artwork depicting historical events, each of which is a negative stereotype of what it means to be Filipino.

4. Redefinition and Token Utilization, where the indigenous is “redefined and recast into the colonial mold.” Thus all indigenous meaning attached to the element is lost and it is not only completely redefined in a new context but also claimed by that new context as one of its own. Enriquez uses the Manila Galleon as an example. Here we have Filipino ingenuity in shipbuilding being redefined and claimed by the Spanish as one of their own. Enriquez also includes a discussion of what appears to be the token usage of “indigenous psychological texts” by Western-trained practitioners. It seems that they are being used not because of their value as psychological tools but because they merely make the client more at ease in an unfamiliar setting. 

5. Transformation and Mainstreaming, appears to be similar to Stage 4 only intensified. Here Enriquez focuses on the word hiyang, that at one time was considered nonsensical but is now seen as highlighting “personal differences” in therapeutic settings. Enriquez applies this to what happens in the doctor’s office, the kinds of food we eat, and folk-understandings of colors, shapes, textures, and sounds. “Once the prejudgment that the indigenous concept is merely superstitious or even useless has been proven wrong, the concept is reluctantly used but redefined according to the colonial mindset.”

6. Commercialization and Commodification, is where the real legitimacy of the indigenous is recognized by the colonizer. This can lead to one of two options, according to Enriquez. The first is “transforming and mainstreaming,” where “complete recognition and respect” is given by the colonizer to the indigenous and the two are mutually beneficial. The second option is where the indigenous culture’s knowledge and heritage are “exploited and commercialized.” Enriquez says that option #1 is rarely taken. He goes on to discuss the exploitation of indigenous genetics, both plant and human.

Enriquez proposes a counter-framework he calls “Decolonization, Counterdomination, and Empowerment” in order to guide in the recovery of what has been lost through colonialism. His model involves blending “both the modern and traditional cultural systems.” Key to his approach is what he calls indigenization from within, a traditional values-based approach that sees the indigenous as the main actor rather than the outsider. This internal orientation is essential to beginning decolonization because it puts the indigenous firmly in the driver’s seat. Enriquez identifies four aspects to indigenization from within, namely the “identification of key concepts from the indigenous culture,” the “semantic and lexical elaboration of these concepts,” the systematization and articulation of a theoretical framework, and applying and using this framework in the field. This process combines ideas and practices that are not only appropriate for the culture but also valid scientifically. So while one may conduct an interview in order to gather data, one is also free to conduct that interview in a culturally appropriate and relevant way.

Thus, by most accounts, appropriation is something that is bad but can be remedied. In our next post we will talk about a situation where appropriation is not only good, but is also the right thing to do.

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Image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.