This is a guest post by Harry Pottash.
Post-enlightenment culture has almost completely conquered Western cities, leaving them swimming in a rich and diverse memetic soup. From within this soup a new society is emerging, its members pejoratively called “Social Justice Warriors”. To avoid falling into the trap of pre-existing connotations we can refer to this emerging society as the “Identity-affirming society.” Identity-affirming society shows a striking resemblance to more traditional religions and societies, with specific adaptations, particularly around the concept of cultural appropriation, that make it more resilient to the dissolving forces of post enlightenment culture from which it is emerging. How do unique cultures — the Amish, for instance — protect themselves from being subsumed by the surrounding culture? A clearer view of how the ideas of cultural appropriation are used can be reached by comparing it with the more rigorously mapped views regarding intellectual property, as both cover similar territory.
Societies are finite games, games that introduce goals, rules, constraints on behavior and provide a scoring system. They are among the games we engage in so completely that we forget participation is optional, and the rules arbitrary. Most fully formed societies attach their rules to six instinctively used pillars of ethical behavior, each a thematic set of constraints that participants in the society must follow (or flaunt). Durable societies use these constraints to reinforce boundaries between societal insiders and outsiders.
Vice and Virtue in the Age of Whole Foods
Post-enlightenment culture is not a durable society. It is a highly virulent pattern which swept the earth like wildfire, embracing just three of the six pillars: fairness, liberty, and compassion. Obedience, loyalty, and purity, the three pillars ignored by post-enlightenment culture, are most readily associated with boundaries and individuation of the society. That these would be re-emerging fits thematically into the zeitgeist of our era, a period dominated by a focus on boundary issues.
Identity-affirming society originates from the far Left, where compassion is embraced as the primary value, and as the justification for most of its derived virtues. For identity-affirming society, compassion is always the key value. When the neglected three pillars of loyalty, purity, and obedience are redeveloped it is by stretching compassion, or less frequently, one of the other base values. For example, not wearing the clothing of another culture (purity) is justified by appealing to how it would make members of that culture feel (compassion). Once the norms attached to the other three pillars have been established, they take on a life of their own and are even able to compete with their parent norms.
Identity-affirming society is inherently non-violent by nature, having never practiced or advocated physical violence against persons, or even proxy versions of it such as imprisonment. Its core value is an attempt to relieve oppression. Identity-affirming society calls attention to very legitimate grievances of groups, particularly those who are being subtly or indirectly attacked. At its best, identity-affirming society solves collective action problems for smaller cultures facing the juggernaut of western society in much the same way as unions. This function is critical in the face of the ruthless application of neoliberalism so frequently embraced by post-enlightenment culture. Most of all, identity-affirming society is active! Its virtues are not theoretical, but engaged with on a day-to-day basis. Identity-affirming society members live their virtues in much the same way as those with religious zeal, even using the term “Woke” (compare “enlightened”).
Many members of post-enlightenment culture are, however, quite uncomfortable with the emergence of identity-affirming society. Some of this is likely due to naive pattern matching: identity-affirming society resembles older traditional societies, some of which contained intense repression, violence, and injustice. Identity-affirming society calls for greater restrictions on free speech, a pattern that always raises discomfort in post-enlightenment culture members. Some identity-affirming society members accuse post-enlightenment culture members of racism and other forms of intolerance, and particularly frustratingly, these accusations are frequently made on the basis of race, which seems hypocritical given post-enlightenment culture’s color-blind ideals. In some cases, identity-affirming society strips away familiar privileges, leaving behind equality that, for previously privileged post-enlightenment culture members, can feel like oppression. Identity-affirming society also bears some similarities to utopian movements, which despite good intentions have generated the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
For its part, post-enlightenment culture allows for, and even encourages, the ruthless exploitation of nearly everything and everyone. It produces tremendous imbalances in wealth and power and its more aggressive adherents are willing to spread it, even at gunpoint, across other cultural groups. Though post-enlightenment culture is rarely explicitly racist, it is brutally efficient at maintaining and even exaggerating the starting conditions that were produced by it’s abhorrently racist societal predecessor. Worse yet, to a member of identity-affirming society, it appears to defend emerging atavistic societies which call back to, or even exaggerate, its racist past.
Identity-affirming society uses several tricks to help distinguish boundaries within the cultural soup of post-enlightenment culture, tricks such as the use of respect, essentially a secularized version of the concept of sacredness. Respect provides a justification to prevent the mixing of external societies with random elements of culture. Many complexities in the concept of cultural appropriation, though not all of them, can be seen through this lens. Cultural appropriation can be used as way of re-establishing the “Loyalty” and “Purity” ethical pillars using respect for boundary creation.
Purity, a pillar which in almost every culture manifests through ethical rules regarding food and sex, is visibly reemergent as well. Sexual ethics remain quite culturally open, but the demonstration of ritual purity through abstaining from specific foods has re-emerged in full. Much of this started with compassion-based dietary preferences: veganism, vegetarianism, fair-trade-certified, and free range food. This trend has spread to other patterns such as refraining from GMO foods or gluten. Additionally, there are unspoken but similar patterns, such as avoiding eating at large chains such as McDonalds.
None of these purity patterns is entirely groundless. Each has an underpinning which can, at least nominally, be traced back to a post-enlightenment culture virtue. Post-enlightenment culture itself has been playing with the question “how should we eat?” for decades. What makes this different from, say, the move from butter to margarine, or other fads of the previous decades, is that these modern ones tend to be intended as absolute. Even when butter was “bad for your health” one could have a little, as opposed to avoiding gluten, which has a firm all-or-nothing boundary.
A different manifestation of the emerging drive to purity, one not attached to identity-affirming society, is the desire to avoid vaccination. Again this is portrayed as a measure of compassion (for the children whom vaccination ostensibly endangers) but also clearly touches on emotional fears about purity.
Obedience is the least tapped-into of the returning ethical pillars. In identity affirming society, no ethical imperative is given to obeying authority figures, even ones who are chosen by the group. What does exist there is a drive to obey digitally-achieved group consensus. The social networks acts as a meta-authority figure. This meta-authority is appealed to regularly in the case of what is sometimes described as victimization culture or call-out culture. Nothing makes this sort of anarchic group-conversation-as-judge better, or worse, than a centralized system, and like democracy it is subject to its own problems.
It’s also important to note identity-affirming society’s continued appreciation of the cultural values of liberty, compassion, and justice. Just as with traditional Christian society, these values are held in balance with the other three. It often feels to post-enlightenment culture members that these values are abandoned, or highly inconsistent, because the additional values that have been introduced are capable of competing with these three. When a value that post-enlightenment culture doesn’t recognize is deployed in conflict with one that it does, it seems as if the held value is being ignored arbitrarily. For instance, the Christian Right’s aggressive persecution of, say, premarital sex is to a Christian a conflict between purity and liberty, but to post-enlightenment culture members simply looks cruel or foolish. We can see an objection by identity-affirming society to non-Japanese wearing kimonos, despite there being no apparent request from Japanese community, as a conflict between purity and liberty as well.
Issues in cultural appropriation are a wonderful ground to explore examples of how the post-enlightenment culture principles have been extended and transformed into identity affirming society ones, and how they create additional individuation and more stable social structures in similar ways to a traditional culture. Thought on cultural appropriation can also be contrasted to thought on intellectual property which largely addresses the same problems. Instances where they diverge often result in outrage and eye rolling, indicating that they are likely to be interesting.
Cultural Appropriation as Intellectual Property
The term cultural appropriation has largely not been applied to the things that would be covered under the portion of intellectual property law known as patent law. This largely matches expectations, since most traditional cultures are willing to embrace borrowed technical innovation. The explicit legal reasoning for why patents are granted is to “promote the progress of useful science,” with the intent that they will be eventually shared into the larger cultural body of knowledge. In even the most sensitive identity-affirming society environments, I have largely not encountered accusations of cultural appropriation when a technique or tool is being adopted simply for its effectiveness.
For example, it appears to be quite rare for a white mixed martial artists who trains in Kung-Fu to be accused of cultural appropriation. Respect or lack thereof for Chinese culture is largely seen as irrelevant; the imitation seems to be viewed largely as a form of culture-independent technology acquisition. Similarly, I have never encountered any complaints about the adoption of kayak paddles for boating, or Japanese pull-stroke saws for carpentry, as instances of cultural appropriation.
Likewise, there is essentially complete agreement with regards to some of the founding examples of cultural appropriation. In earlier incarnations, the term referred to the literal, physical theft of cultural artifacts, such as the British carrying off Egyptian artifacts for museums in the early 1900’s. The term for this could have just as easily, and perhaps more accurately, been “cultural pillaging.” Post-enlightenment culture, identity-affirming society, and pretty much everyone else sees this as entirely unacceptable at this point, largely for violating ethical concepts of compassion and justice in obvious ways. Interestingly, this behavior is essentially no longer associated with the term “cultural appropriation,” a phrase reserved for actions where there is some contention regarding if the behavior is appropriate or not. The term “cultural appropriation” has come to be a shibboleth for the identity-affirming society: one can identify themselves as belonging to identity-affirming society by invoking it. Unfortunately, universally held views make terrible shibboleths.
A second place where post-enlightenment culture and identity-affirming society seem to agree (though where there is a dramatic difference between intellectual property law and typical views of cultural appropriation) is in the sphere of parody. Legally, parody is a very specifically protected form of imitation and copying, almost always taken as self-justifying. Conversely, parody of cultural groups is seen as one of the most obviously immoral behaviors typically labeled as cultural appropriation. Parody seems to violate ethical norms regarding both compassion (parody often is emotionally harmful to its target) and justice (in that it’s frequently seen as punching down). In the legal sphere, the assumption is that parody will be targeted at public figures, who are assumed to be relevant for discourse. Ethical considerations of liberty render the right to make fun of public figures almost sacred. A quirk of the cultural appropriation rules is that public figures who exist across a racial boundary are no longer considered viable targets for parody. For instance, a white person cannot produce parody of Barack Obama without drawing backlash. Historical and current power imbalance play a large role in this, and are a large component of the justification of cultural appropriation accusations.
Trademark law, together with its equivalent in cultural appropriation issues, are among the most unclear overlaps between post-enlightenment culture and identity affirming society. Trademarks are essentially symbolic representations of a status. They are objects or symbols that are set aside so that they can serve as identifiers. In our legal structure, trademarks are intended to represent the acknowledgment of a specific entity. This concept is intuitively familiar: the idea of a written signature is essentially one of a trademark. It is also implicitly extended to a wide array of similar things. At its outer legal boundaries, it’s referred to as “trade dress.”
Many of the most egregious cases of cultural appropriation are cases where something essentially symbolic in the same style as a trademark is used casually in stylistic ways. A familiar example is the case of the Native American war bonnet being worn as a decorative or fashion accessory. In its original context, the war bonnet is essentially a symbol of recognition and rank, not simply a fashion item. One can try to imagine switching roles by considering what it would be like to travel to China and find a non-English-speaker with a Harvard diploma in their office. On questioning them about it they say that they simply like how “western and aesthetic” it looks. Conflicts over this sort of cultural appropriation issue seem to stem from a few key zones. The first being simple lack of awareness: in many cases the appropriator is simply unaware of the status of the symbol in the culture that they are mimicking. The second case where this comes up is when the imitation is too crude, or to out of context, to possibly be taken as the genuine thing. This is frequently seen as a legal defense in trademark law where trademarks are context dependent: Apple Computer was allowed to have their trademark despite The Beatles’ Apple Music already having a trademark on the name “Apple”. Apple Computer was simply not allowed to apply that trademark in the context of music distribution. This became a significant problem when Apple Computer branched out into music with iTunes. This internal logic carries over for many post-enlightenment culture members who would not be concerned about wearing a papal mitre (pope-hat) and vestments, as they will never be mistaken for the pope. This argument largely falls back on the pillar of compassion and often uses the basic test of asking a representative member of the targeted culture if they find it offensive.
Identity-affirming society members who view most of these issues through purity and loyalty lenses do not find the professions of “no harm” to be sufficient, as the appropriator is essentially violating group boundaries, and profaning the sacred. This pattern also leads to a creeping expansion of restricted symbols, because the post-enlightenment culture members’ typical test, if discussed with someone in the identity affirming society, will always yield a response that the appropriation is harmful due to the purity norms.
Particularly likely to be called out for concerns regarding cultural appropriation are any items which are specifically used as a symbolic identifiers of group membership. This pattern very closely matches the loyalty pillar of traditional societies. For example, the old testament injunction against eating “a kid boiled in its mother’s milk,” the single most repeated commandment in the Bible, is given because boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was a central ritual in a neighboring culture. Not performing or participating in this ritual was critical to defining identity boundaries.
This leads us to the most extreme disagreement between post-enlightenment culture and identity-affirming society over what is cultural appropriation: behaviors that approximate copyright issues in intellectual property law. Legal copyright, like the patent, was established with the hope of incentivizing the creation of art, and the understanding that time would see these works transferred to the public domain. Tellingly, this has shifted to the point where copyright has essentially become permanent. It does seem that in both post-enlightenment culture and identity-affirming society there is a moral sense that that “you shouldn’t just be able to copy other people’s work” related to the ethical pillar of “justice.”
The concept of “derivative work,” something new taking large elements of a previous work but rendering them in a substantially altered way, is fair use in law, and usually seen as fair in cultural context by post-enlightenment culture observers. As with many cases where boundaries are being blurred or crossed, identity-affirming society is likely to find reason to object. The label “cultural appropriation” is readily applied (and traced back to some argument based in fairness), but frequently it seems the emotional response is based on violations of the purity ethical pillar. This has a great deal of resemblance to the injunctions in many cultures against mixing things, such as Kil’ayim in Judaism.
Not everything that parallels copyright law is a zone of disagreement. Under copyright law, facts and data are always in the zone of fair use, as with patent law, and views regarding cultural appropriation seem to agree. When the law evaluates copyright claims it takes into account financial intent and damage to the originator. When people from any group evaluate if an action is cultural appropriation, they tend to involve the same criteria, which is unsurprising given that these criteria are based on the ethical pillars of justice and compassion, two pillars which all involved groups share.
Many post-enlightenment culture members view creativity as, primarily, a remixing effect which is difficult to put boundaries on without hobbling. Some even claim that we are unable to control this remixing of ideas within our own heads, making attempts to prevent or modify it quite disruptive to the very process of thinking.
Boundaries, Borders, Castes, and Others
Societies are like every other sort of entity in this world: highly reliant on establishing and maintaining strong boundaries. In the W.E.I.R.D. context of the United States, the establishment of post-enlightenment culture caused the aggressive breakdown of most traditional boundaries through a variety of mechanisms. Tricks like post-enlightenment culture’s complete failure to enforce its own boundaries, relying exclusively on its memetic immune system, leave all of the metaphorical effort of “border enforcement” on the societies it encountered.
But perhaps the most effective trick post-enlightenment culture used to disintegrate boundaries is its universal curiosity and openness to “others” – in particular, its insistence that others not be vilified. This openness has allowed members of other societies to cross into post-enlightenment culture without having a personal identity crisis, or being made to feel unwelcome. For game theoretical reasons, this made it very difficult for post-enlightenment culture, or any group within post-enlightenment culture, to revert to a “hostile to others” opinion.
One of the critical methods for a normal society to maintain itself is to establish a bounded group of members, and for these criteria to supply a clear boundary rather than a gradual spectrum. This has been historically very hard to do within post-enlightenment culture, but several new and novel techniques have emerged. By establishing sacredness rather than disdain for the other as a way to create boundaries, and the use of the term “racist” as the primary out-group label, many of these issues were gradually circumvented.
Identity-affirming society seems to be essentially caste-based, with different ethnic groups making up the different castes. At the current stage of its development, the castes have not taken on a clear hierarchical structure, but they are jockeying for it. Cultural appropriation norms largely serve to enforce hereditary separation, while non-hereditary castes seem to be based on sexual and gender patterns.
A system of hereditary castes with a special non-hereditary one (which is one way or another connected with a restriction on childbearing) is a very familiar pattern. In medieval western culture, one could become a priest, taking a vow of celibacy and effectively transcending most informal castes. In several cultures, eunuchs were allowed great status regardless of their parentage, and even in Hindu culture there is a tradition of celibate Sadhus whose caste is essentially ignored.
There are arguments regarding control of nepotism which go a long way into explaining why having non-breeding castes in high status roles is beneficial for a culture, and castes that don’t allow for reproduction clearly need to allow some mechanism for joining (otherwise the group simply disappears). What’s remarkable is that both of these patterns were reflected in identity-affirming society immediately, without any generations going by, but also without being designed in.
Several trends have converged to produce an environment that is ripe for a new society to emerge within the post-enlightenment culture through the elimination of substitutes and commodification of components. Substitute methods for developing identity like subcultures, material success, traditional culture, and ritual behavior are less available than ever. At the same time communication, organization, and censure tools are abundant.
Counter-culture movements, which would have been the primary competition for identity formation within the post-enlightenment culture, have been largely absent for the last decade. The closest we have come has been has been hipsters, who seem to lack the vital core of many of the previous counter culture movements. This may be because marketing infrastructure has become so adept at commercializing even the slightest hint of emerging counterculture that virtually any youth moment of this sort becomes effectively “fake” before it can get started, with conspicuous production being a weak counter effort. Whatever the reason for the absence of modern counter-culture movements, they had previously served as a major outlet for identity formation that acted in competition with sexual, gender, and ethnically based ones.
At the same time, post-enlightenment culture’s domination of the urban environment became nearly complete, and its ethical groundings in both justice and compassion drifted further away from traditional hereditary society norms. This essentially meant that identity formation by joining any existing society (usually religiously based) became unlikely due to lack of exposure, and the danger of alienation.
Post-enlightenment culture also artistically drifted into post-irony, leaving a vacuum for clear statements regarding rules. For those who wish to obey, or to disobey, this presented a serious problem, which may have contributed to the lack of counter cultures. Post-irony severely undermined the reliability of sincerity, which hamstrung the creation of any sort of meaningful ritual, something that many people rely upon heavily.
Several of the components that are required for the formation of a society began to become dramatically more available. Social media provided a readily available way to coordinate an audience for societal formation and distinction. To a large degree societies are audiences. Until recently, the broadcast media necessary to form an audience was relatively expensive. Zines were the cheapest form until the rise of social media. Pre-social-media websites were affordable to produce, but readership was severely limited by internet penetration: less than 50% in the year 2000, and lower among minorities.
Social media has commodified a second previously expensive structure: community judgement and censure. Before the rise of social media, it was significantly more difficult for any group to judge or police the actions of its members. Using social media, identity-affirming society is able to make essentially democratic decisions about behavior, and to censure its members through public negative feedback. From the outside, this can look like “social justice eating its own,” but it can also be seen as a functional internal justice system.
Finally, the avenue of creating identity through professional success became dramatically less available during this period. The previously popular solution of buying identity began to seem less viable with the increasing commodification of goods and decreasing possibility for professional advancement. Spurred by the excesses of post-enlightenment culture’s love affair with neo-liberalism, a growing cultural disbelief in the meritocratic nature of wealth undermined any status gained through its display.
This happened simultaneously with an increase in the supply of highly educated, talented, and charismatic leadership, a critical component to the formation of any new culture. This change left many of the most talented, who previously would have sought to find recognition and power by advancing through the existing society, to turn to the formation of alternative societies.
Ultimately, in the aftermath of the societal clear-cutting that post-enlightenment culture visited on the world, we can expect a number of new societies to emerge. Some of these are likely to be quite novel, as with identity-affirming society, and others familiar and dysfunctional such as nationalist movements, personality cults, or hate groups. Game theory indicates that all of the emerging societies will probably evolve quickly, and are likely to be quite detrimental to the social environment as a whole. History has already shown us what these more traditional societies become and how they die. I have never known of a society with ideals similar to the identity-affirming society, however, and I’m quite curious to what it will grow into.