Cultural Diffusion and Cultural Appropriation

From Frontier Centre:

Philip Salzman
August 24, 2017

Anthropologists have long known that one of the major origins of culture is diffusion, the spreading of culture from one place, one population, one society to another.[i] Since the beginning of mankind, every culture developed and evolved through both internal innovation and borrowing from outsiders. This is not debated; it is a fact of human history. It can easily be illustrated by well-known historical examples.

The languages we know as Spanish and French are classed together as Romance languages, because they were adopted and adapted from the Latin of the Romans who conquered the tribes of what is now Spain and France. What we know now as English, is a result of the mixing of Germanic Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. The home of the Semitic language Arabic is the Arabian Peninsula, but its spread throughout Egypt, and North Africa, followed Arab conquests, with Arabic being adopted by the subject populations, while Egyptian and Berber fell into eclipse.  The spread of English around the world, now as the language of science and business, followed the expansion of the British, but the adoption of English continues long after the retreat of the British. Russian was established throughout Central Asia by the expansion of the Russian and later Soviet empires. Today, some Central Asian republics, such as Kyrgyzstan, maintain Russian as an official language. Chinese is the dominant language of the Chinese heartland, but now the language used by Mongols, Turks, and Tibetans under the sway of China. Imperial conquests were not chosen by their recipients, but the imperial languages often were, in some cases entirely superceding local languages.

Religions are not all local inventions, but often are borrowed. Christianity was born in ancient Israel, and originally seen as another form of Judaism, which is not surprising, because Jesus and his followers were all Jews, and the basic ideas of one God and a messiah were integral parts of Judaism. Islam adopted Jewish monotheism and the entire list of Jewish prophets, plus Jesus and Mary, all of whom are claimed to be Muslims, as well as many Jewish customs such as  circumcision and the ban on pork. Christianity and Islam have been adopted in many parts of the world. In the East, there have been adoptions and borrowing among Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism, among others.

Although all cultures include practical knowledge and applied technology, modern science and industry were developed in Western Europe during the Enlightenment and agricultural and industrial revolutions. Other European countries followed to a greater or lesser degree, as did the Americas, borrowing the knowledge generated by these revolutions. The demonstrated superiority of science and industry in technology led to them being adopted widely in the world. Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and Korea, have borrowed and mastered both science and industry, with China and India rapidly catching up. Science and industry serve as examples of culture evolved in one culture centre defusing around the world, borrowed by other peoples and cultures to improve and enrich their lives.

People around the world have borrowed from each other’s cuisine. Hamburgers, pasta, pad thai, bagels, frankfurters, pizza, Chinese, curry, and barbeque have been integrated into popular consumption in many cultures. All of these “foreign” foods are what we serve regularly in our home. Styles of clothes are also widely borrowed. I usually wear an Australian, kangaroo skin hat. Music too is inspired by others’ music, synthesized, and then borrowed and transformed by others. Western music from European classical to American rock and roll has been adopted around the world. Rock and roll and jazz drew on black music, which included elements carried from Africa. Dance too: Latin dances, Scottish dances, Western dances, Irish dances, all danced by anyone and everyone. Our daily life is rife with examples of cultural borrowing.

Recently, a moral or moralizing approach has been taken to cultural borrowing by various commentators and social critics, an approach which deems some borrowing bad, or even evil, and labels it “cultural appropriation.”[ii]

The examples are myriad, creative, and in some cases, surprising.

According to a piece written by a student at Louisiana State University, white women styling their eyebrows to make them look fuller is an example of cultural appropriation. “Current American eyebrow culture also shows a prime example of the cultural appropriation in the country,” Lynne Bunch writes in an article for the Daily Reveille, the school’s official student newspaper.[iii]

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