Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: art and meaning-making

Cultural exchange, versus cultural appropriation

According to some people, I have an unsavory past.

Well, not me, personally. I’ve never committed any crime worse than exceeding the speed limit, and I’m pretty sure that’s true for most of my immediate family as well. We don’t tend to be colorful in that way.

What lurks in your family tree?

What lurks in your family tree?

But I have both English and German roots, and the last several generations of my European-American ancestors have lived in the United States. In the eyes of many people around the world, those simple facts make me and my family complicit, at least by association, with centuries of oppression, racism, and perhaps even genocide.

Not much I can do about it, no matter what my ancestors thought or did. But in the minds of some, my ancestry and presumed understandings make me a suspect interpreter of culture. How dare I even try to make art about any culture but my own? Isn’t that tantamount to cultural appropriation?

Yikes! Um, well . . . no, actually. For good reason.

First, like many people, I’ve tried to live my life in as fair and unbiased a way as I can, but the fact is that sometimes we don’t realize what we’ve done or said (or what those things mean to others–see below) until we’ve had our consciousness raised. Every one of us is a product of our culture, and it’s only through experience that we can learn more appropriate approaches and frames of reference.

Artist Kristen Uroda created this image for NPR, to help convey the concept of a frame of reference. It's also an illustration of my point that art can help us understand our world.

Artist Kristen Uroda created this image for NPR, to help convey the concept of a frame of reference. It’s also an illustration of my point that art can help us understand our world.

In other words, none of us will get it right 100% of the time. But cross-cultural understanding can be built, even by unsavory characters such as me. It requires mutual respect and openness, and patience with each others’ mistakes.

Why try? When we don’t understand something, our brain still tries to make sense of it. That’s an innate response. We don’t always get it right, because synthesizing from impressions and separate events is an inaccurate process. But the human brain seems hard-wired to try.

I’ve always seen artists (in all of the arts disciplines) as crucial to the process of building cross-cultural understanding–and in our ever-shrinking world, where globalization affects lives everywhere, developing more and better tools for cross-cultural understanding is becoming ever more vitally important.

Yet anytime we consider a cultural exchange, there tends to arise the concern over cultural appropriation.

Cultural  Exchange is a healthy, desirable, increasingly necessary function in society. Governments, organizations, and businesses are wise to foster it whenever possible.

Cultural Appropriation is a perversion that wounds, and inhibits mutual growth. It is what happens when members of a dominant culture ignorantly or disrespectfully use racial stereotypes or the outward symbols of a less-dominant culture for its own gain or racist purposes. Unfortunately, people who look like me can stumble all too easily across this line. Consider these examples:

But we’ve already established that we don’t get it right 100% of the time, especially when we encounter an unfamiliar culture. How and where do we draw the line?

First must come the awareness that there is such a thing as a dominant culture. Moreover, membership in a dominant cultural group automatically bestows privilege. When you ignore privilege, you lose an essential perspective that is important for helping you see where that line falls.

That’s why people who look like me, and whose ancestors came from the places my ancestors did, are automatically suspects, when it comes to cultural appropriation. Whether we want to be or not, and whether we think it’s right or not, we’re privileged. THAT’S my “unsavory past,” noted at the top of this article. When you automatically have had privilege all your life, it looks “normal.”

And it’s really easy to ignore, until you’ve had your consciousness raised to the fact that everyone else who doesn’t look like you has to evaluate situations based on your privilege, and work around it.

After that, drawing the line gets a lot easier. Cultural exchange is mutual. It enriches members of both cultures. Cultural appropriation demeans members of one culture for the amusement or gain of more-privileged members of another. Ultimately, it comes down to RESPECT. Without it, every single one of us is an unreliable witness.

IMAGES: The elaborate family tree chart by Pietro Paolini is from the Castello di Nipozzano in Tuscany, courtesy of The Independent. Many thanks to NPR and its Invisibilia shows, for Kristen Uroda‘s simultaneous illustration of two of my points. I am grateful to Top Famous Quotes for the Abbe Pierre quote and image, to Iffat Karim and The Rattler for the “Native Americans” example of cultural appropriation, to illustrator Terry Tan, whose illustration, “Cinco de Mayo/Drinko” was posted in a very good article by Matt Moret in ThePittNews, and to Wikipedia for the poster image from a minstrel show in 1900. Many thanks to The Orbit, for the nutshell definition of privilege (the essay that goes with the image is a good one, too). And finally, many thanks to A-Z Quotes, for the Dalai Lama image and quote.

Art and Religion–in Space!

Vacation Bible School starts at my church tomorrow (June 13, 2016), and runs through Thursday. This year, they’ve chosen a Star Wars theme, and titled it “Journey of the Jedi.” 

My initial reaction, based on the general fannish idea that “The Force” is a religion of its own, and the background understanding that Star Wars was based on the Hero’s Journey as outlined by the vehemently non-Christian Joseph Campbell, was, “Say what??” 

George Lucas based the first Star Wars movie on “the Hero’s Journey” archetype, as described by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book.

And I suspect I wasn’t the only one in the congregation who didn’t immediately put it together. But our Senior Pastor Dr. Michael Gardener addressed any such concerns head-on, in his sermon today. 

He pointed out, quite correctly, that the basic themes of the underlying storygood versus evil, the existence of  an all-pervasive force in the universe that exists beyond human (and nonhuman) comprehension, the “pull toward the light,” the value of self-sacrifice for the greater good, and the potential for redemption for even the lowliest and most unlikely, are highly compatible with the Christian message. 

He also discussed the role of the arts—literature, cinema, music, etc., in translating those concepts into something we can relate to. “So if this is a way that kids can connect” with these deep-level ideas, he told us, it is an appropriate tool for the teacher’s workbench of techniques. I heartily endorse this approach.

Science fiction is an art form that helps us stretch our imagination so we can take in new ideas.

I would add that this function of artistic expression to make ideas meaningful in new ways works the same for humans of all ages, not only kids. 

The arts—and that includes science fiction—are the bridge of meaning-making that we build between the unknown (perhaps the un-knowable) and our own understandings. It can work that way with the great truths of philosophy, faith, and all aspects of human existence, just as it can create bridges between different cultures

I’d like to turn my focus to the value of science fiction as a bridge of meaning-making that is compatible with religious thought

I just do not buy the idea that religion won’t travel with us into space (if you wish to be strictly literal, it already has). 

Anyone who believes that confronting the universe will not inspire spiritual thought hasn’t considered either the universe or humans.

I say this, because there is a persistent school of thought in science fiction that says once humans have become rational, scientifically sophisticated creatures and evolved beyond the need to create “self-comforting myths” about a force greater than themselves in the universe, they’ll leave “superstition and religion” behind. 

I call bullsh*t. 

There IS one part of that idea with which I can agree: the only way humans will lose their innate need for spiritual expression is for them to evolve into something else. Whether that’s a higher or a lower life-form, I’ll leave you to decide. 

Here’s a little perspective on our importance in the universe.

But there’s no way in hell (and I use that term advisedly) that we’re going to venture forth into the vastness of the universe, traveling in fragile little metal tubes that are the only shield between ourselves and certain death, and NOT say frequent and fervent prayers to some power greater than our puny selves. 

As John Young put it, “Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world, knowing they’re going to light the bottom, and doesn’t get a little worried, does not fully understand the situation.”

The old adage, “there are no atheists in foxholes” applies fully. The very best way to realize you aren’t quite as powerful and self-sufficient as you thought you were, is to meet a force of nature in one of its more dangerous and powerful aspects. 

Meanwhile, if anyone greets me with the words, “May the Force be with you,” I plan to smile and reply: “And also with you.”

* * *

A footnote may be needed: There are people in the science fiction community, and also in the wider public, who make certain false assumptions about me, when I tell them I am a practicing Christian. So, for the record: 

NO, I do not believe everyone who does not believe exactly the way I do (or is LGBT, or divorced, etc.) will automatically go to Hell. (I also do not personally believe that the God of love whom I follow hates or destroys earnest, thinking people who struggle to live honest, ethical lives but were reared in, or chose, other-than-Christian expressions of spirituality or belief). 

NO, I do not believe that the Earth was created 4,000 years ago, or that a study of science requires one to be an atheist.

Along with my artist friend Lucy A. Synk, I believe that evolution is “a means God uses in the ongoing creation of the universe.”

NO, I do not believe that God created women and persons of color as second-class citizens.

NO, I do not believe that I have any right deny someone the legal right to have an abortion (or use birth control, or get a tattoo, or . . . your body is YOURS to control, okay?)

NO, I am not a social conservative. I am, in fact, a liberal whose focus is social justice, because of my Christian faith.

NO, I am not the only Christian who feels as if my religion has been hijacked in the public discourse by loud, often crazy, terrorists. 

Disagree with me in the comments if you feel the need to do so, but please keep the discourse succinct and civil.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Old Mission United Methodist Church, for the “Journey of the Jedi” banner, to Wikipedia, for the first-edition cover photo for Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to Wall 321 for the sfnal beach image (artist unattributed), to Science Fiction Quotes, for the Ray Bradbury quote (again–artist unattributed!), to Getty Images via HNGN for the image of Earth, the Moon and the universe beyond, to Space Answers for the image of the astronaut in the EVA suit, (and also for the John Young quote), and special thanks to Lucy A. Synk, for the use of her image Evolution.

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