In my post on the identity politics of belly dancing, in which I argued that Randa Jarrar’s recent tirade against white belly dancers must imply the moral inferiority of white women, I bypassed – because I thought it particularly weak – the notion that white belly dancing unwittingly perpetuates racist stereotypes about Arabs, even if there is nothing inherently mocking or belittling about the practice itself or the intentions of white belly dancers. This objection is the substance of a series of comments on the post by reader Harri Siikala, proffered in the jargon of critical theory and cultural studies: “cultural appropriation should be viewed as part of wider social discourse about otherness” – specifically, how “otherness is conceived” (by the dominant class): “one could make an argument tying the innocuous seeming role playing to eroticism, racial otherness, and orientalist ideas of the exotic.” Finally, “we have a moral obligation to be especially sensitive to” the values of minorities “due to their disadvantaged position in society, structural racism” – one that overrides “abstract notions about equality”; “certain socially constructed groups have distinct rights … pertaining to their cultural heritage.”
Siikala also argues that it’s possible that certain practices as so central to the identity of a group that they become its “intellectual property.” Finally, he accuses me of arguing out of a “blind faith in universalizing liberal individualism,” which despite its emphasis on equality can foster inequality by erasing cultural differences between groups. There is a “rejection of difference in the name of equality” – because “evocation of difference becomes jingoistic nationalism, racism, Nazism, or tribalism.” This can in turn be used to justify imperialism, “suppression of cultural revival movements,” and “socio-economic inequality.” He also notes that “post-modern critical theory,” with its “deconstruction” of social boundaries, may ironically lead to the same sorts of results as the classical liberalism I advocate. Finally, he quotes Zizek to the effect that capitalism thrives on “tolerance” and difference, but for himself asserts that such difference is just a façade concealing an underlying “sameness” that is “grist for the mill of capitalism.”
These objections well represent the prevailing style of cultural studies academia, which grandiosely presents simplistic ideas as sophisticated by dressing them up in jargon. Remove the jargon, and you see them for the weak, free-associating generalizations they are: to ask that human beings be treated as moral equals with equal rights is not an assertion that they must be made equal in every other sense, or a demand that we obliterate all cultural differences between them. To argue against racism is not to argue for the suppression of some culture – as if racism could be essential to some group’s cultural identity. In fact, pluralism has thrived in liberal societies precisely because of the concepts of equality and liberty. You may not like the melting-pot effect of a pluralistic society, or the culturally homogenizing effect of capitalism and American popular culture: but do you really think these are an effect of affording human beings equal rights? However much you lament homogenization, only a totalitarian regime would have a chance (and a poor one at that) of reversing it and keeping various cultures in tidy little buckets. Finally, none of my assertions are inconsistent with the idea that liberalism has its drawbacks, or that there ought to be policies to help the disadvantaged.
Let’s move on to the claim that it is important to combat racist stereotypes, and that these stereotypes can be perpetuated unwittingly. I agree. Groups have legitimate anxieties about how they are portrayed, and portrayals ought not to demean them. But whether something is a demeaning stereotype doesn’t depend on the hurt feelings of any one individual. What’s critical is that the practice or image in question has – like blackface – historically been used as a form of mockery or caricature; or is so sacred that any appropriation is necessarily too casual to count as anything but caricature. We can appeal to some extent here to the sentiments of the majority of a given group, although we know these aren’t necessarily decisive (for various reasons, a group may not register or voice offense to certain disparagements, and might even participate in them – blackface performers included African Americans). But the sentiments of an offending group are also not irrelevant: any objection to some practice or image is an appeal to conscience, and if some demand seems to grotesquely exceed the demands of conscience, or asks for too great an abdication of rights by some segment of society, it will ultimately be rebuffed. “I feel demeaned by the practice of gay marriage” is not an objection that a liberal society ought to take seriously.
Jarrar’s objections fail to meet any of these standards. There is no history of widespread use of the practice of belly dancing to belittle Arabs in the way that blackface was used to belittle and mock African Americans. Belly dancing has a long history in the United States, with Turkish and Arab Americans (and others) actively facilitating its adoption by white women (by, among other things, teaching them and employing them in clubs and restaurants). Likewise, the belly dancing of foreigners has a long history in the Middle East. There is no history of vocal, widespread objection to white belly dancing by Arab American or other communities. Objections to white women belly dancing are the province not of Arabs or Arab Americans, but of the sort of mindset common to the advocates of identity politics. Jarrar is not the chosen ambassador of Arab-Americans, and most Arabs would probably find her position on this matter strange, exotic, and “other.”
I do understand, by the way, that with the use of words like “otherness” and “othering,” the advocates of identity politics can advance the notion that any cultural contact or exchange between more and less powerful groups is a form of abuse. But in doing so, they conflate the existence of racist stereotypes with a more general suspicion toward the imagined mindset of a politically dominant group. Siikala’s talk of “eroticism, racial otherness, and orientalist ideas of the exotic” allows him to conflate the very separate issues of whether some practice or image actually perpetuates a racist stereotype; and whether it might be, even if it is not inherently racist, fodder for the racist, chauvinistic, or sexual thoughts of some white person somewhere (or, if we are to imagine that the minds of white people are uniformly compromised, of white people in general). This is really the core meaning of “appropriation” at stake here: belly dancing is not a racist stereotype per se, but might be once it undergoes an alchemical transformation in the minds of the white people who have mentally appropriated and thus corrupted it. By that standard, we might ban all men from contact with children on the chance that any one of these men could be a pedophile. It’s a very low burden of proof indeed.
This sort of suspicion is made to seem more plausible by the association of appropriation with theft, an association to which Siikala appeals with the notion of “intellectual property.” Another commenter makes a similar point, arguing that belly dancing is participation in a “racist and oppressive dynamic” and “a history of cultural imperialism and expropriation,” one that need not be intentional, and indirectly harms Arabs in the way that buying cheap clothing harms the victims of child labor. These objections ignore the fact that appropriation as theft is a metaphor. White belly dancing cannot literally be theft: it cannot rob Arab women of the practice of belly dancing. And it cannot really be theft of intellectual property, in the sense that it deprives someone else of financial gain from their copyrighted work. More generally, we can argue that it’s unfair for society to recognize and reward, for example, not a black blues musician but the white rock band influenced by him. But this argument actually has nothing to do with theft. Musical influence is just the way music works: disparities in recognition and reward are a matter not of theft by some band but of the racism of audiences or some other social factor. But none of this is applicable to white belly dancing: in this case, the concept of theft must signify something else.
If appropriation is not literally theft, we must try to make sense of the metaphor of appropriation, and how it could be given a meaning that constitutes participation in a “racist and oppressive dynamic.” We’re left with Siikala’s suggestion concerning a theft of identity: certain groups must be able to keep aspects of their identities to themselves. But we can only explain this need in terms of the harm it would cause to see others – or especially white people – participating in practices associated with those identities. And I can think only of two ways to explain this harm, once we have ruled out the perpetuation of a racist stereotype or some more literal theft. The first involves suspicion as to the universal maliciousness of white thoughts, which I described above. The second appeals to the hurt feelings that I focused on in my first post, using the following sort of logic in the case of belly dancing: “the belly dancing of a white woman – this metaphorical ‘appropriation’ – reminds me of the literal appropriation of antiquities and ancestral lands, along with everything else oppressive about colonialism. I understand it was the literal appropriation that was oppressive in the original sense, and that metaphorical ‘appropriation’ cannot be oppressive in the same way. And yet by way of this metaphor, belly dancing reminds me of colonial oppression, and hurts my feelings. And these hurt feelings are in turn a form of actual oppression.”
But hurt feelings cannot constitute a form of oppression, unless they’re a reasonable response to some actually oppressive act – like the actual deployment of a racist stereotype, or actual theft. And they certainly cannot constitute a form of oppression if they are simply predicated on one’s own pejorative race-based generalizations.
Unfortunately, it’s precisely such generalizations that are essential to Jarrar’s argument and my readers’ objections. Without them, we cannot slide so effortlessly from the prohibition on racial stereotypes to the prohibition of cross-cultural exchange predicated on sweeping assumptions about the attitudes of white people. Nor can we move from metaphorical “appropriation” to actual theft: in Jarrar’s case, only an illegitimate race-based generalization could cause her to choose, when she looks at white belly dancers, the metaphor of appropriation as theft over that of sharing or exchange. (Similarly, only an illegitimate race-based generalization could lead us from crimes statistics to treating every black person as a criminal). For Jarrar’s hurt feelings to be legitimate, it must be the case that every white person is the representative of the worst crimes of their race. Either they must be collectively responsible for these crimes, or they must have an essence that makes such crimes typical of their type.
The identity politics adherent tells us that such race-based generalizations are acceptable in this instance, because they flow from less to more powerful groups. But to make this notion work, we must discard the idea that racism is wrong on principle, and replace it with something like the notion that we owe a certain fealty to aggrieved groups that is so strong that it transcends principle. This militates against the whole point of justice, which asks us to rise above our group-based loyalties, to treat every human being as equally worthy of respect and fairness. Instead, we need not adhere to a principle of justice as long as we have a victim of injustice to put in its place. We determine what’s just not with reference to principles, but by assessing the relative group power dynamics of the relevant parties. Victimhood creates an exception to any rule; principle is subverted by identity. That’s why it’s OK in the eyes of some, for instance, to keep Palestinians in a stateless state of abject misery: they have nothing in their history that approximates the gravity of the Holocaust, and therefore they cannot be the “real victims” relative to Israelis (to deploy a phrase I see used frequently in objections to my posts).
But if racism is sometimes acceptable, we can no longer use principles – or reasons – to appeal to the conscience of the opponents of minority rights. We can no longer try to persuade white bigots to give up their identity-based loyalties, if what we are advocating is essentially the priority of identity-based loyalty for another group. We cannot argue against their racism on principle, because we have said that as long as the power dynamics are right, racism is OK: to justify their racism, they need only craft a narrative in which they are the “real victims” (something that will be easy for many poor and lower class whites, whose lived experience of socioeconomic struggle will always be at odds with the “white privilege” that far more wealthy and educated elites of all races tell them they have). With principles no longer available to us, the best we can do is to overpower our political opponents, either by political force or political indoctrination (of the kind that now dominates humanities academia). These methods will always lead to unstable consequences, because power is complex and ever-shifting, and because those susceptible to your indoctrination will only include an elite minority (especially wealthy white students) who already feel so socioeconomically secure that submitting to the demands of identity politics is the only thing that could enhance their sense of superiority – by gilding it with the aura of moral superiority that comes from repeated confessions of one’s “white privilege.”
This approach – in which one merely overpowers or indoctrinates rather than persuades one’s political opponents – essentially replaces the concept of justice with that of might-makes-right, and represents a loss of faith in the efficacy of reasons and principles. That may seem fine if you think you can win a raw power struggle. But history should tell you that you can only win such struggles in the short term. Far more effective in the long term is adherence to principle, and the kind of appeal to conscience that gave the civil rights movement its real power.
Identity politics substitutes for the notion of human equality a sliding scale of moral worth, one that depends on one’s membership in groups that historically have been on the losing side of power relations. Siikala does not need to remind us that the advocates of identity politics are anti-liberal, or that they find the notion of equality “abstract.” Ultimately, liberalism doesn’t suit identity politics because it resists the pejorative group-based generalizations on which identity politics is premised. One need not have blind faith in liberal individualism, or think liberal societies free of problems, to find certain anti-liberal ideas repugnant and ultimately totalitarian in spirit.
These ideas are motivated by the desire not for justice, but for a form of cultural revenge, or – for those who get off on it because they believe it morally sanctifying – a sadomasochistic compliance with revenge. Jarrar’s article in particular is a means of avenging her race-based resentments by trying to induce guilt or shame. Her real claim – and it’s one that she makes clear in a very sad follow-up piece – is that she is entitled to her own racism because it’s her compensation for the racism she has suffered at the hands of whites. Ultimately, her dislike of white belly dancers is predicated not on their racism but hers, thinly veiled by the posture of victimhood: that’s what really hurts Jarrar’s feelings, and it’s not the kind of hurt that could ever deserve our sympathy, if we recall the historically murderous consequences of any politics that treats morality as a function of pitiability.
-- Wes Alwan