The Radical Moderate 1

Moderation cartoon

It is possible to eat moderately. It is possible to express yourself moderately. It is not possible to believe moderately.

Yes I just quoted myself, but sometimes I’m worth quoting. This post is a bit of a departure for me (I’ve only previously discussed anything remotely political in relation to the Great Mortgage Bubble of ’07 and my natural skepticism of doomsdayers). But there are a few subjects that have been bugging me lately—or more specifically the public rhetoric about them has bugged me—and if I can’t talk about it in my personal blog where can I talk about it?

Before I begin, let me talk about moderates.

When people say they’re moderates, what they usually mean is 1.) they’re willing to compromise with those of other political tribes, or, 2.) they hold some views, possibly many, that are not held by their own identified political tribe.

Political moderates are often accused of being wish-washy and uncommitted, and take abuse from both sides; neither progressives nor conservatives have any use for them. But being a moderate also means that you often see reason and absurdity on both sides. Temperamentally, it also means qualifying your opinions, being humble in your convictions, and slinking rather than rushing to judgement.

Temperamentally, I am a moderate. Although I hold some beliefs quite strongly, I try and keep in mind Cromwell’s Appeal: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken. And I am increasingly a political moderate as I watch the political Left and Right drift further and further apart from each other and the Center, a drift mirrored in our American culture.

The drift itself doesn’t worry me so much as the increasing animosity displayed by both tribes for each other. I am convinced it is created by a growing and  fundamental empathy-gap between Conservatives and Progressives that rests on the following syllogism:

  1. I am a rational/good human being.
  2. Because I am a rational/good human being, I believe X.
  3. If you do not believe X, you must be either misinformed, irrational, or a bad person.

This is a natural way to think, in fact it takes an act of will and imagination and to think differently, but the truth is that other people think differently. The way you think about any subject is shaped to a huge degree by your environment and your world-view. Do you trust people? Do you distrust people? Do you think freedom is the cardinal social value, or do you believe that virtue is the cardinal social value? Is liberty more important than equality, or is equality more important than liberty?

The danger in this syllogism is this; it can very easily lead to Statement 4.

Since you are misinformed, irrational, or a bad person, you must be re-educated, cured, or punished.

Because progress cannot be achieved any other way.

By definition, the opposite of moderation is extremism. Today the Left is the tribe most often accused of extremism, but conservative extremism is quite possible as well; it can even be praised.

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” (Barry Goldwater)

Sounds good doesn’t it? Until you remember some of the indefensible things we’ve done in the defense of liberty and the pursuit of justice.

So there it is, and I could meander on a good bit more about my moderate philosophy. Instead, depending on the reception this post receives, I intend to display that philosophy with commentary (sometimes less-than-serious) on some of today’s issues.

Today’s topic: hair and cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon. Generally, an assumption that the culture being borrowed from is also being oppressed by the culture doing the borrowing is prerequisite to the concept. (Wikipedia)

The heat and sometimes rage over cultural appropriation is a relatively new thing; once upon a time, civil rights focused on individual social equality—a social good famously and succinctly described by Doctor Martin Luther King:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

But King was actually a moderate in his own movement, and the heirs of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s are not so moderate in their philosophy; the civil rights movement has largely given way to the social justice movement, and the social justice movement is very, very concerned with authenticity.  Authenticity, as used now, was originally a psychological term:

Authenticity is a technical term used in psychology as well as existential philosophy and aesthetics (in regards to various arts and musical genres). In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures; the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures, and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. A lack of authenticity is considered in existentialism to be bad faith. (again Wikipedia)

Not being allowed to be one’s “authentic self” is oppression, not being one’s authentic self is self-betrayal, and today there is very much a self-conscious “authentic blackness” or “authentic feminism” or authentic group-ness of almost every kind. And this group-authenticity is not defined and policed by the “white patriarchal cis-gendered ruling class” either; it is defined by each group. To be deemed inauthentic is to be deemed a quisling traitor of the group.

There is a positive side to group-authenticity; by willingly adopting or retaining concrete tokens and manners and a related history as “of the group” and taking pride in them, you help create group pride. Scots-Americans (I’m one) take pride in being able to “authentically” wear a particular clan tartan. Recovering cultural artifacts of your family past can strengthen your sense of self (I learned to play the bagpipes). Hearing Flower of Scotland done at all well gives me a thrill. And this can be very important when your group has historically been marginalized and oppressed. (Not even British conquest oppressed the Scots much, and their self-image is a bunch of hard headed tough bastards.)

But I think there can also be a deeply negative side, and one problem with stressing group-authenticity is finding offense in cultural appropriation.

On one level this is understandable; dressing up in a way that invokes mocked or distorting stereotypes can be offensive. The improper use of cultural tokens important to the group can be offensive. (Personally, I take offense at seeing people dressing up as Catholic priests or nuns— especially Slutty Nuns—for Halloween and I’m not even Catholic.)

But I have seen things condemned as cultural appropriation that were never appropriated in mockery or denigration. Should belly dancing only be performed by dancers from the originating Middle Eastern and Eastern cultures? Should hip-hop artists only be black? Should only Japanese wear kimonos? Should only Native Americans engage in Native-American spiritualism? Should only Easterners practice yoga?

All of these are cultural appropriations which have offended some very vocal people.

And then there’s this:

I came across this in a recent article: go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.

My first thought was to laugh, but then I tried to understand just what the objectors found so objectionable in this. I sort of got it, although I think they are wrong. They feel that adoption from other cultures or groups, especially historically oppressed groups, is disrespectful.

But here’s the thing; I cannot think of one instance of appropriation in which the adopters didn’t respect the group they were appropriating from, or at least an aspect of that group. If you hate a group, or look down on it, you will not adopt anything identified with it.

In other words, white people adopting Afros, cornrows, and dreadlocks, is a sign that white American culture (yes there is such a thing) has become much less racist. It’s a sign of progress.

And it was seen that way, once. Nobody raised an eyebrow over Bo Derek’s cornrows in the 80s:

bo derek

And then there was:


I should know: I had an Afro in high school. Seriously, it was 100% natural, no product, I just toweled my hair dry and brushed it out. And nobody thought anything of it (well my dad didn’t like it, but he was ex-military).


Let’s just say that a white man or woman with an Afro raises eyebrows. And voices, tempers, and blood pressure. It’s appropriation.

That’s not progress, that’s going backwards.

Update: I threw yoga out there as an example because one writer somewhere mentioned it as “appropriating spiritual practices,” but I never thought someone would take him seriously. Well, one Canadian university has shut down a yoga class.

“Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that “while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” according to an email from the centre.”

“The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”

This is why we can’t have nice things.


11 thoughts on “The Radical Moderate 1

  1. I personally am a committed extremist (of the conservative variety), but I firmly believe that listening to people of all opinions is necessary no matter how intensely you believe something. I’m not the best at this (I have been known to yell at the radio when a politician comes on, or change the channel), but I have been trying to cultivate relationships and conversations with people who disagree with me quite strongly. Thanks for this article!

  2. One of the best essays you wrote. I enjoyed reading it. I admit that politically, I am a socialist, but I still have moderate tendencies. I’m not wanting to radicalize the entire USA. Why would anyone really want to do that, especially when this is still one of the great nations of the world where people are still free to express and free to believe anything they want.

  3. I think it comes down to the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. I recently read an article on a feminist site that pointed out that there is no clear line between the two, but that it basically comes down to respect.

    For instance, I have maori style tattoos. Now I didn’t set out with the express goal of getting maori tattoos: I just thought the time had come for more ink on my skin. Then my father introduced me to this guy called Darby from New Zealand, who was a maori tattoo artist. I told him stuff about myself, and based on my past experiences he sketched the symbols he thought fitted me the best. That’s called kirituhi, or simply skin art. That’s cultural appreciation, in my book.

    Now, if I had simply copied some tattoo design I’d seen on a photo of a Maori dude online, and had it tattooed onto me, THAT would be cultural appropriation, since I’d just nabbed the guy’s Ta Moko, which contained his whakapapa (genealogy). It would be like wearing someone’s family tree on my skin.

    1. That is a good example! It’s somewhat like a civilian copying an elite Marine unit’s team tattoo; it’s being worn by someone who hasn’t “earned it.” But appropriations of this kind are few; I have seen articles by writers who consider white women wearing henna-art appropriation. They would consider your kirituhi, no matter how “authentic” and respectful of the tradition, appropriation since you’re not Maori. I recently read an article where the writer addressed food appropriation. She writes, “It’s frustrating when my culture gets consumed and appropriated as both trend and tourism.” She explains “Cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant culture adopt parts of another culture from people that they’ve also systematically oppressed. The dominant culture can try the food and love the food without ever having to experience oppression because of their consumption.”

      You should read the whole article to unpack her interesting logic. But I think that, other than the times when there is, as I said, a clear misuse of a group’s special tokens, people are right to view adoption or fusion of ethnic elements in food, art, architecture, fashion, as simple eclecticism.

  4. The thing is that if we listened to,this criticism and took it to heart we would end up with an even more divided society. One where who your parents are determines how you can style you’re hair and what instruments you can play. Would me learning the bagpipes be cultural appropriation?

    Here in Australia we had issues like this when a none Aboriginal celebrity attempted to play the digiree-doo on tv. Part of the problem being that in some tribes.but not all, the digiree doo is only played by men. And some members of, those tribes where upset that a white woman would touch their instrument.

    Personally I thought they where manufacturing a controversy on that one.

    1. Ah, Australia! I spent two great years there, mostly in Sydney. I didn’t bring back a boomerang–instead I came back with a hardwood knife dense enough to sink in water, for a sister’s knife collection (I have an interesting family). I also have a bone-carving necklace, given to me by a family from New Zealand.

      And no, you learning the bagpipes would not be cultural appropriation, because the Scots have not been oppressed in recent centuries. Unless you count Great Britain’s reluctance to let them separate from the UK as oppression… Nope, they’re being oppressed. You can’t play the bagpipes.

      I’m not exaggerating, here. Since India, the birthplace of Yoga, was once an oppressed colonial possession, one university’s student government has decided that the free Yoga class on campus is cultural appropriation and shut it down. I’m not making this up.

      “Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that “while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” according to an email from the centre.”

      “The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”

      1. Yes. And I’m very sympathetic to their grievances over many of the practices they are deploring. Let me use a hypothetical. Imagine that, with the whole issue of religious acceptance of gay marriage becoming more acute, a group of former Catholics decide that they are going to “offer the blessings of the Church” to non-Catholics who want the spiritual benefits of the Catholic sacraments. So they wear the robes, practice the rituals, and so on for the benefit of these non-congregants.

        But the sacraments of the Church are inseparable from its line of claimed sacred authority, direct from Christ through Paul and to the current Pope. In short, not only would actual Catholics see it as a hollow practice, but as a mockery of the Church’s spiritual claims and deeply offensive to their sincere faith.

        So yes, this is one of the few instances in which I have to say that cultural appropriation is…highly inappropriate to say the least.

        Which is not to say that the Declaration of War is completely safe from criticism. Catholicism is a welcoming faith; if you want its spiritual benefits, and are willing to follow its teachings, you can become a Catholic. The same is not true for Lakota Spirituality; the stricter ones argue that no non-Lakotan can practice, even with the guidance of authentic Lakotan spiritual leaders (who they denounce as “plastic”). They’re not open to adopting anyone not of the tribe, even spiritually.

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