Students at the University of Cambridge, in the UK, have sparked a new political correctness row by cancelling a party on the theme Around the World in 80 Days – because they say dressing in the style of another culture might cause offence.
It’s the latest volley in a war that’s broken out on UK and US campuses. This has seen speakers banned for expressing ‘unacceptable’ views (a phenomenon known as ‘no platforming’), student demands for ‘safe spaces’, and calls for the removal of colonial-era statues. Critics in and outside academe condemn the trend as dangerous, and a threat to freedom of speech, among other things. There are dark mutterings of ‘bonkers’, ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘denial of history’, and worse. ‘It’s spreading way beyond the college campuses’, wrote journalist Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times Magazine on 13 March. ‘There is something absolutist and deluded in this liberalism to which the only recourse, when its shibboleths are transgressed, is immediate censorship’. He quoted eminent historian Mary Beard as saying, ‘Something in the world has gone barking mad. They’ve gone bonkers, it’s very, very weird. The world has gone upside down.’
The Times reported a couple of days earlier (11 March) that a college committee at Cambridge declared that the proposed Jules Verne-themed event could lead to ‘cultural appropriation’ and wrote to students explaining the decision. One student was quoted as saying, ‘This is a way to minimise the risk of people of colour having a s*** night, being reminded that they share a college with ignorant people who don’t understand the impact of their “harmless” bop outfit’. But another student commented on Facebook, ‘Doesn’t any theme contain aspects which could be spun into an offensive costume? This seems overly controlling and a little insulting.’
Ooh ah missus (as the late British comic Frankie Howerd would have said, dryly). If all dressing in the style of other cultures risks causing offence where does that leave the theatre, film and all other drama, carnival, comedy, the global fashion industry, popular music, other artistic representation, and dressing up of every description – from children’s playtime to themed parties and street style? Many of Shakespeare’s plays depict dressing in the style of other cultures – and other sexes, too; in his day male actors played female parts. Walk on the wild side of London’s Camden High Street any weekend and you’ll see a colourful riot of ‘cross-cultural dressing’ from all around the world – none of it offensive, unless you are prone to take offence at that kind of thing. In which case, stay away.
For a totally different example, how about the fact that non-Asian women visiting South Asia often wear (if they have any sense, it’s also cooler and more comfortable) shalvar kameez and a headscarf while travelling? I’ve never heard local people complain about that, far from it – it’s seen as respectful of local culture, and an effort to blend in. The same principle applies to foreign visitors to the Middle East and any Muslim country.
Here’s the rub about offence – if you’re prone to being offended, you are highly likely to find offence everywhere, because you are predisposed to find it. Offence of certain kinds is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and arguably cannot and should not be legislated against (incitement to violence and racism excepted). I firmly believe there is no right not to be offended. But others will be offended by that statement.
Cultural borrowing or appropriation is defined as taking ideas and practices from another culture, ethic group or religion. Examples given online include a Christian who practises some Buddhist concepts, and the Christmas traditions of one country being practised in another country. Yep, I object to the fact that there is now no escaping a Western-style ultra-commercialised Christmas anywhere apart from communist and Muslim countries, with every UK and Kenyan shopping mall awash from early November onwards with trashy white Santas, tinsel, baubles and Xmas trees. None of this has anything to do with Christianity, it is derived from pagan traditions. Let’s hope some pagans sue for misappropriation of the winter solstice.
The furore over cultural borrowing is nothing new, but is getting worse by the day. Outrage has been expressed for example over non-indigenous fashion designers using Native American styles in their collections (notably the Victoria’s Secret 2012 fashion show which featured feathered headdresses). Then there was the fuss over bindis at the 2014 Coachella Valley music and arts festival in California, where the Hindu head mark was a fashion trend. When images of the festival appeared online, people were reportedly offended because they felt those wearing the bindi did not understand the meaning behind it. That’s offensive in itself; why assume without any evidence that others are culturally ignorant and moreover have no (familial or other) link to Hindu culture and religion? Another recent example, outside of fashion, was the suspension of yoga classes on a Canadian campus because of complaints that they involved cultural appropriation of a non-Western practice.
Now let’s talk some sense. There is a difference, surely, between appropriation that involves the rip-off and commoditisation of material or intangible heritage items which can be linked very clearly to particular groups or communities, who may be entitled to receive royalties (I say may, because it’s difficult to prove ownership and provenance in many cases); the public wearing of garments or symbols that deliberately cause offence (e.g. the Nazi swastika, itself a cultural appropriation from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, dating back to before the 2nd century BC); and the cultural derivation and multicultural melange that pervades every aspect of our lives today in multicultural societies? Taking fashion alone, the baggy low-slung trousers popularised by black American rappers have been adopted by millions of youths worldwide. Known as ‘sagging’, is that style disrespectful, worn in homage to music idols, or just plain fashion? Baseball caps worn (often back to front) by everyone from babies to grandads – will US baseball players threaten to sue, or can rappers claim ownership of this style too? American cowboys could be hugely annoyed that Levis took the jeans they wore to work, ripped and stonewashed them and made denim a ubiquitous global fashion item, along with cowboy boots, fringed jackets and checked shirts. Now that would be worth suing the pants off jeans manufacturers for …
Let’s just remind ourselves that multiculturalism entails borrowing and sharing – in fact, that is the whole point and strength of it – and that the historical provenance of a particular ‘cultural style’ is very often unclear. In most cases, it has evolved over time and involves multiple borrowings. The pattern on Maasai shukas, for instance, derives from Scottish tartan and plaid – this design of cloth did not originate in East Africa, let alone was it created by Maasai, who now claim it as theirs. In 1950s Britain Teddy Boys (young dandies devoted to rock n roll) wore long jackets with velvet lapels and drainpipe trousers, derived from Edwardian fashion (Teddy is short for Edward, after King Edward VII). Their clothes are also said to have been inspired by zoot suits, originally worn in the 1940s by African-American musicians. Sadly, you don’t see many ‘Teds’ now in 21st century Britain, but I hung out with them at rock n roll clubs in the 1970s. Who owns that look now, I wonder: the Edwardians, the musicians or the Teddy Boys? Answer: no one owns it, but everyone is free to adopt it, without causing the slightest offence to any culture or sub-culture.
Rock on, with respect.