September 29, 2023
September 29, 2023

Historically, styles and traditions were often taken from other societies and displayed without context or reduced to “exotic” novelties in Western society. When this happens in modern art, runway fashion, or music today, artists are accused of cultural appropriation, especially if they’ve borrowed or used traditions specific to a particular minority group. Those in support of borrowing say art has always been a medium of exchange, influence, and fusion and they believe placing restrictions on inspiration may stifle artistic expression. Also, they point out that artists usually intend these references as “cultural appreciation.” Those arguing against it say borrowing from other cultures they aren’t educated about erases the context and significance, and what might seem like innocent borrowing can perpetuate stereotypes and echo past injustices.  

With this context, we debate the question: Should Artists Be Allowed to Borrow From Cultures Besides Their Own?

  • 00:00:01

    John Donvan

    Hi, everybody. This is Open to Debate. I’m John Donvan. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s right and what’s wrong in a certain situation. So when you copy somebody’s words and then pass them off as your own, that is called plagiarism. And everybody knows it’s wrong. It is theft. Another version of that is forgery.

  • 00:00:19

    But when a filmmaker builds a scene into a movie that evokes, say, Alfred Hitchcock, that is seen as a compliment, a tribute even, and that’s all right. Okay. So we get how those two examples work, but there is a good deal of disagreement when it comes to an artist lifting an idea from a different culture in a way that is seen as taking advantage of its ideas and even cashing in on those ideas.

  • 00:00:41

    The term coined to capture this concept is cultural appropriation, and it raises a lot of issues. When is bringing in another culture’s ideas indeed more like theft? And when is it more like tribute? And how do we tell the difference? And what ethical guidelines does all of this suggest should be followed? Who gets to make that call? Should anybody even be making that call?

  • 00:01:02

    Well, that is some of what we’re gonna be taking on in this episode. Here is the question we are debating. Should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own? Answering yes to that question, he’s a political scientist, an author, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His book is out. It is called The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. That book is by Yascha Mounk. Yascha, thanks so much for joining us once again at Open to Debate.

  • 00:01:30

    Yascha Mounk

    Always a pleasure, John.

  • 00:01:32

    John Donvan

    And answering no to the question, should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own, he’s an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, author of Games: Agency as Art, Thi Nguyen. Welcome, Thi, to Open to Debate. It’s so great to have you.

  • 00:01:45

    C. Thi Nguyen

    It’s great to be here.

  • 00:01:45

    John Donvan

    So be- before we get started, I just wanna get a sense of what motivates each of you to be involved in this debate in the first place. Yascha, I- I’ll go to you first. W- Why in this moment… Is this a topic that you think is important to be taking on in a debate or in any fashion?

  • 00:02:02

    Yascha Mounk

    Well, you know, I grew up in a context where concerns about cultural purity were really the hallmark of the right and often the far right. And to me, one of my life’s project is to defend the kind of diverse democracies which have people from all over the world. And part of that is that we can influence each other, that we can inspire each other, that we’re in that kind of conversation with each other. So to me, this topic is really important, even beyond the question of art, and it’s personal.

  • 00:02:31

    John Donvan

    Thanks very much, Yascha. And Thi, same question to you. Why, why is it important for you, and what do you see is going on in this moment that makes this debate one worth having?

  • 00:02:39

    C. Thi Nguyen

    Yeah. I actually, uh, started, I think, basically having Yascha’s position, and thinking, like, “This is all ridiculous. What are these people talking about? Cultures will just influence each other.” And when I started to write about it, I started reading the words of the very specific requests and complaints made by particular groups about how particular symbols were really special to them and how they were being perverted or undermined a particular ways, and I found myself changed. So I kind of wanna talk about what changed my mind.

  • 00:03:10

    John Donvan

    In a certain sense, it sounds personal to both of you and definitely, uh, inspired by caring about this topic. So let’s go to our first round. Our first rounding is comprised of opening statements by each of you. Yascha, you are up first. Again, you are answering yes to the question. Should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own? Please tell us why.

  • 00:03:31

    Yascha Mounk

    As John has already said, a new set of restrictions on cultural exchange have been widely adopted in the United States over the last years. Uh, Bon Appétit, the culinary magazine has apologized for letting a Gentile writer write the recipe for hamantaschen, a Jewish dessert. In Toronto in Canada, a pho shop was closed down because the soup it was serving was insufficiently authentic. I want to argue that this is a mistake.

  • 00:04:01

    But let me start off by acknowledging that many of the cases that come under the label of cultural appropriation are indeed unjust and reasonable people are concerned about those cases. As when you think of white musicians in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, uh, emulating, sometimes stealing the music of Black musicians that were not allowed, not able to have big careers.

  • 00:04:27

    Now, the reason for that is important however. When something is wrong, I will argue, we can explain that in simple terms. And when we can’t explain it in simple terms, then, we should not be concerned about it. So what made those instances wrong is the racial discrimination that pervaded the American South, that made those Black musicians unable to have big careers because of straightforward injustices like segregation from which they suffered. This is important because there are real costs when we put cultural influence under a general pool of suspicion.

  • 00:05:08

    Let me give you a personal example. I teach a week in my courses to college students about cultural appropriation. I assign the readings by Thi, who has written very intelligently about this, by my opponent today. And most students come in thinking that cultural appropriation is, of course, a problem, of course, something we should worry about.

  • 00:05:29

    But then, students often share a personal story, like that of a student I’ll call Selena. Selena was working in her art museum at the university. She was asked to recreate a piece of art from the museum’s collection. With her mother, who is a Chinese immigrant to the United States, she took a self-portrait, recreating the self-portrait of a Chinese artist and her mother.

  • 00:05:53

    The director of the museum told her it was beautiful, it was gonna go up on the website very soon. And then, she got an email from the Asian American curator at that museum, telling her she had done a terrible thing. She had committed cultural appropriation. She should be ashamed of herself. She wrote back in confusion, saying, “My mom is Chinese. I think of myself as Chinese American.” But the curator said, because her dad is not Chinese, she did not qualify. This Ivy League university had basically applied a racial purity test to Selena.

  • 00:06:27

    Now, this is an extreme case, but it shows a few important things. Whenever you’re talking about cultural appropriation, you need to figure out which group owns what cultural artifacts, who counts as a member of that group, and how the group is going to decide what uses outsiders can make of that artifact. That is always going to be impossible in practice, and it is always going to lead to these kinds of injustices. Um,- more broadly and perhaps more importantly, we would lose all the good things that come from mutual cultural exchange.

  • 00:07:08

    A lot of the art, literature, technology, philosophy and political systems that we all use every day have roots in many different cultures. They would not have been possible if we’d had a general suspicion of quote-unquote, “cultural appropriation.” That is why I believe that mutual cultural exchange is one of the things we should be proud of in a diverse democracy like the United States, not something we should be worried about. So, yes, artists should be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own, and so should all of us.

  • 00:07:43

    John Donvan

    Thank you, Yascha. Now, let’s hear Thi’s response to the question, “Should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own?” Thi, tell us why you are a no on this one.

  • 00:07:52

    C. Thi Nguyen

    Thanks, John. So first of all, I’m not gonna claim that no artist should ever borrow from any other culture ever. That’s an over-the-top claim. I’m with Yascha on the importance of influence. But I’m gonna claim that, sometimes, a cultural style or practice or tradition clearly belongs and is special to a community in some sense. They made it. It matters to them.

  • 00:08:14

    And in that sense, we should listen and respect their wishes. And sometimes, those wishes will be, “Yeah, take it, borrow it, use it.” And, sometimes, we find a clearly stated general request to respect the sanctity and privacy of some kind of practice. So, in general, I think, uh, artists should worry and should check when they’re borrowing distinctive cultural practices. So there are two basic kinds of arguments for me that I find convincing about why you should respect this stuff.

  • 00:08:41

    So the first is sometimes a group of people makes a thing and evolves a thing, is deeply creative about a style or a tradition, call this the intellectual property argument. And this becomes a big deal when you get profit diversion cases like Yascha was talking about, right, exactly those kinds of cases, where a, a group that has less social power doesn’t get to profit off of a style they originated. That’s one thing. Call that the intellectual property argument.

  • 00:09:06

    The other thing is that, sometimes, a practice really matters to a group. It expresses some kind of meaning. And in particular, we’re talking about practices that express some kind of solidarity, some kind of group history of resistance. And if you look at the actual original requests by a lot of particular groups about not culturally appropriating, they’re not about everything. They’re not about every culinary style. They’ll not… They’re not about every possible practice. They’re about very specific practices, dreadlocks, Native American war bonnets.

  • 00:09:36

    And, specifically, they’re typically practices that express and symbolizes something really deep about being part of that group. And so, I think that meaningfulness, that intimacy, can get eroded when you let people just invade without being welcomed in. And in both cases, it matters more when the group has been under a significant history of oppression. We should care more about the diversion of profits and the solidarity of those groups.

  • 00:10:01

    The next thing I wanna do is just to make the whole cultural appropriation thing a little more reasonable. So there’s this overblown hyperbolic version that says something like, “You know, never borrow from other cultures, or never borrow from an oppressed culture.” That’s kind of unreasonable, um, and I think it’s actually antithetical to the original spirit. I think the original spirit is about respecting particular cultures’ wishes, right?

  • 00:10:22

    And when you look around, you deal a lot of cultures of up- expressing thoughts about particular practices that are like, “Fine, everyone should take it. We would love this.” And then, you see some cultures about specific practices saying, “No, this is ours, this is special to us.”

  • 00:10:36

    I think, in fact, that if… I don’t know. Bu- I don’t know how to say this politely. If a white liberal goes around and calls cultural appropriation on every single borrowing without paying attention to the specifics of what want- that particular culture wants about that practice, that person is being a sneaky oppressor. The thing I’m saying is not… never borrow, but listen to people, respect their wishes.

  • 00:10:59

    Last, I think the debate between me and Yascha is gonna end up intellectually turning a lot on that last little thing we said. Uh, this is actually kind of a complex and technical part in philosophy, but I think… and political theory. But I think we’re gonna have to go into it. It’s about whether groups can own things, whether groups and communities we can be credited with things, and whether groups can sometimes speak with a unified voice.

  • 00:11:25

    I think you heard Yascha say something like, “No, these things are so dispersed. It’s so hard to hear what people say.” And I think, “No. Sometimes, it’s really clear that a group made something, that something is theirs.” And I think the interesting thing is a lot of us already think this. I think most of you think Disney and Marvel can have intellectual property that’s theirs. I think it’s kind of unfair if we allow that for Disney and Marvel, but not to say the Atlanta hip hop community that originated a trap beat.

  • 00:11:54

    John Donvan

    Thanks very much, Thi. And, and what I, I just wanna make clear what I’m hearing from both of you is that, that both of you are, are allowing for some nuance in this conversation. Neither of you saying that everything is cultural appropriation or nothing is cultural appropriation. Do I about… have that right, Yascha?

  • 00:12:09

    Yascha Mounk

    We’re definitely in a world of nuance.

  • 00:12:09

    John Donvan

    Thi, you’re on board for s- for that as well?

  • 00:12:11

    C. Thi Nguyen

    Yup. It’s about where exactly we lie on a complex spectrum.

  • 00:12:14

    John Donvan

    Fantastic. So we will get into that spectrum and into that nuanced conversation when we return. I’m John Donvan. We’ll be right back. This is Open to Debate.

  • 00:12:31

    Welcome back, everybody, to Open to Debate. We are taking on this question, “Should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own?” We’ve heard Yascha make the case that the label of cultural appropriation is being applied too broadly, that there is too much shaming, that there is over-shaming. And he also points out he feels that it’s impractical, if not impossible, to figure out who owns the cultural rights to any particular cultural artifact. He makes the case that civilization has depended on borrowing, and he would not wanna see that suppressed in any way.

  • 00:13:01

    Thi Nguyen also takes the position that civilization has benefited from borrowing, but he says there are special specific cases where groups have special specific claims. He cites Native American headdress, uh, dreadlocks that are particularly specific to certain groups and have a meaning to them that should be respected. He also says that artists, when they approach a culture and are interested in borrowing it, should actually ask permission because what’s often in play is a matter of social power.

  • 00:13:28

    Yascha, you’re making the, the argument that it’s, it’s, it’s problematic to make the case that groups, as opposed to individuals, actually own an artifact, a culture, whether it’s a style of music, dress, or art.

  • 00:13:42

    Yascha Mounk

    What I worry about is how we ascribe group ownership in these very informal contexts. Um, a lot of the time, the people who originally came up with the kinds of artifacts we’re talking about, like the rebozo, for example, uh, Latin American style of dress, would not have thought of themselves in terms of contemporary identity categories. They thought of themselves as artisans in some particular village who, by the way, were also drawing on influences from outside of their culture. They are not thinking of themselves as Latinos who, uh, are somehow miraculously united with people who lived thousands of miles away who they had never met.

  • 00:14:25

    But, but more importantly, I worry about the fact that when you are describing something as a property of a group, you have to have mechanisms for determining who is a member of that group. And that will always put pressure on people who partially belong to that group that might be described as not fully belonging to that group, like my student, Selena, whose mother was Chinese American, but whose father was not Chinese, and so is being excluded. And finally, I really worry that it is hard to ascribe some kind of collective will to groups.

  • 00:15:00

    The great, uh, gay Africa American civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin, once said that, “The notion of the undifferentiated Black community is the intellectual creation of both whites and of certain small groups of Blacks who illegitimately claim to speak for the majority.”

  • 00:15:17

    In practice, what you’re always going to have to contend with is people speaking on behalf of a group, even if its members don’t really feel that they are being spoken for.

  • 00:15:27

    C. Thi Nguyen

    This is, I think, really the crux of the issue whether or not you can attribute something to a group and whether or not you can figure out what the group is and whether or not you can figure out what the group wants. I don’t think it’s always clear. It’s not al- It’s not that every practice belongs to a particular group. There’s not that every prac- that every practice has a clear signal around it. But one thing I wanna think about for a while is ha- what’s the bar for attributing something like originality or ownership to a particular group?

  • 00:16:00

    I think one of my worries is that Yascha’s introducing this very, very high bar that nobody p- can pass, not even individual artists, right? Like… So if the bar is something like, “Look, you have to have made it all up, you can’t have any influences, it has to come completely born from your head from nowhere,” no one would ever get to create anything, right?

  • 00:16:20

    We assign rights, intellectual property, ownership over ideas and artistic styles all the time, even when they were deeply influenced by something else. Like, it’s not like Marvel made up, right, the hero’s journey or arc, but they added enough for us to think, “Look, they added something.” I think the big difference in Yascha and me is that for- you- you’ll have to tell me if this is right, Yascha, but I think he probably will think something like, “Look, we can assign a pro- an object and ownership to like Disney or Marvel, ’cause it’s really clear what that is,” but say the community of New Orleans jazz people that came up with Dixie jazz, that’s just a little too fuzzy for us to ever speak of them as having a wish. I- is that… Uh, let me just pause there. Is that, is that kind of what you would say there or-

  • 00:17:11

    Yascha Mounk

    No, I think my concern is rather different. So you were going into the question of, you know, when did culture start to create something sufficiently new that we could assign ownership to them? When you think of something like the banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich, that takes, uh, input from things like the French baguette. Um, and then, it puts its own ingredients on it in a way that is distinctive. This is clearly a Vietnamese cultural achievement.

  • 00:17:38

    My concern is that the beauty of a banh mi could only come about because Vietnamese people were able and allowed to use the baguette in that creation. I am not, in general, a great lover of copyright, but we should always think, “Is it actually helping to incentivize cultural production?” That is the case for individual authors or musicians who need to be able to live off the art, and that’s why in specific circumstances, it is a good incentive, it is a good way of making sure people are making a living. I don’t think the same applies to broad cultural concepts like the banh mi or like the style of jazz of a whole community of people. Here, we should prioritize the great cultural riches which come from an open invitation to co-create.

  • 00:18:29

    John Donvan

    Thi, uh, y- you have made the, the case that you’re not talking for broad, uh, exclusion of… uh, fro- from outside artists that in most cases, we’re talking about very, very specific examples. Something that comes back to me from years ago, uh, there was a movie starring the actor, Bo Derek, c- in the movie, 10. And Bo Derek is a w- blonde white woman, and her hair was styled in cornrows.

  • 00:18:58

    And even though this was in the early 1980s, before this conversation really became popularized in the United States, I heard expressions of resentment from African American women about the fact that the, this… a style that was identified with their culture had been popularized through the presentation of a white blonde woman in a movie. You’ve already mentioned dreadlocks. So talk about that example of, of hairstyles, cornrows, and whether that is specific and narrow enough for in y- as you were saying, maybe people from outside the community should ask permission.

  • 00:19:32

    C. Thi Nguyen

    The dreadlock case was super interesting because two things happened. One, what a lot of people said at the time, what a lot of Black people said at the time, is that that hairstyle was a symbol of solidarity against something like racist oppression.

  • 00:19:47

    Now, you add to that one really interesting further wrinkle, which is, um, that a lot of Black activists at the time said, “Look, when we wear cornrows or when we wear dreadlocks, that there are similar conversations about both.” We don’t get jobs. We’re told, you know, we look unprofessional. We’ve- we’re told we have to have straightened hair. We’re told that this makes us look like thugs or something. But when Bo Derek wears it, that’s cool. That’s edgy, right? A lot of the times, I think a lot of the cases that worry me the most have this kind of cruel irony in them.

  • 00:20:23

    John Donvan

    I just wanna clarify. So this would be an example that you’re talking about.

  • 00:20:26

    C. Thi Nguyen


  • 00:20:26

    John Donvan

    Okay. So, Yascha, do you feel that this, uh, resentment, uh, or sensitivity is justified and that it merits being heard and respected by people outside the community?

  • 00:20:36

    Yascha Mounk

    So I completely understand the sources of that feeling of unease and of that resentment. Um, what is the actual remedy? Is the remedy to stop, uh, anybody else from engaging in certain cultural practices, or is it to fight the actual underlying injustices? The real injustice I hear here from Thi is that, you know, there’s a very strange set of notions in America about what is quote-unquote “professional hair.” And many traditional ways in which Black people wear their hair are considered unprofessional. And, therefore, they’re forced to make clothing choices, hairstyle choices that they don’t want to make.

  • 00:21:11

    That is the injustice. The remedy to this is to make sure that Black people aren’t discriminated against for wearing the hair that they choose. That is the much more important social cause here. And I think the debate about cultural appropriation is actually distracting us from the real injustice.

  • 00:21:28

    I do also want to talk about another case where those group claims can once again lead us astray. The kippah, the Jewish head covering, is a form of intimate religious practice. And in Berlin, a rabbi was beaten up a number of years ago for wearing that head covering in an anti-Semitic attack. There was a protest of solidarity in which a lot of non-Jewish Germans put a kippah on their head to spread the risk and sow solidarity.

  • 00:21:59

    A writer in the biggest German magazine said, “This is inappropriate. You’re taking away, uh, the intimacy from this group.” And that stopped those protests. But actually, it just increased the risk faced by Jewish Germans who choose to wear the kippah. And many people in the Jewish community said, “This guy writing in the newspaper isn’t actually speaking for us.” Is this concept helping us figure out how to fight against injustice? And is it actually helping us avoid injustices? The answers to those questions, I think, are no and no.

  • 00:22:36

    C. Thi Nguyen

    I think Yascha is really interested in repairing the thi- the underlying problem. And I’m really interested in just listening to people’s particular requests, honoring the specific requests they made about a thing. So Adrienne Keene, who’s a professor of Native American studies, had one of the best articulations of this in her blog, Native Appropriations.

  • 00:22:54

    So let me just read what she says, “But the thing that keeps bothering me is that we’re expected, as community members, to have perfectly reasoned, calm, point-by-point rebuttals to your images and words. The burden of proof is on us, not you. Why can’t we, as the cultures, you’re quote, “respecting,” simply say no? Why do we have to defend and write… and fight and write 1,400 words about why, and then listen while others mock our pain and hurt as being overly sensitive? Why can’t you just show us respect by listening to us when we say, “Hey, Christina, that headdress, it’s not for you to wear.”

  • 00:23:22

    One of the things that’s key here is that a specific group is making a specific claim or request about a specific object. Now, the example that Yascha gave that I think is super interesting, I mean, I’m with Yascha on exactly the reading of that. If an outsider came in and said, “This is… this thing is not for you to wear,” that outsider is actually ignoring and not paying attention to that group’s wishes. The whole core of what I wanna say is that, in a lot of the cases, what we’re trying to do is respect particular groups’ cultural autonomy. Groups can have different wishes about different things, and they can extend different permissions to different things.

  • 00:23:57

    There’s this question about whether white people can use hip-hop beats, and I think a lot of it is gonna be about particular cases and particular relationships. Eminem entered the hip-hop community, had a lot of respect from Black artists. No one worries about that. It’s a respectful and cooperative use.

  • 00:24:15

    Now, right now, one of the things I see is there’s a lot of music made by white supremacists that borrows modern hip-hop trap beats. But don’t think there’s permission extended in those cases. Paying attention to the particular wishes expressed by a particular group is the key to a kind of reasonable understanding of cultural appropriation.

  • 00:24:36

    Yascha Mounk

    I just want to, uh, quote a wonderful philosopher by the name of Thi Nguyen, who says that, “In many cases, the wishes of a group are indeterminate.” I would say this is the case in nearly all cases. In fact, the example I brought up had the added wrinkle that the writer who prominently called for these protests to stop said that he was Jewish, spoke on behalf of German Jews, and it was later found that he hadn’t been Jewish at all.

  • 00:25:06

    The point is that actually determining in practical circumstances, who is legitimately speaking on behalf of this big, broad group is nearly always going to be impossible. And so, all you’re doing is to give power to the most privileged, the loudest, the people with the biggest platform within a group.

  • 00:25:26

    John Donvan

    Thi, when you talk about the outsider asking permission, well, how does that work? Who do you ask?

  • 00:25:32

    C. Thi Nguyen

    I wanna be really clear that, um, I’m not sure if I said, “Ask permission,” but that’s, that’s not (laughs) exactly what I mean. What I mean is something like check to see if there’s a general sentiment. I mean, Yascha’s right. I think that, in a lot of these cases, what a group wishes is unclear. But, sometimes, a group is fairly united, united as a majority.

  • 00:25:54

    John Donvan

    Yascha, if there is an example where it’s really quite clear that the culture as a whole has an issue, are those cases where it is the respectful thing to do to, to lay off, to back away or would you be uncomfortable if that was the reason that an artist chose to write or not write a particular character?

  • 00:26:15

    Yascha Mounk

    I certainly am in favor of being respectful and artists have their own motivations. And if they think that, uh, you know, some, uh, form of cultural borrowing would be inappropriate, that is a perfectly sensible decision for them to make, and I applaud them for it.

  • 00:26:32

    The question that we’re asking, uh, has to do with a wider social context. Over the last five or 10 years, we’ve come to have a deep general suspicion of anything that might be called cultural appropriation. It has led to authors not seeing the books published. It has led to TV shows not being made. And my question is whether that is helping to make America a more just society, is helping us build the kind of diverse democracy in which we want to live or not.

  • 00:27:03

    If some artist decides that they do want to engage in the culture that, in some way, stems from another group, I don’t think that that artist should be stopped from doing so, be punished for their choice. And that is the reality.

  • 00:27:17

    C. Thi Nguyen

    I think that’s the clear bone of contention between us. Who is it up to, right? Who gets to have a voice? Okay. Ma- maybe, this analogy is gonna be a little… go, uh, a little extreme, but it might help. Uh, (laughs) let’s say I squeeze someone’s butt, and they tell me, “What are you doing?” And I’m like, “I was just appreciating you, right? I was just, (laughs) I was just showing my appreciation.” We think, no, right? The appreciator doesn’t get to have the final word here. The person that should have the final word is the person whose thing it is.

  • 00:27:56

    Yascha Mounk

    But, but there’s a crucial difference here, because you naturally went to an individual case. Now, of course, if I have created a song, I have limited rights of exclusion to tell people, “You cannot use my song. But you’re talking about an imagined collective butt, where somehow a majority of members of a group gets to say, “You know, this butt belongs to us. And if a member of-

  • 00:28:19

    C. Thi Nguyen


  • 00:28:19

    Yascha Mounk

    … our group wants to date somebody from outside that group, that would be wrong too.”

  • 00:28:22

    C. Thi Nguyen


  • 00:28:23

    Yascha Mounk

    You can’t go from individual to collective examples of that, because that precisely is the problem that we’re debating in cultural appropriation.

  • 00:28:30

    John Donvan

    Thi, um, I, I wanna bring in an example from, uh, the, the years I spent working and reporting from the Middle East, and that, that is the argument over hummus. You know, the, the Turks claim to… that, that hummus is one of their national dishes. The Israelis claim it. Palestinians claim it. Iraqis claim it. But between the Israelis and the Palestinians, there’s a particular tension, which I think stems from the fact that the Palestinians are in an oppressed position.

  • 00:28:54

    And I know that there are members of our audience who will disagree with that. But I think you all know what I’m talking about. And I wanna ask you about the element of the power dynamic here and the, uh… in, in how that fuels that particular tension and all of these tensions that we’re talking about.

  • 00:29:09

    C. Thi Nguyen

    So if you buy the kinds of considerations that I’m worried about, the diversion of profits from the people that really made a thing and the special meaningfulness of something to a particular group to express solidarity, then, I think those considerations are heightened when the group has been oppressed. Like part of repair for past injustice and past oppression is paying special attention to when a group is particularly threatened, paying special attention to when profits are diverted away from a group, paying special attention to maintaining the kind of meaningful symbols that help the group have some kind of cohesiveness.

  • 00:29:45

    So I think when you have some kind of unjust dynamic, then, that’s a reason to be even more cautious, even more careful. The hummus example is a really funky one because, I mean, I think there’s a rough analogy here to intellectual property, right? Like if something is somebody’s intellectual property, if it really historically came from them, if this thing did not actually come from this group, then, they don’t get to make, uh, that intellectual property claims.

  • 00:30:16

    Similarly, I mean, it’s a really funky thing if this one symbol, (laughs) this one thing becomes kind of the special element to different conflicting groups, then, (laughs) there’s just this deeply irresolvable conflict.

  • 00:29:09

    John Donvan

    Yeah. And I mean, i- i- it went so far that in Lebanon, the, the president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists actually sued Israel for infringement of food copyright laws in petitioning the, um, the European Union to recognize hummus as Lebanese. They failed at that, but it’s… It was actually a very, very sensitive thing and had hints, as you say, of, um, intellectual property rights.

  • 00:30:50

    Yascha Mounk

    Uh, you know, in philosophy, you know that you’re asking the wrong question when you end up obsessing over strange answers. And I think in the case of hummus, there’s two ways we can go. We can try and get to the grand historical truth of who exactly invented hummus, under which circumstances, or we can just say, “Hummus for everyone. Anybody who wants to make hummus is allowed to do so.” I think that’s a better choice.

  • 00:31:14

    John Donvan

    When we return, we’re gonna be joined by some additional voices who will bring some additional questions to the conversation. We’re debating the question, should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own? I’m John Donvan, and this is Open to Debate, and we’ll be right back.

  • 00:31:27

    Welcome back, everybody, to Open to Debate. I’m John Donvan. I’m joined by Yascha Mounk and Thi Nguyen to debate this question, should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own?

  • 00:31:41

    So I wanna bring in some journalists who have written about, thought about this topic, uh, to, to move the conversation along by bringing in some additional questions. And first up is Bel Jacobs. Bel’s article in 2022 for the BBC, What Defines Cultural Appropriation? And the first thing I wanna say is everybody should note that article. It’s just excellent on laying out the parameters of this conversation. So it’s a pleasure to have Bel with us. Bel, welcome to Open to Debate.

  • 00:32:06

    Bel Jacobs

    Uh, yeah. I can’t, uh, describe how much I’ve enjoyed this, this discussion. I find myself agreeing with lots of what both speakers are saying. I want to draw a distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. Uh, I think that’s important to understand. But if we do linger on cultural exchange as a respectful practice, are there any methodologies that either speaker can suggest that would allow for this fundamentally respectful exchange of knowledge, that… is there a way that cultural exchange can be done correctly that… in that it uplifts and, and, and gives them more support, recognition, power?

  • 00:32:46

    C. Thi Nguyen

    From the perspective of a group or community that has some kind of artistic style that is theirs, there’s a choice. You can keep it to yourself. You can make it special, right? And then, you don’t get the profits, you don’t get the cultural attention, you don’t get the cultural dominance, or you can try to open it up, let other people use it, gain profits, gain attention, gain cultural influence.

  • 00:33:09

    And my claim is just, you should let the group decide. You should listen to them. So I think this is a key point between Yascha and me. Sometimes, the groups are deeply conflicted, right? He quoted a line from my paper. He said, “Sometimes, groups are conflicted,” but he didn’t put the next part, which is, “Then, you should respect them as conflicted.”

  • 00:33:26

    And the way you treat a conflicted group is really like the way you pe- treat a person or a couple that’s deeply conflicted. You just don’t assume one side or the other. You don’t ignore it because they’re conflicted. You treat them as conflicted. And that… we know how to do that.

  • 00:33:41

    John Donvan


  • 00:33:42

    Yascha Mounk

    I just think that the wrong solution is to restrict cultural exchange. That’s not actually going to improve the situation in any way. And so, I do wanna think about how do we build a society in which we live beautifully together and treat each other fairly. But I think the answer to that is to give those groups the general social standing, the general resources that will a- allow them to participate in these exchanges on fair terms.

  • 00:34:13

    And in a, in a paradoxical way, I think actually sort of being overly worried about engaging with their cultures is going to make it harder for them, rather than easier for them, to win that kind of social status. So I think the solution here is to have all kinds of social policies, all kinds of collective action to build a fairer society. But it’s not to say that because under current circumstances, not every aspect of cultural exchange is going to be fully fair. We will just have a sort of blanket concern about those forms of cultural exchange. That, I think, is just a naive way to think about how we accomplish social change and how we build the societies that we should aim for.

  • 00:34:48

    John Donvan

    Bel Jacobs, thanks so much for your question. I now wanna bring in, uh, Jenni Avins, and she wrote the article for the Atlantic titled The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation. Jenni, thanks for being with us. And, please, come on in with your question.

  • 00:35:01

    Jenni Avins

    Thanks for having me. Um, yeah. That article, I wrote it in 2015 when the term cultural appropriation was really gaining traction in online discourse. And I’m wondering if you both think that’s still the best framework or the best language for talking about this issue at all. Um, and if not, what language might be more useful or productive?

  • 00:35:27

    John Donvan

    Yascha, I think, I think you’ve already signaled you have some issue with the term. So, uh, keep going with that, please.

  • 00:35:32

    Yascha Mounk

    Let, let me give you an example that I think beautifully sums this up. There was a party offensively called Cinco de Drinko at a fraternity at Baylor University, and students came to it. Some dressed in ponchos and sombreros, uh, others wearing maids’ outfits and construction vests. Now, I think Thi and I will agree that that was offensive, that these students did something they shouldn’t have done.

  • 00:35:56

    The question is whether the term of cultural appropriation can actually help express what in philosophy we’d call the wrong-making feature of the situation, whether it can help us say what the students did wrong. And I think quite obviously, it can’t, because maids’ outfits are not a traditional Latino dress style. If anything, they’re derived from French culture.

  • 00:36:18

    So if you get in this situation with a language of cultural appropriation, you can’t actually express what’s wrong. What was wrong in this case was the intention of these students to mock Latinos, to imply that somehow all that Latinos are good for is to be maids or construction workers, that they’re somehow inferior to other students. In this, as in virtually every other case, you can express what is wrong about the supposed case of cultural appropriation that the media all talked about as cultural appropriation by using much more straightforward, much more helpful language. That is the difference between cultural appropriation and sexual harassment.

  • 00:36:54

    Sexual harassment actually expresses what is wrong with these cases in a helpful way. Cultural appropriation makes us worry about the wrong thing. So, like you, I think we should be very skeptical about whether this term helps us understand the world.

  • 00:37:07

    John Donvan


  • 00:37:07

    C. Thi Nguyen

    Yeah. It’s really… There’s this lovely conversation in philosophy over something called conceptual engineering, and the idea is something like, “Look, sometimes, we need a new word to collect together a bunch of things we already kind of vaguely know about.” And, sometimes, that word really helps us crystallize and helps us see and talk about having an easy handle for things, helps us connect, right?

  • 00:37:30

    So, uh, Yascha mentioned e- the philosopher’s favorite example of just sexual harassment. That’s a term that was invented in the ’60s. Uh, Miranda Fricker has a wonderful book about this. Uh, and having that term made it easier to communicate, easier to express a certain, uh, wrong.

  • 00:37:49

    Now, the question now is, is… does cultural appropriation identify something specific? I mean, Yascha and I agree that the wrong of being a racist, (laughs) like engaging in cultural stereotypes, we don’t need the term cultural appropriation for that. I totally agree. But I think there’s something else that we don’t really have a good identity marker for, and that’s the request by some groups for some people not to use a style even respectfully or even appreciatively.

  • 00:38:13

    Among my students, the white students that tend to wear dreadlocks and cornrows love hip hop. They think Black culture is awesome, right? They’re not being racist. They’re trying to appreciate. I think this is a case where even (laughs) if the use is appreciative, if you think, “No, there’s still something wrong, there’s still a reason why a group gets to have some degree of control,” that’s when the term cultural appropriation is specifically useful, and that was the specific meaning that was attached by the early users. I do think, as with a lot of cases, the term’s gotten bloated recently, and my hope is to kind of bring it back to the original clear usage.

  • 00:38:50

    John Donvan

    Jenni, thanks very much for joining us on Open to Debate and for your question. It’s an interesting perspective you just brought to us. Uh, I now wanna welcome Martin Puchner who is author of Culture: The Story of Us. Martin, thanks so much again for joining us on Open to Debate. And please come on in with your question.

  • 00:39:05

    Martin Puchner

    So my question is about history, because it seems to me that cultural appropriation, as it’s used now, is very much about certain groups vying for attention and resources and voice and platform. But… And John, your question about hummus, sort of what’s going in… to that… in that direction, is that it becomes very complicated once you get further back in history, and you have to answer the question, “Who owns history? What’s the relation been often very distant past and current groups?”

  • 00:39:33

    So is it helpful to add to the question about what we should… what people should or should not do a sense of a kind of historical question of how does culture actually work? How it… What makes cultures thrive?

  • 00:39:47

    Yascha Mounk

    Well, I think there’s a right way of thinking about history in this context in a wrong way. The right way is that, uh, you know, virtually, every element of our culture is influenced by different groups coming into contact with each other, sometimes, cooperatively, sometimes, in conflict in the past.

  • 00:40:06

    You know, I have… Uh, my parents were born in Poland, and Polish people think of the potato as the quintessential Polish ingredient, but the potato is in fact coming from the New World. The further you go back, the less clear it is what element of pure culture you actually have. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the great British Ghanaian American philosopher, wrote this about kente cloth, saying that trying to find some primordially authentic culture can be like peeling an onion, i- describing how many influences went into making this kind of cloth.

  • 00:40:49

    And he concludes that cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic. They’re just dead.

  • 00:41:00

    So I think the right lesson from history is that mutual cultural exchange is what made the modern world, what allows us to talk to each other today, what is the term and what we wear and how we speak in so many different ways. The wrong way to look at history is to say, “Hey, let’s go back to the history of this cloth or that culinary dish and really figure out who came up with it, and, therefore, who should own it today.”

  • 00:41:24

    C. Thi Nguyen

    I’ve been giving you two different arguments, and they mean really different things, the intellectual property argument and this kind of meaningfulness argument. And I just wanna point out that the intellectual property argument depends on history, but the meaningfulness argument doesn’t. It says like, “Right now, these people are using this as a symbol that it means something to them. It’s special to them, right?”

  • 00:41:43

    That one interestingly doesn’t care as much about history. But even if you care about history, it’s really important to roughly run the analogy with cases that we find unproblematic in the individual case. In the individual case, you… we… here’s something we don’t say. We don’t tell an artist, “You don’t get to have any control over your work because you had influences,” because you were deeply influenced by Joyce or superhero comics.

  • 00:42:08

    We think, “Look, you get (laughs) some rights if you added enough.” And I think, in some cases, and I think this is why, when you bring up a case like hummus, I think it’s, yeah, who knows where that came from? Other cases are really distinctive, especially they’re distinctive when they’re local, when we do have a lot of access, when we can really see, “Yeah, this community in Atlanta originated this hip hop style.” And there’s a finite number of people, and they can express something in, like, close to univocality.

  • 00:42:42

    Like a lot of them can express something similar. And those are cases I think they’re clear. Not every case is gonna be clear. This is not like… What I- what I’m saying here is not like, “I’m gonna give you a decision procedure where in every case we know exactly what to do.” What I’m saying is, “Listen to people, listen to communities.” Sometimes, what they say is not clear. Sometimes, you can figure it out. In other cases, it is clear. And then, you should respect the wishes you can find.

  • 00:43:07

    John Donvan

    Martin, thank you very much for your, for your question. We’re, we’re heading down the home stretch here. And just before we get to our closing statements, I wanna draw attention to again a concrete specific contemporary example. The film, uh, the second version of the avatar film, it’s called Avatar: The Way of Water. It has caused defense among certain Native American groups that, that cited for cultural appropriation, uh, and, and other things about the film that have caused defense.

  • 00:43:33

    Some groups are calling moviegoers to boycott the film on the basis of cultural appropriation. I wanna ask each of you, boycott or not, in your personal movie-going decision-making.

  • 00:43:44

    Yascha Mounk

    Uh, so I don’t know the specifics of the case, but I think this has all the hallmarks of when you get in trouble, somebody speaking on behalf of a broad group, trying to impose on others their preferences, telling them, uh, what they are supposed to do. Uh, I have no particular interest in Avatar, but yes, I would go to see the movie.

  • 00:44:02

    John Donvan

    And, uh, Thi, you?

  • 00:44:03

    C. Thi Nguyen

    It’s gonna be complicated, because I’m also worried about what Yascha is worried about, one person speaking for everyone. But if I could figure out, yeah, a majority of the relevant group really has expressed this preference. If I can figure that out, then, yeah, I would not go. I would respect their wishes.

  • 00:44:19

    John Donvan

    All right. Thank you. Now, it’s time to bring this all home with closing remarks. Uh, we’re gonna ask you one last time to, to make the case for why you’re answering yes or no to the question, “Should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own?” Yascha, you’re up first for this. You have the floor. Again, you have been answering yes to the question, they should be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own. One last time to please tell us why.

  • 00:44:38

    Yascha Mounk

    Let me tell you one more story from the classroom, one more story from students who initially were really concerned about cultural appropriation but felt themselves moved when they heard one of their own tell a worrying story.

  • 00:44:52

    This student of mine went to high school in Florida and had a teacher who’s an immigrant from Nigeria. And when the school was doing a lovely day of cultural appropria- uh, uh, cultural appreciation, inviting students to share something of their cultures of origin, this teacher asked some of his favorite students to come to school wearing traditional garb of his tribe. These students were honored to do so, and they proudly showed up to school and were immediately hauled up in front of the principal, accused of cultural appropriation, told that they had done something wrong.

  • 00:45:30

    The teacher tried to intercede on their behalf, saying his own relatives had made these pieces of clothing. He had encouraged them to wear it, but no, the principal told them that they should have known that this was offensive and gave them detention.

  • 00:45:44

    Now, look, at the level of philosophical argument, you can create really sophisticated notions of cultural appropriation that are limited to very specific circumstances, that require these strong group decision-making mechanisms, that only apply when a huge majority within the group agrees that they don’t want something to happen. I have some philosophical disagreements with Thi on those points, but I think he makes an interesting case.

  • 00:46:10

    The important point for this is that, in practice, things will never work out that way. But he can only pick up on a few of the cases that people are actually concerned about. But the way it will be applied is really overly broad. Any real-world norm against cultural appropriation would always end up punishing innocent individuals. And much more importantly, it would impede the kind of cultural exchange which is the hallmark of a successful, diverse society, the hallmark of a kind of society that we should maintain, and build, and aspire to. And that is why, yes, artists should always be respectful, they should always be thoughtful, but they should not be overly afraid to borrow from cultures besides their own.

  • 00:47:01

    John Donvan

    Thank you, Yascha. Now, Thi, you have the final say here, one last time to tell us why you are answering no to the question, “Should artists be allowed to borrow from cultures besides their own?”

  • 00:47:09

    C. Thi Nguyen

    Thanks, John. Thanks, Yascha. This has been awesome. So here’s a few things to keep in mind. So I’m not talking about what we can do in a court of law and about these strict, explicit rules. Outside of a court of law, we can be more casual. Uh, we can see things more loosely and make decisions more loosely. So, my kid, who’s six, had some neighbor kids… uh, neighborhood kids who were over and playing with some stuff in their backyard, and the neighborhood kids were building a fort. Uh, and then, my kid got angry about sa- about it and tore it all down.

  • 00:47:38

    And when I told him not to do that, he was like, “But these are my toys.” And he’s right. In some sense, in a court of law, (laughs) there’s no way in which the other kids could sue my kid. But also, my kid was being kind of a jerk, and I tried to tell him. And this is the thing I tried to convey to him. It was clear that some people had done a thing together, and that it mattered to them, and not saying that we can have a legal case here. All I’m saying is don’t be a jerk.

  • 00:48:05

    Okay. Second thing, a a lot of this debate has been about whether groups can talk and get a voice and make requests and have things attributed to them. And in the background, I’m really suspicious about how we set up social rules to say who gets to claim what. So Iris Marion Young, one of my favorite philosophers, as a feminist political philosopher who’s really interested in who gets to speak, she was interested in this civility norm that public debate should happen in civil and reasonable and calm terms.

  • 00:48:32

    And she thought that was an exclusionary norm that it was really easy to be civil if you’re comfortable and if life went well for you, and really hard if you’d been historically oppressed, if life was bad for you. And I think there’s something similar going on here. And I think it’s really funky if we have a situation where one kind of group, Apple, Disney, Marvel, gets to have some say about where their cultural innovations go, but other groups like the New Orleans jazz community or the Atlanta hip-hop community don’t get to have a say. And that seems to me like a rigged game.

  • 00:49:05

    John Donvan

    Thank you very much, Thi. And that is a wrap on this debate. And, and, and to our two debaters for approaching this debate, uh, with such an open mind for bringing your thoughtful disagreement to the table for being open to debate basically, Yascha and Thi, thank you so much for, for being with us. Really appreciate it.

  • 00:49:21

    Yascha Mounk

    Thank you so much.

  • 00:49:21

    C. Thi Nguyen

    Thank you.

  • 00:49:23

    Yascha Mounk

    And I wanna thank, uh, also our, our journalists who took part in the conversation, Bell, and Jenni, and Martin for contributing your thoughtful questions as well and taking us to more interesting places. And to all of you listening, I wanna say thank you for tuning into this episode of Open to Debate.

  • 00:49:36

    As a nonprofit, our work to combat extreme polarization through civil and respectful debate is generously funded by listeners like you and by the Rosenkranz Foundation and by supporters of Open to debate. Open to Debate is also made possible by a generous grant from the Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund. Robert Rosenkranz is our Chairman. Clea Conner is CEO. Lia Matthow is our chief content officer. Alexis Pancrazi, Kristine Mueller, and Marlette Sandoval are our editorial producers. Gabriella Mayer is our editorial and research manager. Andrew Lipson is head of production. Max Fulton is our production coordinator. Damon Whittemore is our engineer. Gabrielle Iannucelli is our social media and digital platforms coordinator. Raven Baker is events and operations manager. Rachel Kemp is our chief of staff. Our theme music is by Alex Clement. And I’m your host, John Donvan. We’ll see you next time.


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