Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

Over the past few days I finished reading Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option. The rough argument of this book is that in order to live a life ordered by God, Christians cannot continue to unreflectively participate in the social, cultural, political and economic institutions of modern society as these are contrary to Christianity. As a result it is the task of Christians to create parallel institutions and forms of communal life that allow them to sustain the Christian way of life as society moves in a post-Christian direction dominated by nihilistic individual freedom, consumerism, avarice and hedonism. Dreher calls this approach “the Benedict Option” and rightly points out that this shift would require Christians to sacrifice worldly success in favour of preserving their faith in many cases. The title is reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s closing comment in After Virtue that like St. Benedict who created a form of monastic life in the late Roman Empire to preserve virtue and learning amidst its collapse, those who are concerned to live a life of virtue will have to create new forms of communal life to foster virtue amidst the new dark ages of bureaucratic state capitalism. Dreher is not suggesting that Christians cut themselves off from modern society, but that they have to intentionally create alternative forms of life that do not fit with the ethos of our age.

Now, given that I am not a Christian this book was not written for me. Much of it is an exhortation to Christians to see the way in which modern society corrodes the virtues of charity, hope and agape that the Gospel makes primary. So why did I read it?

I read it for two related reasons. For one I spent a significant part of my undergraduate and graduate study on the works of Aristotle, and consider myself to be something of an Aristotleian, although a relatively unorthodox one. Furthermore, for me, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a powerful critique of modernity that any Aristotleian who seeks to reform modernity needs to address. In light of that I was interested in reading Dreher’s book because of the fact that it was inspired by MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and could be arguably said to reflect MacIntyre’s exhortation that modernity cannot be reformed to be made consonant with the life of virtue.

Secondly, over the past couple of years I have begun reading articles on The American Conservative, an online journal that Rod Dreher edits. I was drawn to this journal because it presents a sophisticated conservative Christian perspective of the world that is critical of many aspects of modernity that are concerning to me such as consumerism, instrumentalism and historical/cultural illiteracy, but at the same time stands opposed to my left-liberal political positions in its endorsement of a conservative Christian approach to ethics and politics.

I will give Dreher credit as his book is clearly written, and avoids being overly academic while retaining a significant degree of sophistication. Furthermore, those who already agree with Dreher about the nature of modernity and its opposition to Christian life, will find useful suggestions for how they can preserve their way of life. However, my issue with this book is that it does very little to convince those who are not already convinced of Dreher’s diagnosis of modernity and understanding of the Christian faith. This may be by design but if so, this was a mistake within the design of the work, as Dreher is very clear that he wants to bring people to an authentic Christian way of life, which means one of his goals is not merely to show Benedictines how to proceed, but to convince those who see the Benedict Option as an error and misunderstanding of modernity. Dreher has no expectation that he will change the culture at large, but he wants to help people see the light even if they are not already convinced.

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

In The Benedict Option, Dreher asserts as opposed to argues that the modern account of freedom and authenticity are inherently nihilistic and self-centered with their focus on the satisfaction of all desires and cannot be reconciled with the notion that the Christian God sets proper limits on man’s freedom. While this is a typical cultural conservative reading of modern individualism it is peculiar that while Dreher invokes Charles Taylor’s account of the change from premodern to modern attitudes in Latin Christendom he does not make much of an effort to engage with Taylor’s defense of freedom and authenticity. For Taylor, the conservative reading of the demand for individual authenticity as nihilistic and self centered is inaccurate and problematic because it covers over the sense in which individual authenticity is about growth towards a more fully developed self. The notion of individualism and authenticity may tend to be used as a justification for satisfaction of all base desires, but the thought undergirding this notion imply a notion of particularized teleology in which each agent has the responsibility to develop to the fullest according to their unique nature. This of course removes the idea that there could be a single standard for human excellence, but it is more complex than a simple sensuous hedonism, as your life can be a failure if you just pursue your basest desires and conform rather than developing your unique essence.

Now, given that I am not a Christian I do not want to get into the debate of whether Christian faith can be reconciled with the modern conception of authenticity as I am simply not learned enough about Christian theology to have an informed opinion. But given that Taylor, is a practicing Roman Catholic who identifies himself strongly with the Christian faith and with the post romantic expressivist concept of authenticity it is not simply obvious that Dreher is warranted in asserting the irreconcilability of authenticity and Christianity. Furthermore, many of the sources of post romantic expressivist tradition which gives birth to the idea of authenticity emerge from the tradition of Christianity. In particular, Herder and Hegel come to mind as thinkers who tried to reconcile both the demand for authenticity and Christian faith. There is a debate here and one that requires those who see these poles as irreconcilable to address them.

Relatedly, Dreher draws on Phillip Rieff to argue that the culture of modernity is an anti-culture, rather than a true culture as it places no prohibitions on desire and does not have a sense of what it is good to be, that informs and drives its practises and norms. For the reasons pointed out above this seems to be an intellectually uncharitable account of modern culture that focuses on the fact that liberation from previous forms of tradition is built into the notion of authenticity, without realizing that the demand for authenticity is a standard, and one that is broadly shared. The demand that we develop ourselves by looking inside at what we really want to be and truly admire is as much a standard as the requirement of following an orthodox reading of the Gospel.

Now, Dreher does gesture towards the fact that there are other standards as he notes that many Christians in the USA are not in fact Christians, but Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. Moralistic Therapeutic Deists believe that:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While there may be some resonance between point 3 and the demand for authenticity and individuality, the way that point 3 is formulated purposefully emphasizes the hedonistic aspect of the demand for being self-directed, rather than the fact that the pursuit of authenticity is not simply about feeling good about oneself but of achieving one’s particular excellence. The authentic life may involve feeling good about oneself, but feeling good about oneself is not enough for authenticity. We might say that in terms of authenticity original sin involves not listening to the voice of God in our hearts, but obeying the voice of worldly pleasure or acclaim. Authenticity in this regard has no necessary place for Grace in that the voice within does not necessary require God’s Grace to be heard, but still the demand for authenticity is related to Augustine spirituality and not necessarily opposed to it. It is perfectly plausible to argue that finding one’s authentic way of life requires God’s Grace even if it is possible to formulate authenticity without allusion to Grace. As a result, Dreher’s reading of modern notions of fulfillment are particularly uncharitable, and do not engage with the richness involved in these ideas as we can see by the way in which he tries to frame the demand for authenticity either as nihilistic self-seeking or the pursuit of feeling good about oneself.

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

Throughout his book Dreher discusses people who are pursuing the Benedict Option in their own lives and exhorts others to follow in their footsteps. This often involves raising children according to a specifically Classical-Christian education with the church and the faith as the centre of their lives. Now, it is certainly true that every culture inculcates their children with a specific sense of the good , and modernity is no more free of inculcating a specific set of cultural mores than Benedictine communities are. So, from this narrow perspective it is a merely a matter of which form of education and acculturation is superior. However, there are two other aspects of this issue which Dreher does not touch on in any significant depth that need to be discerned. The first pertains to the right to exit a community and the second pertains to the fact that people drawn to the Benedict Option in Dreher’s work, including Dreher himself, tend to be converts who have seen the light as opposed to people raised in Benedictine style communities. In both cases, while I would absolutely defend Dreher’s right to withdraw and live in a Benedictine community I am not sure if the good of children is being fully considered in the construction of Benedictine communities. This perspective reflects my unapologetic liberalism and I am sure Dreher would disagree, but again I think that Dreher needs to confront these objections head on, which he does not do within his book.

With regard to the right to exit, in Brian Barry’s Culture and Equality Barry makes the apt point that communities have the right to raise their children according to their own values and norms within the bounds of the law. Furthermore, while it is true that this means many children will stay in cultural communities that they disagree with and find stifling, because they do not want to sever ties with their families, the state should not try to use state coercion to ensure that these communities have more “inclusive” values. Here, Barry makes a distinction between internal costs of exiting a community, and external costs of exiting a community. Internal costs are those associated with losing contact with friends and family, excommunication; these internal costs are costs that those who leave must bare because while they are significant they are internally related to the goods and practises of the community in question.

Religious communities, as associations, have every right to excommunicate someone who fails to obey the rules of the community, and there is no requirement that they adopt the rules of behaviour to the wisdom of mainstream society. They cannot coerce the person, but they can ban them from the association. However, the challenge occurs when a community is structured in a way that leaving it does not merely mean leaving familial ties and affective ties, but in which leaving the community will deprive you of what you are entitled to as a citizen of the state. The example that Barry gives is of the Amish in Pennsylvania who have right to opt out of paying social security as employer and employees. As a result, if an Amish person decides to leave they are not entitled to social security commensurate with the time they have worked. This places an unfair burden and an external cost on exiting the community, and one that disadvantages those who have a desire to leave the community, including the young.

Now, it is not clear if Dreher would see it as legitimate to opt out of social security or other forms of government entitlements that bestow benefits on all individual citizens of a particular state. But the demand to develop parallel institutions creates the risk of depriving children of what they are entitled to as citizens. So, Dreher needs to address this concern as it could form a significant objection to his project.

Secondarily, the fact that many members of Benedictine Communities come to these communities later in life after seeing that the life of consumerism, career ambition and modernity are unsatisfying, raises the question of whether their commitment to their faith is so strong because they have made the choice to reject modern idols and live an orthodox Christian life. If children are raised within Benedictine Communities that focus on a particular interpretation of the gospels rather than the free wheeling notion of freedom and authenticity, will they be given an equivalent opportunity to explore and come to understand what they think makes life significant as those who have joined these communities after living in the mainstream of society and finding it wanting. Again, the answer to this question are not clearly answered in The Benedict Option, but some of the language of shaping children seems to me to echo the Platonic mistake of trying not merely to portray the beauty of their communities’ way of life, but of ensuring that the community continues indefinitely without change. If Benedictine Communities go down this path and deny children the opportunity to explore other modes of thought and life in a charitable manner, but simply try to ensure that their account of Christian life continues they will be denying children the ability to take full responsibility for their lives. This reduces children to means to continuance of a way of life, and disrespects their fundamental dignity. Furthermore, this dignity is reflected in the Gospel by the notion of freewill. All need to come to God willingly, not because their pastor, father, husband or wife wants them to.

Altogether, I encourage other non-Christians to read The Benedict Option because of the honesty of its perspective and the challenge that it poses. While this book is not for us, there are valuable insights in it about the corrosive effects of modernity that any person looking for significance in their life can appreciate. However, it does leave much to be desired in its failure to charitably engage with modernity and I hope that defenders of the book and Dreher rise to the occasion to charitably engage with modernity.

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Social Justice Warriors, Misrecognition and Homogeneity

Over the past few years there has been a lot of chatter, on the internet and social media in particular, about the rise of so-called SJWs or Social Justice Warriors and Political Correctness within particular intellectual and social communities. SJWs are decried by many people for being illiberal and opposed to freedom of expression, while many others see them as people working towards a better society. However, it seems to me that the phenomenon of the so-called SJW is neither merely something that is illiberal, nor something that is simply working towards a better society. Rather, instead the SJW responds to a real problem in our shared world, but offers a solution that lacks humility and for this reason prevents the fullest development of individuals and communities.

While many would think it would be good to be a Social Justice Warrior, the term is used as a derogatory term to refer to people concerned with the marginalization of vulnerable social minorities who display particular attitudes and make use of particular tactics. In particular, SJWs are concerned with the presentation and visibility of social minorities in popular media and positions of authority, cultural appropriation, safe spaces, trigger warnings and microagressions. In this, sense the SJW differs quite a bit from the traditional activist/critic of capitalist liberal democracy. Rather than being focused on issues of social class inequality and the exploitation of workers by capital, their focus tends to be on identity groups, whether, racial, sexual, cultural or otherwise, and the way in which society disadvantages them through misrecognition of their particular identities. The contemporary SJW as a social agent tends to be more outraged by “white-washing” in cinema and TV than global inequality of wealth. For them, respect for the unique identity of each person is the basis of justice, rather than some notion of equality of opportunity, equality of resources or impartial fairness.

It should be noted that when I use the term SJW for the remainder of this piece I do not mean anyone who supports identity politics, but the specific phenomena described above.

This notion of justice as respect for identity seems to require not only respect for a person as an abstract human subject deserving of the same rights and liberties as others, but esteem for their particular identity. This is why while the political right is often vocal in its critique of SJWs, many on the liberal left, like myself are ill at ease with them, as they not only demand that we respect the right of each to be respected as a free and equal human being and citizen, but to be valued by others in their particular identity whether they are a pious Christian or trans man of colour. The difference between being respected, as a human being and citizen, and this more particularized form of respect can be understood if we look at the difference between tolerance and recognition.

The old ideal of tolerance merely demands that we respect each other as free and equal, even if we find another’s beliefs, way of life or sexuality contemptible. I may find the twisted way in which people pursue career ambition contemptible, but in so far as they are not breaking any laws or acting unjustly I need to tolerate them as free and equal members of society, and cannot use the force of the state to prevent them from living as they please. The old adage of live and let live is an adage of tolerance.

Recognition on the other hand demands more. To recognize someone is to re-cognize someone. That is to see them in a certain way. Consequently, to re-cognize a gay person is not simply to tolerate their sexuality even if you find it disordered, but to respect their particularity as a gay person. This implies some sense in which we see their sexuality as a valuable form of individual expression, rather than something that someone might respect them in spite of.

Once we bring in this more particularistic form of recognition there becomes a possibility for misrecognition. Misrecognition occurs when an individual is bombarded with demeaning or degrading images of a part of their own identity. For example, in a culture where homosexuality is legal, but in which the public images of homosexuality are of degrading stereotypes, homosexual people will internalize these images. This internalization in turn damages their self-respect and self-esteem as Charles Taylor points out in his landmark essay “The Politics of Recognition.” The popular sentiments around an aspect of identity then can be damaging to the ability of individuals whose identity is viewed as less than, shameful or barbaric. In this sense, the danger to the full development of individuals is not merely present in overt legal discrimination, but also in much looser elements of culture and mores. I call the phenomena in which a particular identity is broadly demeaned misrecognition because the culture broadly sees a group in a light that is either overtly negative or out of line with how this group sees themselves.

Now, many people are convinced by this account of the damage of misrecognition, but there are also those who are unconvinced by it. We have all heard that people today are too sensitive today, and need to toughen up so that they are not damaged by non-physical affronts to their dignity. We might see this type of view as the adult version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” A defender of this position could say that part of the full development of person’s character involves learning to value yourself rather than being dependent on the impression that the world at large or particular others have of aspects of your identity that you deem central to who you are.

This is a valid point in that it is surely indicative of a more developed person that they are not entirely dependent for their self-esteem on being valued by others. But this misses the point that an individual’s self-esteem has at its starting point the broader values and norms in which the individual is immersed, so an individual’s self-esteem cannot be independent of their social context. Our image of what is admirable and contemptuous begins with the broad mores of the society we develop in and it is only from this starting point that we can reflect on these mores, and work out the contradictions or tensions within them to develop our own understanding of what is worthwhile. In this sense to imagine a being with no dependency for its self-worth on social norms is to imagine an omnipotent god, rather than a human being, as an omnipotent god is self-sufficient and has no society. So the risk of misrecognition cannot be simply be dismissed by telling people to toughen up and have a thicker skin.

An example of the way in which misrecognition constitutes itself can be seen if we consider an example where I am a person of aboriginal ancestry and I grow up within a society in which the standard image of an aboriginal person is a negative one in which the aboriginal is a drunk and a mooch. As a result of these images and mores my perception of what is means to be an aboriginal will carry with it the idea that my aboriginalness is merely a burden and something I need to overcome, rather than something that could be a mark of pride. Frantz Fanon made this point quite rightly when he pointed out how colonized groups internalize the norms of their colonizers and begin to see traits associated with their group as lesser, and traits associated with the colonizer as positive and admirable. This damages the self-esteem of members of colonized groups in that a core aspect of their identity becomes a source of shame. This is a clear example of the phenomena of misrecognition that was discussed earlier, and we can see how this would threaten the full development of persons. Seeing a core aspect of your identity as a source of shame is paralyzing and makes projects of self development seem even more difficult and less worth doing. If I am just a worthless X than why should I try to develop myself, as I will always just be a worthless X.

The challenge is that law is not the most effective or appropriate mechanism to deal with the threat of misrecognition. Certainly, overt forms of discrimination against particular identity groups contribute to misrecognition of these groups, but even if discrimination on the basis of a particular identity is made illegal, there is still a possibility that misrecognition of particular groups will constitute itself. This is evidently the case as misrecognition does not simply constitute itself via individual acts of discrimination, but wider norms and values that are constituted by the rhetoric, arts and images of the society. In Canada, for example, First Nations do have legal equality, but the rhetoric, norms and artistic representations that relate to First Nations typically paint them in a demeaning light. Being First Nations in Canada carries with it the certainty of being broadly seen in a particular way which will inevitably put at risk your capacity for individual development. But to try to use the force of law to prevent the rhetoric and artistic representations around this group from reinforcing misrecognition seems somewhat authoritarian, as this would involve the government dictating what people’s views need to be. While Canadian law allows for government acts to outlaw hate speech and other forms of speech that put others at risk of violence, it cannot simply dictate the values and artistic images presented because of the rights of freedom of expression that each Canadian possess. An example of a form of speech that may reinforce misrecognition, but at the same time does not put groups at risk of disproportionate rates of violence would be a citizen writing an editorial about the fact that the way of life of a particular First Nations group was less civilized and less fully developed than an industrial or post-industrial one. This obviously implies that a specific First Nations’ culture may be less than modern occidental culture and so reinforces the view of the aboriginal as less than the colonizing European, but it would be quite a stretch to say this is an infringement on the dignity or rights of First Nations’ peoples.

The reason I say this is a stretch is that every society and person possesses a sense of what is more admirable and valuable and less admirable or valuable; this sense is basic to the way that the individual or society experiences reality. When I see someone so wrapped up in career ambition that they do not make time for their family or friends I do not experience them first as a person who puts a lot of value on their career, and then separately judge them as being shallow or ignorant in some respect. My experience of them as a person who will sacrifice their family or friends for career prospects is itself deeply normative, and reflects my authentic view of how people ought to live.

As a result of the proceeding as long as individuals and societies disagree about what is most admirable, there is a risk that groups will experience misrecognition. To explain, misrecognition constitutes itself through demeaning, or negative images, and other representations of particular groups. Furthermore, these images and representations develop as a result of the association of particular traits or values with a particular minority group; for example the idea that women are emotional, or gay men are effeminate. For example, if I happen to live in a society where religious faith is viewed as a symptom of disorder of the mind and I am a faithful Christian I am at risk of being misrecognized as my identity as a faithful believer will likely be broadly seen as a lower form of human development than more avowedly non-religious or secular identities because of the negative view the society holds about faith. Consequently, all that is required for minorities to be at risk of misrecognition is that society at large has a negative view about some value or belief that a minority group holds, and the society associates with a particular group. As a result as long as there is genuine diversity about the proper way to live is, there will be a risk of misrecognition. As a result, only a society that is utterly homogeneous with regard to the question of how it is best to live will be free from the risk of misrecognition be possible. And while misrecognition is certainly an evil, it is quite simply absurd to try to wish for this diversity to be eliminated as much of the richness of life emerges from the fact that we live among people whose understanding of what is most valuable is very different from ours.

Now that we have elaborated the concept of misrecognition itself, and the conditions of possibility of its existence and elimination, we can return to the our initial discussion of SJWs. SJWs in their desire for a more just, egalitarian society take action to eliminate or cast shame on worldviews they view as toxic because of the way in which these views put marginalized groups at risk of misrecognition. For example, trying to eliminate the view of men as unable to constrain their sexual desire, and women as mere agency-less objects of desire for the male gaze. In this sense, the SJW is responding to a genuine evil and should not be criticized for being critical of a particular worldview.

However, the problem occurs with the tendency among the SJW community to fail to engage with those who disagree with them. SJWs have formed concepts like safe spaces, and trigger warnings to explain their opposition to the expression of particular kind of views or topics in particular contexts. While these concepts differ, they, and the phenomena of the SJW share the common feature that they do not want particular worldviews to be discussed or engaged with. In this sense, the perspective of the SJW is a reified ideology that is used to bludgeon their opponents into silence, rather than as a critical perspective on what they see as a dangerous, problematic perspective. The view that monogamy may be more worthwhile than polyamory for the SJW is not a belief about the best way to live, but just a tactic to shame those who are not meant for monogamy that needs to be eliminated. We do not need to engage with this perspective; it is clearly just a form of oppression of the marginalized.

But, what is wrong with this bludgeoning? SJWs generally do not encourage the use of state power to enforce a particular culture, but rely on legal acts of expression within the public sphere. Isn’t this the same kind of action that any activist would take to get their point across?

It is true that SJWs merely act in the way that other activists do by using legal acts of free expression to support their goals. However, the problem with that, and forms of activism that follow the same model is that they display a lack of humility, which does not allow us to fully develop ourselves as individuals and a community. The lack of humility exists in that they are so confident that they have something figured out that they refuse to engage the other side, as it is impossible that someone who disagrees with them on this issue, could have any insight that they have missed.

Furthermore, this lack of humility harms the political community as we are strongest when we are willing and open to learn from others. When we are willing to fully engage with those we disagree with and hear them out, the community as a whole and the individuals who make it up are able to develop themselves by integrating the insights of others they are engaging with into their own lives.

Relatedly, when people actually engage with the other side rather than trying to bludgeon it into submission, it provides more of a genuine opportunity to change the minds of those you disagree with. If we disagree and I try to prevent your perspective from being given a hearing because it is linked to risks of misrecognition to vulnerable groups, all I am doing is preventing that other from speaking up. I do not attempt to change their mind or heart, and have done little to change the mind of those who contribute to the risk of misrecognition in this particular case. But if we engage with this other than we fully open ourselves to be changed by insights that the other has and we give ourselves fully to trying to convince the others of what we see as wrong with their perspective. This is superior as it opens us to improving our own perspective, and improving the perspective of the other.

As a result, SJWs represent an attempt to respond to the real social problem of misrecognition that is present in any society where the members disagree about how best to live. This attempt while noble in orientation is not the appropriate response to the presence of perspectives, values and images that threaten some with the risk of misrecognition. Instead, we must make the attempt to change the minds of the other and in turn open ourselves up to hearing what the other side has to say.

What is wrong with cultural appropriation?

We typically hear that cultural appropriation is deeply problematic, and that we should refrain from it because it causes real damage to the oppressed and perpetuates the dominance of male, white, heterosexual culture. Typically the critics of cultural appropriation point out that when someone takes the object of a subaltern culture and use it against that culture or in a way that disrespects the meaning of the object inherent in that culture. One of the most common examples of cultural appropriation that is brought up is when whites in North America wear aboriginal feathered headdresses to music festivals or other festivities. This disrespects aboriginals because the headdress has a very specific meaning within the aboriginal cultures that make use of them, and this meaning is not honoured when it is worn at a music festival or while tailgating before a football game. Furthermore, wearing these headdresses in a relatively trivial context can be plausibly seen to harm the cause of aboriginal rights, by trivializing sacred elements of their culture. While I sympathize with this critique I find the concept of cultural appropriation deeply problematic as it misunderstands what makes culture valuable, and in so doing is demeaning of the very cultures that it seeks to defend.

It should be noted that critics of cultural appropriation do not think that members of a dominant culture should not make any use of objects from other cultures. For example, I have never heard someone say that members of the dominant white culture should not cook or eat dishes from other cultures. Their critique is rooted in the power relations between members of the dominant and the subordinate culture. It is not that they object to members of one culture making use of objects from an oppressed culture. What they object to is when members of a dominant culture see the objects or symbols of another culture as mere commodities that can be used without any understanding or respect for their original meaning. In this respect, I agree with the critic of cultural appropriation in that there is something quite problematic about seeing a culture as a virtual shopping mall where I can pick up objects and use them however I see fit.

While we may agree in seeing the objects of culture as something not to be used in any way whatsoever, my disagreement with the critics of cultural appropriation seems to be grounded in our understanding of what it means to respect a culture. For the critic of cultural appropriation any use of the objects of an oppressed culture that is out of step with the meaning of that object within that culture is to be avoided. We can see this as the speech of the critics of cultural appropriation tends to be more interested in telling people to stop engaging in and supporting cultural appropriation than anything else. The critique of cultural appropriation is purely negative, and amounts to the commandment “thou shalt not commit cultural appropriation.”

In contrast to this I think that members of a dominant culture can make use of the objects of an oppressed culture in a way that is out of step with the meaning the object has in the oppressed culture if the members of the dominant culture engage in a particular way. For example, say that I research about the object of a particular oppressed culture and speak with members of the culture about its meaning, and through so doing I grow to appreciate this object. While this object speaks to me and seems to reveal something true about the world, it speaks to me in a very different way than it speaks to an indigenous member of the culture, as our background understandings of the world are different, and the meaning of a single cultural object does not inhere in the object, but in the relation to the other meanings and objects to which it relates. The meaning of the cross in Christianity for example cannot be understood without the figure of Jesus or Abraham or Adam and Eve for that matter. Consequently, this object takes on a distinct yet valuable meaning that reveals something important to me. As a result of this I then make use of this cultural object in my own life in a way that while related to the meaning held by the culture that originated the object is distinct from it. This example shows the way in which we can relate to subordinate cultures that allows us to use their objects in a way that is distinct from their original meaning, and yet still shows respect for them and their culture. Thus, from my perspective, respecting a subordinate culture concerns how we relate to its objects and does not prohibit all uses of it by a member of a dominant culture. If the approach that I have laid out still constitutes cultural appropriation then I would say that cultural appropriation isn’t always bad, as this mode of relating to the other best fits with a proper understanding of what culture is and what makes it valuable.

It seems to me that what makes culture valuable is not that it belong to my culture, your culture, a dominant culture or an oppressed culture, but that cultures constitute different ways of understanding the world that have developed over time and held power over peoples. Cultures thus can be plausibly construed as containing the received wisdom of particular ages and peoples. Consequently, what makes a culture valuable is that it is a source outside of ourselves that can serve as a resource of wisdom that can better teach us how to live through revealing truths we would have never thought of on our own.

If culture is valuable because it is a resource of wisdom from various ages and peoples, what is the nature of culture? I think we can understand what culture is if we think about how we relate to cultures and how they develop. For example, I, as a member of my culture, find myself in dialogue not only with the beliefs of my culture and members of my own culture, but those of other cultures as well. Charles Taylor refers to this as always finding ourselves in webs of articulation, and my account is very influenced by Taylor here. It is only through this dialogue between historical and contemporary viewpoints within a particular culture, and other cultures, that this particular culture renews its meaning, and rearticulate its sense of value. This suggests that cultures are not some static set of beliefs, rites and objects, but that cultures are always already evolving through their relation to both internal and external factors. The culture of a people is not just the views that the leaders of that culture hold at this point, but rather it is an ongoing conversation between present, past, and the very cultures that this culture defines itself in contrast to.

As a result of the preceding it does violence to what culture is and what makes it valuable to speak of it as if it belonged strictly to the members of that culture. But this is just what the critics of cultural appropriation do when they suggest that it is always problematic to make use of a cultural object in a way that is out of step with the meaning of that object within the originating culture. The only way to make sense of the view that only members of a culture can reinterpret the meaning of a cultural object is to suggest that the culture somehow owns the object and thus only they have a right to alter its meaning. Ironically, while most critics of cultural appropriation are of the progressive left, their conception of justice relies on a concept of property that is distinctly capitalist. Consequently, the critics of cultural appropriation demean culture, by not seeing it as a source of wisdom that anyone could learn something from, but as the possession of a specific group of people.

Furthermore, they demean the specific cultures they seek to defend because if the oppressed culture is not valuable because of the wisdom or insight it contains, but because it is the possession of a particular group of people, the culture itself has no intrinsic value, but is just a historical accident that a certain group of people happen to be attached to. In which case this raises the question of why the oppressed group should remain attached to their culture? Surely, if we are to remain attached to a culture we should be so for more of a reason than the fact that it is ours, and our ancestors practised it. As a result there is something deeply problematic about the contemporary critique of cultural appropriation as it fails to take proper account of the fact that culture is primarily valuable because of the wisdom it contains and its capacity to reveal truths to anyone who confronts it.