Cultures Cannot Own Ideas Either

Several of my friends have been passing around the story of the University of Ottawa cancelling a free yoga class because of concerns of cultural appropriation. I ignored it just as I ignore most culture war stories. Especially when the remedy to the cancellation is as simple as continuing the classes without official recognition from the university. But some valuable discussion did manage to rise from the ashes. Namely that ideas aren’t property and therefore cannot belong to anybody:

Yoga, whether you’re a fan of it or not, doesn’t exclusively belong to some group of people who share the same skin color or language or culture or religion — just as classical music or Western medicine or modern physics doesn’t belong to the Europeans. It, like all such ideas, is the common heritage of all mankind. That means of each and every one of us, even those of us who have a genetic background or culture that some people feel aggrieved at.

We (Indian, American, African, Oceanian, anyone else) are entitled to use it, to adapt it, to merge it with other ideas. There’s no improper “appropriation” here because there’s no “property” here in the first place.

After this the author does some backtracking and tries to justify patents and copyrights. His inconsistency towards the end of the article don’t invalidate the beginning of the article though. Ideas are not a finite resource that can be exclusively held by a single individual. You can copy an idea but that doesn’t deprive the originator of it so the act cannot be called theft.

Most instances where I’ve seen accusations of cultural appropriation made were when somebody was making use of an idea that originated in another culture. Sometimes the usage is malicious and meant to mock the culture but more often than not the usage is innocent. In the former case I think an accusation of the user being a jackass suffices and in the latter I think the usage should be encouraged. Adopting ideas from other cultures tends to have the effect of forwarding the adopter’s view of the culture they’re drawing from.

For example, I participate in Japanese martial arts and part of that involves adopting Japanese cultural ideas not directly related to the combat styles themselves. Several of those ideas are themselves adopted from Buddhism. Buddhism in Japan came from China, which adopted Buddhism from India where the religion originated. So I’ve adopted cultural ideas that were adopted from cultural ideas that were adopted from cultural ideas. If I am guilty of cultural appropriation, and I have been accused of it by one person, then I am merely continuing a trend of cultural appropriation that spans back into prehistory. With all of that said I feel as though I’m a better person because of it. My overall understanding of the world expanded because I adopted ideas from another culture.

I use myself as an example because I am the person I know best. But most people I know who had adopted ideas from other cultures have become better people because of it. A lot of people I know practice yoga and feel they are better because of it. Seeing their enjoyment of life increase leads me to believe they are correct. Many of my friends also practice various forms of meditation, which clearly do not have roots in European culture. Again they feel it has made them better people and I agree. In addition to becoming better people these friends of mine tend to have a more expansive worldview. That fuller worldview tends to make them less xenophobic and if there’s anything the world needs it’s less xenophobia.

The idea that one’s ability to adopt ideas from other cultures is dependent on what culture they were born into is another attempt at monopolizing ideas. Cultural appropriation belongs on the same shelf as copyrights and patents: fiction. While there are certainly valid grounds for criticizing people who adopt a cultural idea for the sole purpose of denigrating the culture they should be based on the person being an asshole. On the other hand people who adopt ideas from other cultures should be encouraged because it will only help expand their worldview and very well may help to different cultures come together. Above all though we should recognize that cultural ideas aren’t a special exception to the illegitimacy of intellectual property.