Editor Response to WhattheWha t
Thank you for your letter. We appreciate your participation in the conversations that take place in the Megaphone, and have considered your concerns regarding cultural appropriation. As promised, we will publish your letter in the Megaphone’s online and paper edition if you so choose. We as co-editors-in-chief seek to facilitate rather than enter conversations that occur in our publication, so our response to your letter will propose some food for thought rather than conclusive solutions to the concerns addressed in your letter.
First off, your letter inquires for a more clear-cut definition of “morality.” Many philosophical courses and texts would assert that morality, like you mentioned, is fickle. Also as you noted, those who study morality and ethics would agree that many levels of extremity exist for which we measure morality. Even the extreme cases of discerning morality from immorality, as you name as “heinous and particular, like murder and trauma-inducing events,” what qualifies as moral and immoral is unclear. Is it murder to cause one’s death unknowingly, as the medics who unknowingly nursed the broken ankle of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin? Is exposure therapy immoral since the process entails repeated induction to traumatic settings?
We suggest defining morality as a measure of the good and evil, a gradient that various activities will lie due to our personal values. Perhaps you could consider that no universally correct definition of the “morality” and “civilization” exists, but rather that every single individual places events and actions on a different location on their respective morality-immorality civilized-uncivilized gradients. Defining what is moral and immoral, civilized and uncivilized occurs not through directly saying “my personal definition of morality/civility and immorality/uncivility is ‘x’ and ‘y’,” but rather explaining what your personal values are.
Our writers in last issue’s head-to-head page describe what they believe is valuable in terms of engaging in intercultural discussion. In the articles, it’s clear that both writers place activities like white women wearing cornrows on very different ends of their own morality-immorality spectrums, and that they each define elaborately why they define Caucasian-worn cornrows thusly. Katherine Protil wrote in her article that in order to value other cultures, one must value “listening and learning about what different cultures are really like,” “refusing to homogenize different cultures,” and “going to events on campus where students are sharing their culture with the campus community.” Joshua D. Huckleberry wrote that he values respect towards “the ability to remake ourselves” if one of our peers “make[s] the choice to be both white and have cornrows.” Perhaps, if you find these articles unclear in defining morality and civility, you might try stringing together of these writers’ claims of what is valuable and not valuable to contributing to the well-being of a society, rather than searching for a literal definition of what is and isn’t moral or civil.
Next, I’d like to bring up your concerns about the dehumanization of alleged cultural appropriators and majority group members. First of all, I will make clear that membership in the “majority” means having more representation in positions of power. For instance, all members of the board of trustees of SU, for instance, are white, as is over 90% of the tenured faculty at Southwestern. Membership in the racial majority is not having the majority in a population demographic (roughly 40% of Southwestern’s student body is not white), but having the majority of representation in positions of power.
I invite you to consider again the framing of Katherine Protil’s article, and you might find that Protil did not dehumanize but in fact acknowledges the agency of those whose race is most represented in positions of power at SU. The article does not dehumanize but rather explains why it is crucial that people with such institutional power must use their power to enact justice and to adhere to the underrepresented groups’ as well as the represented groups’ needs.
Firstly, Protil, says specifically that she is a member of the dominant European-rooted race. The literary rhetoric she uses as an educated as a member of the dominant race is direct proof of intelligence coming from the population she is questioning. Moreover, in inviting people of her own race to act morally, she implies that they are fully capable of acting morally. If any humans were represented as somewhat animalistic, they were not the members of the racial majority but the extremist liberals who do not inhabit Protil’s skeptical-but-not-cynical viewpoint (we see this in Huckleberry uses metaphors like “rat carcass” to describe the radical, extremist bullies that are not necessarily in particular majority or minority groups).
Moreover, your questions regarding cultural appropriation are answered inside the article you criticize. Protil defines cultural appropriation in the second paragraph of her article as “reaching into someone else’s (marginalized) culture, ripping out something that catches your eye, and wearing or doing something regardless of how members of the community feel about your actions.” Your letter inquires if dead cultures like ancient Egypt experience cultural appropriation, and we suggest that you examine Protil’s definition of cultural appropriation to determine this. Does the cultural borrower offend members of a community with their actions if no members of this community exist anymore? If you answer no, then the borrowing of ancient, extinct cultural practices is not appropriation.
Also, if you examine again Protil and Huckleberry’s articles, you might find that both both argue exactly for what you ask for in your letter—“to get along with each other” Protil asks us to attend other students’ events on campus, appreciating and engaging in “a mutual, consensual exchange between cultures.” Huckleberry asks us to ”find a way better than this [allegedly excessive anger towards white women wearing traditionally African American hairstyles],” and to “have disagreements” in a peaceful and non-aggressive manner. Would you define these requests, these personal definitions of moral activity, as “getting along”? There’s a clear distinction between agreeing to disagree and not getting along. Neither article calls out any particular individual’s actions to shame and berate, but rather questions institutional and general practices and describes their personal opinion about participating or challenging these practices.
We hope that our response provides some useful suggestions for demystifying the text you wrote about. Again, thank you for engaging with our writers’ work in last issue’s Opinions section and we hope you continue to participate in campus conversations such as these.
The Megaphone Editors