Policing Cultural Appropriation — Don’t Be A Disgruntled Pelican

How ‘Schitt’s Creek’ legend Moira Rose indirectly taught me the best way to tackle cultural appropriation

Moira Rose is the bread to my butter. I said as much on Twitter yesterday after seeing the Queen of Schitt’s Creek announce, in her trademark faux British accent:

“I don’t know who I am from one moment to the next.”

More than ever during lockdown, the sentiment speaks to me, and so I named Moira my “spirit animal.” The move rightly displeased one follower (who uses gender-neutral pronouns). They commented:

“I adore Moira too. But just so you know, the concept of spirit animals is a Native-only thing many have spoken on and asked non-Natives not to use.”

I had no idea, but every day is a school day! To be honest, since reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, I’d assumed the spirit animal to be a fictional creation. I suppose Moira had it right when — in just one of her top moments — she said we should never assume anything, for it makes an ass out of us.

Now I know now of the idea’s indigenous origin, I agree it should never be misused in pop culture as a visual representation of a human’s personality — or anything else, for that matter. My actions were nothing short of cultural appropriation.

I apologised genuinely for the blunder, thanked my informant for the much-needed education, and switched out the offending “spirit animal” for a neutral “kindred spirit.” While I was more than happy to do so, a couple of things about the whole affair didn’t sit right with me.

Humiliation

Albeit in a perfectly respectful tone, my follower chose to call out my honest mistake on a public forum. Of course, I’m a nobody, so nothing major came of this — other than their words attracting a ‘like’ or two. But the situation could have hit the skids fast. On Twitter, a platform well-known for its toxicity, a quiet response can soon becomes an ugly clamour.

In my opinion, a low-key private message is a far better fit in such circumstances — a same-argument, no-humiliation sort of deal. As the management mantra goes:

“Praise in public; criticise in private.”

I politely made my case (naturally, in a private message), and in response, my follower justified their choice as “spreading awareness.”

Fair enough, I thought, makes total sense. But does it? I soon realised the likely desired outcome of the initial comment was my tweet’s quick deletion. As you know, it was the actual outcome too, and with the illicit “spirit animal” gone, how is anyone spreading awareness of anything?

At that understanding, I reverted to my original stance. And I stick to it, even though I appreciate the potential for discretion to reduce accountability in certain contexts — particularly where the recipient of any disapproval is apathetic by nature.

Hypocrisy

By chance, I also noticed my follower’s use of “Oh my God” elsewhere on the platform. I find it rich when the self-appointed social media gendarmerie is out and about issuing warnings for crimes of which they themselves are guilty.

Although ubiquitous today, the expression is still considered taboo by many — mostly, I’d guess, the devout among us. When I was a kid, my Grandad used to tick me off for saying it. His finger wagging in my face, he’d snap:

“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”

I haven’t a clue if the finger-wagger here is religious, and “Oh my God” isn’t quite cultural appropriation in the same way as “spirit animal,” but it surely has no home under the bar of political correctness.

If I’m to be fairly schooled on what cultural ideas I can and can’t reasonably help myself to, then the job is for someone with a squeaky-clean record. After replacing “Oh my God” with a harmless “Oh my gosh” or the likes, I suggest my critic audit their own borrowing. I’m not petty enough to dig deeper for further evidence of hypocrisy, but it may very well exist.

Policing Cultural Appropriation — Who? How?

Some observers think we’ve gone too far in the war against cultural appropriation, and I wholeheartedly agree there are some innocuous ways of borrowing from and honouring other cultures. Toasting the Swiss at my bi-monthly Raclette party-for-one is a good example.

Elsewhere, like my Twitter post yesterday, there’s no excuse for misuse. But such misuse remains rampant, so we need change — especially if typically-marginalised groups tell us we’re not doing good enough. The Washington Redskins get that, which is why — conceding to countless Native American petitions — they’re now called the Washington Football Team.

To accomplish effective change, the right agents of change are crucial. But who should they be? And what should their task entail?

In my mind, agents of change should genuinely care about the group they claim to defend. Sadly, this isn’t always reality. I’m positive it isn’t true in this instance, but half of the keyboard warriors who will readily come for you in the wake of an error don’t actually give a jot. Armed with insults and threats, they’re simply on the prowl for chances to make people feel bad, regardless of the cause. It works too —social media has democratised cruelty.

Although such absolutists would have us believe otherwise, embarrassment is not an essential ingredient in the process of forcing change. Their zero-tolerance policy gives us no space to learn from and fix our missteps without looking like absolute fools.

It’s also often the unfortunate case that, when backed into a corner, humans go on the defensive — even when they know they’re in the wrong. How does that help marginalised groups? It doesn’t, is the answer. Public shaming is a heavy-handed, incompetent way of educating those getting it wrong.

Genuine reformists are usually an eloquent bunch, reliant upon reason and discretion to convey their various messages. Take vegan activist Earthling Ed — he uses the Socratic method of argument when trying to show meat-eaters the light. This is the sort of individual we need stepping into uniform and patrolling social media to set the world to rights.

If you’re in the latter camp and you discover glaring cultural appropriation, for the love of mercy, please don’t behave like “a disgruntled pelican” — as Moira would say. Avoid the urge to drag out the (possibly unwitting) offender for a town-square lashing, and instead rap their knuckles behind closed doors, teaching them how to do better in future.

Sure, your logic will occasionally fall upon deaf ears, which is rubbish. But most of us are good people who want to make sure we act in a culturally sensitive way. Sometimes, we just require a little help, that’s all. Have faith in humanity, and by golly, let’s practice what we preach, shall we?

London-based freelance journo (mainly film & TV), content writer & editor, ghostwriter, and blogger. Also currently studying to be a UX writer.

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