Sunday, May 28, 2017

Calling Out Cultural Plagiarism

Identifying instances of celebrity cultural appropriation has become increasingly published mainstream fodder. The good intentions of politically recognizing and reconciling power relations evaporated when cultural appropriation became a profitable context to write about the arbitrary actions of celebrities - when it became fashion.

Like globalization, cultural appropriation is a neutral process that has both good and bad implications. It has always and will always be happening. The argument that cultural appropriation is an inherent evil inadequately/incorrectly defines culture as a product owned by a group determined by biological descent.

Marxist and essentialist theories define culture for the zealous opponents of cultural appropriation. Marxism suggests that culture is a good that is produced and owned, and essentialism adds that cultures self-reproduce by creating immutable stereotypes of themselves. Cultural appropriation is always bad if you believe culture should be owned by its "rightful" creators, who are "authenticated" by stereotypes.

Post-modern theories offer a more accurate account of culture as a set of practices that characterize a distinct group of people. There is no division between culture and knowledge; culture is language, music, dance, dress, food, storytelling, political traditions, sports, and relationships with animals and environments.

Calling cultural appropriations injustices also misrepresents consensus on what injustice means. The dominant narrative of injustice is an understanding that an unacceptable rights infraction has occurred and requires remedy. If you can't directly replace the words "cultural appropriation" with "racism" in your pop cultural critique, you're probably missing the point.

Speaking of all cultural appropriation as injustice proverbially throws the baby out with the bathwater. The effort to curb injustice incidentally commits injustice through heavy-handed cultural policing.

Cultural policing is a censorship phenomenon with roots across the political spectrum. Conservatives eschew sex, violence, and non-traditional values in TV, film, and video games. Meanwhile, progressive factions have taken to policing 'insensitive' cultural elements. Regardless of motivational divergence, all practices of cultural policing present relative moral narratives as justification for challenges to free expression.

An instance of cultural policing can be of net benefit when it's motivated by the correction of injustice. I do not write "the pursuit of justice" because the tense of cultural policing is the point where the practice pivots between corrective and intrusive. Using a flawed method to correct a flawed world is reasonable, but using a flawed method to create an ideal world is illogical. Cultural policing is either corrective (justified) or moralizing (intrusive).

The corrective capacity of cultural policing is assumed in the project of political correctness. Political correctness is a commitment to correct injustices that language conventions (re)create. Solidarity across immeasurable difference and individual accountability for words spoken into reality are the desired outcomes of political correctness. The cultural policing of political incorrectness is justified because it corrects unequal power relations actively and passively entrenched in language.

Moralizing instances of cultural policing from progressives are motivated by the movement toward empathetic correctness, a doctrine that asserts that individuals should take responsibility for the emotional reactions to their free expression. Empathetic correctness is an approach to build a specific and contested vision of justice at the cost of civil liberty. Empathetic correctness values a non-offensive character to culture over the critical consumption of freely produced culture.

There's just one glaring problem with empathetic correctness. Hurt feelings are not injustices.

The power relations that need to be critiqued between privileged and underprivileged cultural producers is legitimate in a context of plagiarism. Plagiarism sets cultural critique in the paradigm of intellectual property rights. Imitation within reason is acceptable, but there are economic rights protecting intellectual property. Where rights are infringed, there is injustice.

Cultural plagiarism affords us outrage when Navajo designs are printed onto Urban Outfitters t-shirts, but tells columnists that Justin Bieber's corn rows aren't worth writing about. If we talk about cultural appropriation like we talk about fashion, we make discussion indivisible from the socio-economic relations of production. The privileged produce and reproduce cultural elements for personal gain too often without the due diligence of credit or payment to original creators.

Definitively, it is within your rights right to both culturally appropriate and police, but I implore you to consider why exactly you're doing so. The world would be a better place if people stopped to ask themselves "is my costume fetishizing or trivializing anyone?" or "is my public confrontation/keyboard call-out based on a subjective moralizing argument?"

Reflection is better than judgement.

Friday, May 26, 2017

John Campbell is Right About Pride

But he could have explained himself so much better...For readers out of the loop, Toronto city councilor John Campbell introduced a motion to strip Pride Toronto of their city grant for a decision to restrict the dress and conduct of police officers in attendance of the festival.

Censorship is a tool of oppression. It cannot be used to create anti-oppression.

I am a realist. Pride Toronto is a private entity. As much as they'd like to claim they represent Toronto's immeasurable diversity, they don't. Private entities have the right to organize themselves as they see fit. However, private organizations who take public funds are bound to the conditions of public opinion.

Let's get some facts straight about Toronto Pride.

Fact: Many community groups, businesses, and non-profits run events that contribute to the overall economic impact of the Pride Festival. Giving all of the credit to Pride Toronto is a beat up strategy non-profits use to lure funders.

Fact: Taking away $260 000 hurts not a single queer person. It forces a very problematic organization to examine their conduct and realign their policies and expenditures within a financial reality that does not sponsor their censorship of parade participants based on occupation.

Fact: Pride Toronto is a white, gay, capitalist institution. There's no rational disagreement with these descriptors. Pride Toronto is not entitled to public money.

Fact: Legally, a university couldn't censor event participants like Pride Toronto plans to.

Fact: We can give the money to more deserving applicants.

Propping up Pride Toronto and saying "well, if you have a problem, get involved" is asking the oppressed to save themselves. Why should more people need to get involved when funding can just be given to less problematic recipients?

The non-profit industrial complex is an axis of evil until it's something you like, right?

Friday, May 5, 2017

For Clarity: A Biopolitical Diary Entry

I haven't written in so long that it actually disappoints me. I accept my struggle with balance; I tend to pick one thing and do really well at it alone, and for the last six months that was working 40 exhausting hours a week at Cannabis Culture in Toronto's Church-Wellesley Village.

An early November afternoon, I handed Marc Emery a resume tailored to the Prince of Pot. Unexpectedly, I was hired for a trial shift that day and spent the next six months selling cannabis for recreational use in open defiance of prohibition laws.

Officially, I was a budtender, though that's getting punched up to "CSR for special retail" on the resume. I can't tell you how many times I heard "you have the coolest job ever".  Straight up though: budtending is exactly like bar tending, sub weed for booze. I don't love customer service, but I like weed and money! It was my most memorable job to date, certainly.

I know a lot of words, and none of them in any combination can speak to how much my life changed over the course of my employment at 461 Church Street. I landed in Toronto June 30 on the final leg of what would be a two year stint informally housed. With stable income and welcoming work family, Toronto became home. Do not take any of this as a love letter to Toronto; the feeling is tenuous.

Comforts of home burnt out for me a while ago. It hasn't been New Brunswick for years; I doubt I'll spend more than a few weeks in Sussex the rest of my life. Ottawa lost its luster after 9 years too. As I hit my late 20's, I fell out of love with Ottawa's double lives, zealous partisans, and golden handcuffs.

Working at Cannabis Culture was unique. I was day staff and immediately realized the stream of humans at the LCBO was as diverse as the stream of our customers. Blatant wealth and poverty were on display at 461 Church, as was every other facet of life. Being nimble at working across class and cultural differences made some of us better at budtending than others.

I need not recount the history of dispensary raids that put me out of work, but know that I've had some time to consider my options the past couple weeks.

Clarity is priceless. I learned this young. Thinking an option through is far more important than acting immediately, despite any pressures otherwise. Without a job, I was imploding trying to figure out my next move. For the first time in my adult life, I have enough money saved that I can comfortably investigate self-employment prospects.

These prospects were dizzying. I don't mean that in a self-congratulatory sense; I mean that I made myself sick with consideration. The pressure I was putting on myself to act quickly was too much. Days of stressorexia preceded me getting worst stomach flu of my adult life. Through the anxiety and illness, I researched a cannabis business proposal that would have made me a millionaire quite quickly, and then I decided against the whole plan.

The level of completion at which I walked away from the proposal frustrates a lot of people. It felt familiar to me, but more imortantly, it felt right. The other time I felt this was withdrawing my PhD acceptance. Something, in this case horrible physical illness, prompted me to identify and purge disingenuous internalized classism.

So how much had I done? I took an online cannabis studies program, I incorporated & trademarked, I did all the sales projections, I listed all the community partners, I found the site's investment package from it's receiver, and I shortlisted three of my most trusted friends to ask in on it. I did everything short of typing it up.

The pitch was to re-purpose the abandoned Sussex Mall in Sussex, New Brunswick for licensed cannabis production. Conservative sales estimate was 16 million dollars per year. I still get a pang of excitement thinking about the potential of the idea, but I need to smother that shit with reality.

I would be rich, but would I be happy? The answer was: not for a few years. Life would suck until I could walk away and just cash cheques.

Minus one: my relatives are batshit crazy, and I'm not in regular contact. If I was going to pursue this opportunity, I would be in town just in time to see my brother stand trial for assaulting my mother. Uhhhhhhhhhh.

Minus two: I'd have to give up film school in September. Check myself. I'm already on the path to the life I want. It took one of these fucking epiphanies to get here.

What's my best life?

It sounds like an MTV commercial, but it's a really useful consideration. I'm an artist. I want to create until I die. I would rather die making culture than making money. I can figure out wealth after I figure out happiness.

Working in weed is the first time I've ever been tempted to "sell out". By "sell out", I don't mean "environmentalist takes job at Shell". I mean on an existential deviating from my intended path to happiness for money. I have path, and I flirted with a less certain possibility of happiness via wealth.

Wealth can buy a lot of things, but time isn't one of them. I have dreams and creative goals that money doesn't advance. I've always wanted to be a meaningful force in cultural production and a lawyer, specifically a jurist. My dream job is at Netflix, and I plan to combine my interests practicing entertainment law later in my career.

I love weed, and I love working in weed, for now. I don't have the technical skills for the life I want, but I will.