Well, I thought I was done with this theme. But then I had an opportunity to attend the wonderful Bioneers conference, which has devoted much energy to the concerns and values of tribal people.
There, I attended a “council” workshop on cultural appropriation and heard many of the points of view that I’ve already articulated.
The idea of council comes from the indigenous world. The process encourages all participants to speak from the heart with respect and concern for communal values as the talking stick passes around the circle. And although each speaker’s voice is supposed to have equal value, the reality is that the leader(s) of the conversation do invoke the privilege of speaking both as authorities and as participants.
In this council, and under these circumstances, one of the leaders offered an opinion that I found rich and provocative: “Good intentions are not enough.” She was implying that potential appropriators must go to great lengths to avoid harming or insulting the indigenous carriers of tradition. She was right, of course. But her statement was more than an opinion: it was a prescription: This is how you must act. And assertions about how we must act can result in our not acting at all.
In response, I thought of something I heard once from a drumming teacher: Bad drumming insults the ancestors. But I’d also heard a different teacher say: There are no drumming mistakes, only new rhythms. Together, they cover the whole cultural appropriation range, from the gatekeepers who hide esoteric forms from the public to those who actually ask Westerners to carry on dying traditions. The first drumming teacher may well have been accurate, but the second was kind and generous. I’ll go with the second.
And how about those good intentions? Linguist George Lakoff says that 95% of our motivations are unconscious. Most of the time we have no idea what our real motivations or agendas are or how many parts of ourselves are in conflict with our conscious ideals.
Recall this old saying – No good deed goes unpunished. Often our (personal and national) “good” deeds go punished (have unintended consequences) precisely because some or most of our unconscious motivations are in direct opposition to our conscious good intentions. It’s like driving with your parking brake engaged. Most of the time those conscious motivations are all we really know. We are – all of us – ambivalent (ambi-valent = “both strengths”) by nature. This is one of the most fundamental realizations of Greek Tragedy. Realizing this may be the first step to self-acceptance and self-forgiveness.
The tyranny of the ego assigns value only to those conscious motives. And that ego-tyrant is our internalized father-figure, who represents the authority of Jehovah/Allah, the mono-god of monotheism. But outside of our Judeo-Christian-Moslem tradition, almost all indigenous and tribal people practiced polytheistic ways that more accurately mirrored our complex psychology. Having a complicated pantheon of figures in one’s mythic imagination encourages one to ponder the equally broad range of internal voices, each of whom may well have their own agenda.
And that is one reason to take the leap into the unknown and engage in ritual. In my experience, ritual more than anything else can help us clarify those intentions, to learn the complex nature of who we are. Encouraged by religion, we think: I need this. Ritual asks: Really? How much do you need this? Do you need it or do you want it? What’s the difference? What will you sacrifice in order to attain it?
Every deed – every single thing we do – has unintended consequences. Now what? Do nothing that might possibly be tainted with cultural appropriation for fear that we might trigger someone?
A Hassidic story (yes, I’m appropriating it) told by Elie Wiesel addresses this dilemma:
When the Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, he would go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire and say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished. Later, when his disciple, the Magid of Mezritch, needed for the same reason to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: ‘‘Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,’’ and again he would have success. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Lieb of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: ‘‘I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.’’ It was sufficient. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting at home, his head in his hands, he addressed God: ‘‘I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is ask You to redeem us, and this must be sufficient.’’ And it was.
We will screw up. We will hurt someone’s feelings, period. But, as we really feel the terrifying reality of the political, environmental and spiritual conditions in this moment, I remember another old saying: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
We no longer have the privilege of hesitating because we might not be doing something perfectly. We must do what we are called to do (even as we clarify that sense of calling), knowing full well that our intentions can never be fully clear, that our actions – without exception – have consequences beyond our knowledge.
Right action means being willing to accept responsibility for those consequences. Only people (and nations) who are utterly invested in their own innocence act with no sense of consequences. Ultimately, this business of cultural appropriation is about waking up and clarifying the complex nature of who we are – our good intentions as well as our darker motives – accepting them and loving them. This willingness to acknowledge our fullness is a necessary precursor to self-forgiveness.
It All Comes Back To Me
Not willing to be vicious, I lost my voice.
Not wanting to be foolish, I lost my courage.
Averse to being led, I lost my way.
Unwilling to be like them, I forgot my name.
Remembering now is blessing enough.
Waking up groggy is still waking up.
– Victory Lee Schouten