Ich und Du?


When I was a child, I had no inkling of cultural appropriation. I eagerly dressed as the cowboy Roy Rogers, and enmeshed myself in what I mistakenly assumed were aboriginal customs of dress and philosophy; I once (and, it must be stressed, unwillingly) played the role of a girl in a Grade 4 school play because of my curly hair; and in a later grade, volunteered for a rather avant-garde guard history teacher’s idea for enlivening her subject, and wore to her class the costume of a Coureur de Bois (a French-Canadian trader in the forests of New France who traded things to the First Nations in exchange for furs). I had no idea I was treading on toes; I had no idea I had been crossing lines.

I suppose there is a distinction, though, between appropriation and appreciation, between stealing the original and revered pattern of a foreign costume, say, and naïvely imitating it. But when does it border on trespass? When does it defy cultural ownership; when does it arrogate identities? When is it wrong?

Nowadays, appropriation is starting to be labelled as a remnant of colonization, as the exhibition of the privilege of the still-would-be dominant factions: white privilege, gendered rights, historically validated positions. Accommodation is frightening for those who stand to lose the advantage they never really earned. To accord respect for seemingly alien cultural practices -even to tolerate them- is for some, a step too far. They don’t understand the richness they abjure.

 It can be a vexing problem for newcomers to a culture and unaware of its traditions, to appreciate the importance of something they simply do not understand. To ignore that there may be meaning inhering in practices and patterns that to an outsider are bizarre, even if sometimes beautiful, might be as innocent as ignoring the ever changing shadows of a tree, or complaining about the dimming light instead of marvelling at the colour of the clouds that frame the sunset. The world is invested with much more than what meets the eye: God for some, spirit (for lack of a better term) for others… Or, soul

I am reminded of Martin Buber, the 20th century Jewish philosopher, famous for his work on how we interact with the world and the relationship we share, both with it, and with each other. I first studied Buber in university, and although I have read (the translation by R. G. Smith) of his ‘Ich und Du’ (I and Thou) I find that over the years my interpretation of his work has become more nuanced: more my own than his. There is, he felt, something different about our relationship with sentience, I-Thou (person, or God), compared to how we relate to mere objects, (I-It). With the former there is an obviously personal appreciation of communication –‘communion’ perhaps- whereas with the latter, a different recognition that falls short of this: more aesthetic, more objective. Of course, I have likely remembered the subtleties of his argument incorrectly, but for me at least, that is often what happens with time: things have a habit of blending together like the ingredients of ill-remembered recipes to create different but nonetheless interesting flavours, different and often surprising results.

Although not totally unique to them, many indigenous peoples (such as our First Nations in Canada) feel a relationship to Nature akin to what they experience with other humans; there is a spirit inhering in it, a feeling connecting them, and binding them to the world. Their traditions often reflect this reverence, their identities and beliefs are as intricately woven into their lives as the customs and patterns they hold sacred.

It seems to me that Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ dyad, by which Thou seems to mean my communion and relationship with other sentient humans (or with God) is an acknowledgment of a shared spirit (or soul). Some of us do not include Nature in that relationship perhaps, but surely that does not negate the feelings of those who do. And to trivialize a revered tradition, or reject the possibility of a felt kinship with the world, is to see through a glass darkly. In my opinion, I-Thou is also a recognition of the relationship, and the spirit that imbues Nature with its significance for us all.

Viewed from that perspective, I can more easily appreciate the value of cultural identities and the importance of world-views different from my own. Who am I to privilege my culture, my relationships, my preferences as more important, more valid than another’s? I live in a world filled with Thou’s you may not recognize as such. That I may cherish other important spirits (other Thou’s) does not diminish you as a Thou nor those which you cherish; it is not a competition; there are no winners and losers.

I certainly don’t want to attempt a reinterpretation of Buber, nor -as is patently evident- would I be sufficiently knowledgeable or daring enough to attempt it were I so inclined. I am merely attracted by the value he seems to attach to the I-Thou ‘primary word’ (as R.G. Smith translates the expression of Buber). It seems to be imbued with a numinous quality that I find is often similar to the spirit that many also cultures manifest: the unique patterns, distinctive clothes, or way of being in the world. They are, at the very least, creations: by-products of Buber’s Thou’s; more likely, though, they are manifestations of the plural Thou’s. As such, appropriation of these could be viewed as a sacrilege. And as, well, wrong

No, it seems to me that my interactions with, and choice of a Thou is a feeling -a judgement about what may possess a soul- as much as anything else. Whatever qualities, or feeling emanates from the Thou I choose is surely a personal conviction. I can no more limit my Thou’s to humanity, than I can limit my love to what is currently acknowledged to be sentient, or what is regarded as acceptable. I am not separate from Nature, nor are my Thou’s. As one of my indigenous friends said to me, “I am not just a part of the land; I am the land.”

Or, in the words of one of my favourite poets, Kahlil Gibran:

Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”

Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”

For the soul walks upon all paths.

The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.

The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.

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