The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Ottawa Sun (Aedan Helmer) reports:
Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students, ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of "cultural appropriation." …
Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities [which is operated by the university's Student Federation] believe that "while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice," according to an email from the centre….
The centre goes on to say, "Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced," and which cultures those practices "are being taken from."
The centre official argues since many of those cultures "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga."
The concept of cultural appropriation is normally applied when a dominant culture borrows symbols of a marginalized culture for dubious reasons—such as the fad of hipsters donning indigenous headdresses as a fashion statement, without any regard to cultural significance or stereotype.
Bunk. Total bunk.
Yoga, whether you're a fan of it or not, doesn't exclusively belong to some group of people who share the same skin color or language or culture or religion—just as classical music or Western medicine or modern physics doesn't belong to the Europeans. It, like all such ideas, is the common heritage of all mankind. That means of each and every one of us, even those of us who have a genetic background or culture that some people feel aggrieved at.
We (Indian, American, African, Oceanian, anyone else) are entitled to use it, to adapt it, to merge it with other ideas. There's no improper "appropriation" here because there's no "property" here in the first place. I think it makes sense to view this as our honoring other ideas: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and so is adaptation and modification, since it represents the view that the thing be imitated, adapted and modified is worth our time and attention.
When Mitsuko Uchida or Itzhak Perlman plays Mozart, that isn't Japanese or Jews somehow taking something away from Austrians or Germans (however you choose to slice European culture there). Rather, it is two people contributing to world culture, including by contributing something that can in turn be used by future Austrians and Germans. And it is a mark of how enduringly appealing classical music is. Indeed, appeal to people whose ancestors came from quite different places and cultures is one of the greatest compliments that can be paid to a culture. The same is true for jazz, yoga and a vast range of other cultural artifacts.
In a few situations, our legal system reserves to inventors a 20-year monopoly on ideas that they come up with, as an incentive to come up with ideas and contribute them to the common heritage of mankind. (Copyright law also reserves to inventors a longer—in my view, too long—but still limited monopoly on their particular expression of an idea, but not to an idea or genre itself.) But these are limited monopolies, justified by the perceived need of incentives to create, monopolies that a far narrower than what the critics of cultural "appropriation" would seek.
But no rule of law or ethics gives some ethnic, religious or cultural group a perpetual monopoly on the right to use yoga just because its creators happened to share a broad location, language or bloodline with the members of the modern group. Of course, it's human nature for some people to want to lock up ideas for themselves, whether for financial gain or for the ability to boss people around and the pleasure of asserting special entitlements. But if people try to do that to you, point out their supposed moral theories for the nonsense that they are.
As to the link to Christian conservatives, check out the Establishment Clause challenge to yoga exercise programs in public schools, a challenge that was rightly rejected. Funny that attempts to import interesting ideas from foreign cultures—one of the glorious benefits of modern systems of transportation, communication and expressive freedom—have a strange mix of enemies.
Thanks to InstaPundit for the pointer.