Theft of Culture

In particular in the past couple of years, a conversation has arisen whether the major populace (read, the white man) has the right to use the images and symbols of minority cultures in art or popular culture. I’ve mostly followed the Finnish part of the discussion, due to availability, but the broad outlines are applicable everywhere.

Tradition

The first time I can remember hearing about this issue is way older, though.

Way back in the late eighties and early nineties certain Finnish comedians created a sketch for their TV program about two very drunk Lappish men (link to a Youtube clip in Finnish). It was/is a common caricature that the Sami people use a lot of alcohol and especially since the comedians were wearing the traditional Sami clothes, the implication was clear. I doubt anyone in Lapland drinks any more than anyone else anywhere else in Finland – those who drink a lot are equally marinated everywhere and those who drink smart, drink smart.

Obviously, and for a very good reason, many people took offense. I can’t recall the program being cancelled or getting any repercussions, though, and they are actually airing re-runs of it. I’m assuming the audiences are marginal and no-one has made a fuss because no one is watching anymore. I saw a few minutes of the show one evening and it wasn’t any funnier than the first time around.

The Sami dress has caused a few other incidents. I understand why they are particular: many traditional dresses have a lot of unwritten code about how they should be worn and by whom and when. I know my own dress (traditional dress from western Finland) is supposed to be worn the way I have it only by married women and very differently by unmarried.

Culture

Then came the case of the book Oneiron, a Finlandia prize winner by Laura Lindstedt.

I haven’t personally read it, but it is a conversation between women of different backgrounds. One of the women is an American Jew who has suffered from an eating disorder. There are also parts in the book in Hebrew, which have then been translated for the advantage of the non-speaker.

Particularly the case of this fictional Jewish girl incensed an actual living Jewish girl with a similar past. She wrote about it (in Finnish), asking why Lindstedt couldn’t write a book from the viewpoint of a white Finnish woman? Why does she have to steal from someone else’s culture for profit?

 

But why should Lindstedt, me, you, Salman Rushdie or the president of South Africa only be limited to writing about those exactly alike us?

Isn’t it truly the most enlightening experience to learn new things about ourselves and others in both trying to think like them while writing or reading about them? Especially writing in this aspect is more important, because in order to create something believable, one must be able to put themselves in the character’s shoes. If that does not bring about true friendship between peoples and an end to discrimination, I don’t know what will.

But of course it is easier to keep on bickering, and especially when something is said by the wrong kind of person (in this case, although not male, still a privileged white westerner), it is easier to dismiss it as colonialist patronizing. It is easier to say they’re trying to profit from non-white tradition without having to experience the oppression it used to come with.

Sure, as a white westerner I personally cannot know a thing about being a black person in America in the 60’s (1860’s and 1960’s both apply), or about being casteless in India during the caste system (or even still today in places). I cannot even realistically put myself in my great-grandmother’s shoes, because I have no idea what it’s like to live without electricity or running water. That cannot and should not stop me from trying, though.

Limits?

I process the world through writing and reading. In the opinion of these other people I am stealing their culture if and when I write about it, should anyone else see it. I’m not yet sure if it counts if I’m the only one who sees it. Even if it just to better understand them and said culture. Would they prefer I remain ignorant and insult them through ignorance?

Do writers of all ethnicities, no matter how minor or major, from now on limit themselves to only writing about the kind of experience they might have garnered? That will make for a poor literary future. Do these people themselves always stop themselves from writing about what they are not, just not to steal that culture in return?

It is true the literary world has for long been dominated by man, white man to be more precise. That cannot be changed by limiting subject matters for others, but by going and writing something worthwhile of your own.

One must remember, that to reach true equality one cannot only try to reach it just for their own group but for everyone. And truly the best option would be to forget groups altogether.

Culture is not just tradition and history and what has been, although that is one part. It is a very big and important part, no doubt, but also not the whole thing.

Culture is personal, interpersonal and surpassing the personal. No one person can say what it is or what is accepted, because that changes over time and between people.

Culture is also not a resource that runs out when used. No, it grows and multiplies and evolves every time it is used, no matter how and by whom.

Don’t make boxes where no boxes need be, people.

 


I really do hope we can have some discussion about this in a constructive manner and also that I got what I’m thinking written down here so that my actual point comes across. I’ve been mulling about this for about four months or so, and it’s getting a bit messy…

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Game of Thrones

I bet most have already watched the latest episode. If you haven’t, and you’re going to eventually, stop reading here. There will be spoilers. Now that you’ve been forewarned, I’ll get on with this.

I read an article just now on Vanity Fair (there’s spoilers there too, you curious you / it was on my facebook feed) about Hodor and G.R.R. Martin’s (speculated) plans about how the particular plot point goes down in text.

I won’t touch on the article all that much, but there was a point I disagreed with so strongly I really had to pick up the point.

The writer, Joanna Robinson, feels that there’s little Martin can do to surpass the emotional strength of the scene. I quote:

There will be no emotional music, no rapid cuts back and forth. And there’s no way anyone who has seen the show will be able to read Martin’s version without seeing the interplay between Kristian Nairn (old Hodor) and Sam Coleman (young Hodor) in their minds.

A good writer and a great writer can be separated by their ability to control the emotional involvement of the reader; by being able to make the reader feel strongly, to sympathize with the character. I have every faith in Martin’s ability to execute his version of the events in a way that will have me to tears. I definitely do not need emotional music or rapid cuts to get me into the mood.

The TV version made me sad and horrified (towards the whole chain of interconnected events) but I did not cry. It may be that my Finnish psyche is that bit different from the American type that the way the scene was handled didn’t trigger in me the same emotional response. I didn’t particularly enjoy the cut (do not be so hasty), but in purely logical level everything made clear sense.

In general, I haven’t been very satisfied with how the show has handled the whole series. I dislike the character renames and I’m totally not happy with plot changes, especially on such major things as the whole Dorne substory. I was unhappy already when they changed Jeyne Westerling into some foreign nobody. I didn’t particularly enjoy how Loras and Margaery have been portrayed, even when I’m very satisfied with the actor choices. I would have been happier had Renly’s and Loras’ relationship been as implied as it is in the books. (And I really do not need to see all those boobs unless relevant to the story – mostly they haven’t been.)

The logical side of me understands that TV is totally different as a medium as written text. I just feel that much more could have been done to keep the story closer to the original. Being original and doing something new is important, yes, but if you’re going to do a TV show about an excellent book, keep to the point. The writer of the book knew what they were doing. Seriously. (I’m experiencing here the same issues I have with Lord of the Rings books and movies.)

I also feel that had the show producers had the inclination they could have slowed down a bit and incorporated some more details from the books to give Martin time to finish his work first. The two previous seasons have felt a bit rushed and this ongoing season has experienced some issues of that kind as well. Also the unconfirmed information that the last two seasons will be only a few episodes in length has left me grave doubts about how things’ll be handled.

I personally feel that the show could easily have at least four more seasons had the things been done the ‘proper’ way.

I think this about sums up how I feel about the particular subject. Don’t get me wrong though, it is an absolutely fantastic TV show compared to many others. There’s just no way it could surpass the books.

 

 

Media Criticism

For quite a while now I’ve been thinking that people just cannot tell whether a newspaper, internet site or even TV news are telling the truth or whether they have an agenda of some sort. The other day my doubts were confirmed. A large newspaper around here had an article last week about how kids cannot tell the difference between reliable sites and others that have ulterior motives.

A study by the University of Jyväskylä found that only about a third of 12-year-olds can assess information sources with necessary criticism. In the study, the kids were shown two texts, one a university paper about the health effects of energy drinks, the other a press release by a company manufacturing said drinks. Almost all could tell that the university paper was reliable, but only one in five could tell the latter text was commercial.

The researcher conducting the study thinks the results are worrisome, especially since the results do not seem to improve with age. Even 16-19-year-old students seem to have issues with media and source criticism. She says in the article that a majority had no criticism towards what they read. So that means that they basically believe everything some half-wit puts on paper? Wow.

The article continues by saying that even grown-ups have difficulties with discerning what the actual source or agenda of a story or article really is. I can totally vouch for this. As I may have mentioned, I work at a huge supermarket. We sell quite a variety of different gossip magazines and other such material known for less reliable sources and variable quality of writing. I’m regularly amazed at how many people take everything printed on that trash seriously and think it’s true.

There is a historic backdrop to this. Not so long ago (20 years back, even), Finnish media was rather reliable. You wouldn’t hear similar half-truths or direct lies in any respectable newspaper or on the TV news as you can today. Not everything was turned into a huge issue overnight like seems to happen all the time today. OMG, the prime minister made a happy tweet the same day (hours before) some huge disaster took place on the other side of the globe: he must be totally disrespectful of human suffering! (And unfortunately that’s not just an example I made up.) From this perspective, it’s really not so surprising that some people think the media is still the same. Newsflash: it is not.

From where I’m looking at this situation, some people have totally relinquished their free thought. The press (especially the yellow side) has taken up petty sensationalism over other, more important things. Now, I don’t want to sound like a total conspiracy theorist, but it can’t be a total coincidence that when there’s something that should really be discussed something minor and inconsequential (some person’s 20-30 years younger new spouse or a messy divorce of some useless celeb) takes precedence and the important stuff is just glossed over.

Then there’s the issue of social media bubbles. People only have friends who think like they do, who only share news they can agree with. If you have the wrong opinion you might even get unfriended (is that a word?) or at the least lynched by people who disagree with you. These people just bounce around their thoughts from other similarly-minded friends and start thinking everyone must think the same way (because everyone they know does!), even when they were in a minority.

So, is there a solution for this? Trying to tell the truth of things or to even moderate the shitstorm rarely works. Teaching kids media criticism will likely have a positive effect in the future, but what do you do about all those grown-ups who can’t be made to learn? They’ll just happily prance around with their bubbles firm in place until one day they drop dead… unless some personal experience forces them to learn it the hard way.

That sounds horribly depressing, but I guess that’s just the way of things. The subjects change, but some general themes just stay the same