One of my most uncomfortable experiences as a journalist was a story I did in 1995 to mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. I worked in Washington for Religion News Service at the time, and my task was to come up with a story with national appeal.
I decided to check in with Native Americans to learn what the day meant to them as members of a culture that non-Indians such as myself naively believed still held closely to traditional spiritual beliefs about humanity's place in a holistic world order. (In truth, there were dozens of distinct indigenous cultures spread across the Americas prior to European colonization.)
I'd connect environmentalism with indigenous beliefs for mainstream newspaper readers (RNS's main client base at that time). It was, I thought, a story sure to get widespread national play.
So I started making calls, beginning with the editor of Indian Country News, then the leading national publication covering Native American interests.
Did I get a tongue lashing.
What a silly premise, he told me. Poverty-stricken contemporary Native Americans cared more about day-to-day survival than Earth Day. Nor did he wish to indulge some white reporter's attempt to link contemporary environmental concerns with some generalized, romanticized and fantasized indigenous spiritual trope.
You took our land and now you're after our beliefs! I was, he bitterly insisted, committing cultural appropriation.
Then, in what felt like his pouring salt onto my journalistic wound, he demanded that I not quote him, even though the broad rules of the game -- established by journalists, of course, not interview subjects -- dictate that he should have said he was speaking off-the-record prior to unloading his anger at me.
Meekly, I agreed. The last thing I wanted was for him to come across my story with his quotes left in -- and for him to call me and give me another tongue lashing. (I produced a story without his quotes; it did not, as I recall, get great play.)
This embarrassing memory came to mind while reading a recent story in The Ottawa Sun, about the dropping of a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa because of the specter of, you guessed it, cultural appropriation.
Here's the top of the story:
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."
Jennifer Scharf, who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.
Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities 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 is operated by the university's Student Federation, which first approached Scharf seven years ago about offering yoga instruction to students both with and without disabilities.
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."
Some clarifications before we proceed. By "yoga," the paper is referring to hatha yoga, one of several yogic disciplines in traditional Hinduism and the one that's become the exercise of choice for many Westerners. And no, "centre" and "practising" are not typos, merely the Canadian spellings of those words.
It would be easy to simply dismiss this story as one more example of excessively self-conscious and youthful politically correct silliness. There has been a sudden upsurge in such stories. Many of the incidents reported reveal a thin-skinned attitude that I find self-righteous and limiting personal expression.
There's no clear explanation in the Ottawa Sun story whether any Hindu students were actually involved in getting yoga discontinued. Plus, all other stories on this incident I found on the Web appeared to be non-reported rewrites of the Sun.
Was this the doing solely of non-Hindu students who think they know what offends Hindus? -- even though it was largely Hindus who introduced hatha yoga to the West (details on this are in the Wikipedia link above). Nor is there any explanation of why this story is being told only now; the incident occurred in September.
But cultural, and religious appropriation do occur, all the time, in fact, and sometimes it is insensitive and inappropriate.
(Sometimes, as with hatha yoga, appropriation may also be viewed by groups -- some Christians, for example -- as a slippery theologically slope to be avoided. But that's another story).
Journalists, and in particular religion reporters who cover a beat that's as sensitive as any, need to discern where the line falls between appropriate and inappropriate expressions of this sort of borrowing.
I understand being upset by cultural/religious appropriation.
As a Jew, I feel annoyance when Christians, by way of example, wanting to celebrate a Passover Seder -- or as they might regard it, a reenactment of the Last Supper -- don skullcaps and Jewish prayer shawls, and blow the ram's horn instrument known as a shofar used in certain Jewish prayer services, and do so in an inappropriate manner out of sheer ignorance or insensitivity.
Yet as a firm believer in pluralism and religious liberty, I also accept their right to act in the manner that annoys me -- as long as they treat me the same way.
Moreover, it's impossible to stuff the syncretism genie back in the bottle today. Technology has made it possible for anyone with the interest to learn all they want about virtually any religious culture or practice. Modernity's pluralistic impulse sanctions religious/cultural cross-pollination in the name of tolerance. And that, to my mind, is not all bad, despite the cringe-inducing incidents that can arise. Besides, nothing here is really new. Humans have been borrowing cultural and religious/spiritual beliefs and practices since -- well, probably for as long as we've been around.
Journalists just need to be able to spot appropriations and know when they might step on someone else's toes. Proceed with care.