08 February, 2017

The Importance of Culture in Stories

Over the years I've found that the kinds of people who scream "CULTURAL APPROPRIATION" are the kinds of people who give progressives and the left wing a bad name. There are cultures, there are people who belong to cultures, there are people to adapt the stories of their own cultures, and there are people who adapt the stories of other cultures. Sometimes the people who adapt the stories of other cultures, do so without understanding the context of those stories, and thus their adaptions ring false, or highlight the wrong things about the culture being presented. When this occurs, I've found it is often due to a lack of understanding more than anything else. Do not attribute to malice, that which could just as easily be attributed to stupidity.

I'm not saying that there aren't people who deliberately twist words to make others look bad, a quick look at modern politics shows this sort of thing at all levels of society; instead I'm saying that a call of "CULTURAL APPROPRIATION" to shut down a potentially useful learning experience is a form of censorship that doesn't help anyone. All communication is a dialogue, and a dialogue becomes more meaningful when the two parties are able to share their information. So the wholesale shutting down of a misguided information stream may have good intentions, but it does nothing to remedy the situation...instead forcing it to fester. Instead the communication need to be analysed and opened up, a deeper understanding needs to be sought. The arties involved in the communication need to identify whether the communicated information is a result of stupidity and lack of education about the subject matter (in which case it can be more correctly informed to make the information more culturally sensitive), or whether that communicated information is deliberately misleading (in which case it can either be used as an example of what not to do, or shut down if it has gone too far).

I write this because I know that I'm going to be getting stuck into my Post Apocalyptic game of Australian Aboriginal spirituality, "Walkabout", some time in the near future. Every time I've done this, some smart-arse has screamed "CULTURAL APPROPRIATION". Yes, I have an ancestry of being a white Australian, an ancestry that stretches back at least four generations of white Australians before heading off in one direction or another to other parts of the world (those at least three quarters of those family tree branches aim back to Scotland). But unlike a lot of stuff written about Australian Aboriginal culture, I can be fairly certain that my knowledge of the generalities and certain specifics will be far more comprehensive than that of anyone who might try to shut down this dialogue. I've now done 3 years of university study into cultural analysis and linguistics, including research work into Australian Aboriginal culture from the perspective of it's artistic communication, and it's dealings with the dominant culture of this country for the past two centuries. I've volunteered with a community of local Elders, living through their politics as they've struggled to gain recognition for the atrocities of the past (some of which was conducted during their lifetimes, to themselves or people they knew), while simultaneously struggling to keep what little they have managed to accomplish (as non-indigenous leeches claim Aboriginality to steal the few government grants and funding sources which are designed to make amends for the past). It's a sad and tragic story, some of which plays out on the media, but only through a very distorted lens.

I've been working with this community of elders as they've tried to set themselves up as a non-profit collective of crafters and social artists. They complain about their children and grandchildren forgetting, or ignoring the past. In a lot of cases they don't have someone who is willing to respect them and learn the traditions that have been passed down through generations. They come from various parts of the state, each region with its own traditions, all collaborating in the local area and bringing their own knowledge to the community. None of them know the full story of their past, because in many cases it was deliberately suppressed by local Christian missions, or government intervention. I've been with them to AITSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies), and have seen some of them try to piece together their fragments of knowledge with any official documentation. I've listened as two elders have told their various stories and found that the gaps could be filled in by each others words to make a more complete picture, then watched those two elders visit a neighbouring community of elders and fill in more fragments of a story through the words of people they'd never met before (but who shared a common bond through third parties). By paying attention, attending barbeques, offering assistance where I can and becoming one of the non-indigenous members of their community, I've learnt things at a more personal level that textbooks tend to gloss over, and most people either don't know or simply ignore. I'll never know the whole story, because in most cases they don't know the whole story, it's an oral tradition that needs to be spoken further and shared so that more of it doesn't get lost. In this regard it's a bit of a race against time, and in an era of consumerism and globalisation I imagine that this is the same for a lot of cultures across the world. I don't have all the answers, so I do what I can.

This is one of the reasons why I really want to get "Walkabout" back up and running... to inject any profits from the game into their community. And it also links into many of the themes I've always intended to explore through the game. Australian Aboriginal communities were very specifically tied to the land, and to the other people who were also tied to a given time and place. Community links are vitally important for identifying who is related to whom, and how the ongoing story of culture has manifested in specific vignette scenes that echo a deeper narrative.  Concerted efforts were made to wipe out Australian Aboriginal culture, so it went underground. The remnants of the culture were forced into a cycle of adapt or perish. The members of the community who still retain elements of their culture are forced to justify their "Aboriginality" because the evolved and fragmentary elements that they have kept bear little resemblance to the "black-fella" narrative promoted by the dominant culture of society. I ask questions of Aboriginal spirituality, and I'm referred to books by white researchers, often with the caveat "This is the best we've got, I know it's not completely right, but most of that stuff is lost". They use words like "Totem" to explain an affinity for a certain animal, knowing it isn't exactly the way their people traditionally viewed the kinship, but it's a concept in wider culture that is pretty close so it works as an anchor for the true meaning. I've had it explained that the numerous deaths at the local Mermaid Pools have all been men because the place is a sacred women's location that the non-indigenous population haven't been respecting (but as a man, I can't be told much more about this). I've been told that I'm allowed to produces images of snakes in a traditional style, but never to draw eyes on these depictions because "we don't want the bastards to see us coming". I've been told lots of other things that shouldn't be written down because they are men's business that women shouldn't know. It may be sexist, but it's specific to the culture. Where do you draw the line between what is traditional and what is progressively promoting a culture? It's one of those issues that the progressives and the left will always have to face, while the conservatives and the right wing will simply say that it doesn't matter and will stomp on the rights of anyone who disagrees with their predefined cultural narrative.  

The biggest catch now is to filter my knowledge and understanding through the right words. To make any players of the game realize that culture is simply a construct of a specific group of people, and any insight I have into Australian Aboriginal matters is a wide sweeping overview painted in the broadest brushstrokes, followed by some sketchy detailing in a very specific part of the world. This was always going to be a political game, it was always going to be about cultural conflict, but the question of what culture is becomes more important.

Now it's just a case of starting the writing process again.
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