I attended a cultural diversity training today and was introduced to a new idea. At least, it was the first time the idea was presented in such a head-on fashion. It is the idea of posing.
One example given was that of Madonna and her adoption of the Jewish tradition called Kabbalah. Without really experiencing the full Jewish heritage, the argument goes, Madonna is devaluing Kabbalah by using it for her own purposes.
Here’s an article that argues the point.
I disagree. Strongly. And let me just say I never in a million years thought that I would, in my blog about science and a sense of wonder, be defending Madonna, much less Ashton Kutcher.
I’ve tried looking at this from the other side. What if a cherished bit of my own culture (quantum mechanics, say) were usurped by a pretender? Let’s just say his name is Deepak Chopra. Well, yes, that would bother me – it does bother me, in fact. The great thing about science, though, is that it is a self-correcting mechanism. When Chopra makes some bizarre claim and pretends that modern physics backs him up, someone with actual knowledge of science can use Chopra’s distortions as a teaching moment. Maybe even Deepak himself could learn something (though I won’t hold my breath).
But it’s a mistake to claim that Deepak Chopra somehow devalues science in this way. Science is what it is, and you can get it right or get it wrong (as Chopra does). And getting it wrong is nothing more (and nothing less) than a chance to learn.
Bad Astronomy, one of my favorite websites, is a perfect example of this approach. Instead of using the science blunders in movies to denigrate, criticize, or feign offense, Phil Plait uses these blunders as a chance to teach his readers the amazing world of real (ie good) astronomy. Each mistake is a chance to teach, a chance to learn.
OK, back to Madonna, Kabbalah, and offense. I don’t believe Kabbalah belongs to anyone, any more than science belongs to anyone. I believe we all create our own culture, our own universe. I believe we each adopt the parts of culture that work for us, and reject those that do not.
Some of us more or less accept the culture that is handed down to us, by parents, pastors, etc. Others pick and choose from a variety of ideas. But we’re all making choices. As Albus Dumbledore said, “It is the choices we make that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Oops, there’s some of my chosen culture showing through again. So be it.
I have chosen as an important part of my culture an earthwork in Southern Ohio called Serpent Mount. It is a place that helps me remember who I am and how I relate to this universe that made me, for what reason I do not know. I use Serpent Mound in a way that is, I’m certain, very different from the use intended by the Mound’s creators. Do I denigrate it?
Some would certainly think so. I once attended a program on the Octagon Earthworks in Newark, Ohio. I arrived late and had to stand in the back. While a man (a white man) read a story about the Octagon and how it had affected his life, some Native Americans just in front of me made racial comments about the speaker, clearly unhappy that someone from outside their culture would have adopted the Octagon, as I had the Serpent.
The Native Americans are among the most abused people in history. For white Americans to weep over events like the Holocaust or the genocide in the Sudan, yet not recognize the inhumanity of the intentional spread of smallpox and the Trail of Tears is the height of hypocracy. But I, a white American, am here, now, and my choice is to create a culture in which I can live. I don’t believe that Serpent Mound or the Octagon can belong only to Native Americans, any more than the Holocaust can belong only to those who lost loved ones to that horror.
To finish with two “I never thought I’ds” in the same blog post, there’s a pop singer named Anna Nalick who wrote a song that I especially like. The emotional stinger of the song is this:
“2 AM and I’m still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me,
Threatening the life it belongs to
And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you’ll use them, however you want to”
And this is what creation is all about. A song, a story, a mound of dirt, a tradition. They’re our diaries, our screams into the world. If the world hears our screams (and isn’t that why we scream?) we have to accept that the world will use our creations, perhaps in ways we’d not intended.
The creators of Serpent Mound put something into the world, something that, once there, belonged to us all, just as all art and all science belong to all humanity. I have taken Serpent Mound into my own culture, my own universe. If that offends, teach me. I will try to learn.