One thing that stood out in my eyes when I read Young's Cultural Appropriation and the Arts was his use in several places of the word 'distortion' to describe a form of threat to cultures, because I wasn't sure precisely what he could mean by it if he was to avoid a dubious essentialism for culture: given that a culture will typically undergo quite unpredictable changes as it's transmitted from place to place and from generation to generation, how can one legitimately describe some change in a culture as a distortion, without making the questionable assumption that a culture is a phenomenon with some sort of natural trajectory of development? I'm not sure the putative answer I'm developing here is the one Young may have had in mind, but it should slot into my own concerns about the role of information as an element of heritage objects by exploring problems that may arise precisely because of the lack of an essence for a culture beneath its appearance.
The point of interest is that a group may be mistaken about the relationship between its culture at t1 and its culture at t2. A t2 culture might function as an effective distortion of a t1 culture through misapprehension about origins of t2 in t1.
To begin with, there are possible cases of misinterpretation of historical evidence. Professor Scarre suggested the Richard III Society, which believes that the King's reputation has been unjustly blackened, as an example of what he considered a dubious treatment of history: the object of his concern seems to be not so much the veracity of the Society's claims (for as I pointed out, Mill offers a clear line of reply to that) but the sense that they play 'games' with history without treating it as 'merely' a game.
Historical revision is frequently controversial, and unease about making history a 'game' seems positively mild compared to the polemical and legislative reactions to 'Holocaust denial'; but what about the implications for 'heritage'? If there's a source of concern here, it's probably that someone's heritage could in effect be tainted—that is, that imposing a dubious interpretative structure upon a t1 culture when interpreting evidence of it at t2 could confer disvalue upon it. We might wish to say, for example, that the Nazis' construction of a German race myth actually besmirched German folklore, the history of the Teutonic Knights, and so on, not through making an retroactive changes to what happened (which would be impossible), but through the way in which they appropriated and distorted historical treatment of t1 in forming a mythology for their own unpleasant t2 culture. At a smaller scale, take the way in which Nietzsche's reputation had to be effectively rescued from the association with Nazism his sister had created for it: his work surely deserves to be preserved and disseminated because of its philosophical insight, but its actual dissemination had been polluted with a line of interpretation which was misleading and worse. This can be fairly considered bad not only for Nietzsche's posthumous reputation but also for our philosophical heritage. On the face of it, then, it does seem plausible that heritage could be misrepresented while still being preserved and disseminated.
Simply being of dubious scholarly integrity, however, can't be sufficient to make a treatment of some item of heritage morally alarming. When Archaeology.org ran its spoof article 'Zombie Attack at Hierakonpolis: Weighing the Evidence For and Dating of Solanum Virus Outbreaks In Early Egypt', this was clearly a wildly playful approach to interpreting historical evidence—and for exactly this reason it was recognised as simply a joke. Minimally, there should presumably be some credible risk that people will be misled; additionally (here again with a nod to Mill) it might be desirable to distinguish between scholarly mavericks speaking with personal authority, on the one hand, and on the other e.g. the ex officio action of a Ministry of Education, with distinctive influence over the way in which the whole debate is communicated in schools. The one looks like a paradigmatic participant in the marketplace of ideas; the other (though it may in fact neither prevent challenges to its output nor restrict access to the materials which make such challenges possible) is in a position of dominant influence. The maverick's arguments are more easily contested by other scholars.
We can reasonably assume that falling into false belief is typically an undesirable thing, but what dangers could befall someone's heritage? When Young talks about risks of 'distortion', part of his idea seems to be that a people might be misrepresented not (only) to outsiders but to itself, and come to misunderstand its own culture through absorption in outsiders' perspectives.
Thomas Hurka is among those who have argued that a culture could be distorted if outsiders engage in subject appropriation [sc. taking aspects of some other culture as one's subject matter]. He is particularly concerned about the danger that small, indigenous cultures will be overwhelmed by the voices of outsiders. He considers the case of a white author who writes about a First Nation culture and, through ignorance, distorts the culture's symbols. 'If the white's novel is read by Natives, they too may understand the symbols inauthentically. The Native artist then can't speak even to his or her own people.' Native artists will have lost some of their cultural identity. They and, perhaps, some of their audience will be partly assimilated into the majority culture. This strikes Hurka (and me) as objectionable harm.
Given that Young presents this as a risk (if it is a serious risk, which he actually doubts (p. 120)) posed by majority to minority cultures (p. 119), this line of argument (devised to apply principally to artistic appropriation) presumably cannot be applied directly to the case of e.g. Richard III, where no insider/outsider distinction is raised. Yet both cases turn on questions of accurate representation/interpretation in some respect. Young's concern is with assimilation: the aim of preserving the distinctiveness of the minority culture is served through requiring it to be represented accurately. The Richard III case, on the other hand, is a difference of interpretation between insiders rather than between insiders and outsiders. Where the cases are similar, on the other hand, is in their arising from indirect access to the information contained in items of heritage (historical sources or cultural symbols) and the need for interpretation which can go wrong. We don't have direct access to the past in which Richard III existed, only to the sources; and the Young/Hurka case suggests that people can experience a kind of estrangement from their distinctive culture which leads to their assimilation into another, through a sort of interpretative breakdown in which the ability to interpret cultural 'symbols' is lost.
What exactly differentiates a mistake from a creative reinterpretation? In some cases such a distinction may not make a significant difference: the full risk in the Hurka/Young case is that inaccurate attempts at interpretation, or making use of heritage without making a serious attempt to understand it to begin with, might begin to overwrite the original significance of the heritage items in question in popular consciousness. (An alternative line of thought is that what we can call a misinterpretation is simply wrong—like the most creative of false etymologies, a pretty myth to have in one's culture, but in no way to be confused with the facts of the matter.) Here we might say that the new signification has some genuine currency in (some) culture, despite its origins, just by virtue of its dissemination – perhaps this is why the Young/Hurka case posits a misinterpretation which originates as a cross-cultural appropriation and is then reimported from outside, rather than emerging as an innovation within the culture whose symbols are misinterpreted – but also that, whatever its merits and acceptance as a cultural phenomenon in its own right, it lacks genuine continuity with the original culture on which it drew.
Even supposing, though, that there exists in principle a binary division between a sharp break in continuity of understanding, as e.g. when some commentator simply gets and disseminates the wrong end of the stick, and the sort of change and development that is ordinarily seen in cultures over time, should be expect such a distinction to be identifiable? Besides the question of when a claim about the origins of some t2 practice at t1 are warranted, there's the related epistemological question of how anyone can tell: the central harm of Young/Hurka 'distortion', after all, is precisely that the people whose is the originating culture lose epistemic access to their own cultural heritage.
There's a further complication: the state of a culture at t2 may bear a strong resemblance to that of t1, but by virtue of being so preserved for reasons which may invite suspicion. One writer who has recently considered – and in the end rejected – the possibility of distinguishing 'authentic' from inauthentic cultural expressions is Burke A. Hendrix. The following is from his 'Authenticity and Cultural Rights' in Journal of Moral Philosophy 5, pp. 199-200 (actually rather more focussed on practical policy considerations than one might expect in a philosophical journal):
Do 'minority nations' or 'minority cultures' deserve customized political protections? Part of the answer may depend on what we believe the character of the claimants to be. Are the identities at stake merely political artifacts, created by 'ethnic entrepreneurs' seeking wealth and political power, or are they 'authentic' expressions of an ongoing collective life? This essay will argue that the real character of groups is generally difficult to recognize, and that 'authenticity' is a problematic notion even in the abstract.
As far as I can tell, the closest Hendrix comes to defining cultural authenticity is in his phrase 'actually different in the right kind of ways' (p. 191), where the 'right kind of ways' seem to be determined circumstantially: 'Are the Pintupi still "authentically" different if state laws help to keep them that way?' (p. 190) The idea seems to be this: political, legal and other circumstances may make it advantageous for a group for its culture to appear to have, and hence actually to take, a form which is held together more through these external nudges than through the persistence of any inner cultural life; and when, for example, a legal regime which rewards the persistence of outward signs of traditional, indigenous distinctiveness props up cultural forms which would otherwise have passed into history or developed differently, an examination of minority cultures existing as legally protected bubbles may begin to feel like a tour of Barn County. In effect, the culture itself becomes a sort of socio-legal theme park, whereupon it becomes questionable whether it is actually deserving of preservation, etc. It's tricky to judge how closely related such a predicament might be to Young/Hurka distortion, but both involve a kind of sharp, yet subtle, estrangement from a culture's prior state as a result of outsiders' actions. Suppose some inauthentic culture remains undistorted and therefore can still understand and employ symbology as it did in its authentic state: are we in a position to be certain we know that this is so, if Hendrix inauthenticity and Young/Hurka distortion are both associated with outsiders' involvement with the culture's forms? Laws aiming at cultural protection, after all, will necessarily incorporate some conception of what forms that culture takes, no less than will the sort of artistic appropriation Young has written about—and this opens up the possibility that outsiders' misunderstandings will have proved influential, and so may make it difficult to identify the still-undistorted cultures. (No wonder Hendrix rejects the notion of cultural authenticity as too problematic for public policy rationales.)
I have to concur with Hendrix's judgment that cultural authenticity thus construed is a problematic notion, since the question once again follows: when a culture can change over time without having its trajectory pre-charted, what does it mean to worry about a 'cultural entrepreneur's' influence on people who did allow their culture to be influenced (for whoever's gain), or to question the 'authenticity' of identity constrained by externally made laws when the concrete reality of those laws contributes to the actual form a culture takes? Once again, I think that if there is a response to be made it will involve the relation between the original and theme-park stages of a culture's existence: the theme-park stage is 'inauthentic' because it is founded on pretence, and perhaps self-delusion, about the state of its relation to the earlier stage.
Of course, this in itself doesn't explain what's wrong with that. That a culture may not fully recognise what external constraints keep it the way it is does not necessarily condemn it to produce nothing of value (in whatever respect its products might be culturally valuable). Indeed, it's perhaps difficult to come up with a means of judging the products of such a culture from outside it without risk of sounding terribly like tourists in pursuit of the real exotic cultural experience.
Here my concerns about social epistemology rear their heads again: the question of whom to consult when investigating the moral patiency of cultural items becomes clearly awkward when one may be worrying not only about whose a culture is, but about who has it 'authentically'. In order to know whom we can consider authorities on the culture in question, and to avoid being misled by 'cultural entrepreneurs' and people who have lost understanding of its 'symbols', it seems we may need some criteria which surpass simply looking for those who live in the manner of the culture as we outsiders can perceive it; but how are we to identify such criteria of authenticity and hence epistemic authority without already being able to access the authentic cultural understanding which authentic insiders hopefully possess? It isn't clear how we might bootstrap our way to sorting the genuine authorities from those inauthentically resembling them.
Such difficulties perhaps motivate adoption of criteria of identification which employ genealogical or otherwise objective matters of fact about people as a proxy for facts about the cultures associated with their bloodlines. Hendrix, indeed, takes pains to criticise requirements that in order to receive especial legal treatment
tribes must demonstrate biological descent from a population historically recognized as Indian. To put the matter bluntly, it is hard to see why mere genealogy should count. Would the group's character be less authentic if, over the span of a hundred years, they had adopted a majority of members with no biological relationship but who accepted the group's values entirely? It is hard to see how mere biological descent can either destroy or create cultural difference. The obvious reason for the inclusion of this criterion is that Indian tribes are virtually the only group in the United States allowed an extensive set of cultural rights, and because 'Indian' remains a substantially racial category. But there is no obvious moral reason why 'groupness' and cultural protection should be regarded as inherited in this way, and such a focus on race is troubling on many grounds.
There are two likely justifications for limiting the groups eligible for cultural rights in this way, which work best in tandem. The first is that American Indians have often been mistreated specifically because of their race, so that 'extra' protections in this instance are a form of reparative justice, to remediate insofar as possible the continuing effects of this history. The second, and more clearly important for this essay, is that cultural rights must have some sort of limits to prevent an explosion of groups seeking to profiteer, and that recognizing those eligible by descent is one legally determinate way of doing this.
My immediate reaction to this was to think: surely the relevance of biological facts with regard to a given culture depends on the significance the culture itself invests in them. For example, plenty of cultures incorporate characteristics which hold gender to be significant in one way or another, and British culture attributes a special importance to the royal bloodline; it seems no less coherent that one should attribute significance to ancestry as a criterion of properly being able to call that culture one's own. Other cultures might opt instead for the 'technically a dwarf' school of enculturation, but they don't have to.
The difficulty, again, is epistemological: to know what and whom a given culture takes to be significant, one needs access to authoritative sources of knowledge, which means that one will require advisors with undistorted understanding of the culture—and hence in turn that one has to be able to identify them without oneself having such privileged knowledge.