A Philosopher's Blog

Yoga & Cultural Appropriation

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2015

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.



In the fall of 2015, a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa was suspended out of concern that it might be an act of cultural appropriation. Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities, where the class was offered, made this decision on the basis of a complaint.  A Centre official noted that many cultures, including the culture from which yoga originated, “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.”  In response, there was an attempt to “rebrand” the class as “mindful stretching.” Due to issues regarding a French translation of the phrase, the rebranding failed and the class was suspended.

When I first heard about his story, I inferred it was satire on the part of the Onion because it seemed to be an absurd lampooning of political correctness. It turned out that it was real, but still absurd. But, as absurdities sometimes do, it does provide an interesting context for discussing a serious subject—in this case that of cultural appropriation.

The concept of cultural appropriation is somewhat controversial, but the basic idea is fairly simple. In general terms, cultural appropriation takes place when a dominant culture takes (“appropriates”) from a marginalized culture for morally problematic reasons. For example, white college students have been accused of cultural appropriation (and worse) when they have made mocking use of aspects of black culture for theme parties. Some on the left (or “the politically correct” as they are called by their detractors) regard cultural appropriation as morally wrong. Some on the right think the idea of cultural appropriation is ridiculous and people should just get over and forget about past oppressions.

While I am no fan of what can justly be considered mere political correctness, I do agree that there are moral problems with what is often designated as cultural appropriation. One common area of cultural appropriation is that which is intended to lampoon. While comedy, as Aristotle noted, is a species of the ugly, it should not enter into the realm of what is actually hurtful. As such lampooning of cultural stereotypes that cross over into being actually hurtful would cease to be comedic and would instead be merely insulting mockery. An excellent (or awful) example of this would be the use of blackface by people who are not black. Naturally, specific cases would need to be given due consideration—it can be aesthetically legitimate to use the shock of apparent cultural appropriation to make a point.

It can, of course, be objected that lampooning is exempt from the usual moral concerns about insulting people and thus that such mocking insults would be morally fine. It must also be noted that I am making no assertions here about what should be forbidden by law. My view is, in fact, that even the most insulting mockery should not be restricted by law. Morality is, after all, distinct from legality.

Another common area of cultural appropriation is the misuse of symbols from a culture. For example, having an underwear model prance around in a war bonnet is not intended as lampooning, but is an insult to the culture that regards the war bonnet as an honor to be earned. It would be comparable to having underwear models prancing around displaying unearned honors such as the Purple Heart or the Medal of Honor. This misuse can, of course, be unintentional—people often use cultural marks of honor as “cool accessories” without any awareness of what they actually mean. While people should, perhaps, do some research before borrowing from other cultures, innocent ignorance is certainly forgivable.

It could be objected that such misuse is not morally problematic since there is no real harm being done when a culture is insulted by the misuse of its symbols. This, of course, would need to be held to consistently—a person making this argument to allow the misuse of the symbols of another culture would need to accept a comparable misuse of her own most sacred symbols as morally tolerable. Once again, I am not addressing the legality of this matter—although cultures do often have laws protecting their own symbols, such as military medals or religious icons.

While it would be easy to run through a multitude of cases that would be considered cultural appropriation, I prefer to focus on presenting a general principle about what would be morally problematic cultural appropriation. Given the above examples and consideration of the others that can be readily found, what seems to make appropriation inappropriate is the misuse or abuse of the cultural elements. That is, there needs to be meaningful harm inflicted by the appropriation. This misuse or abuse could be intentional (which would make it morally worse) or unintentional (which might make it an innocent error of ignorance).

It could be contended that any appropriation of culture is harmful by using an analogy to trademark, patent, and copyright law. A culture could be regarded as holding the moral “trademark”, “patent” or “copyright” (as appropriate) on its cultural items and thus people who are not part of that culture would be inflicting harm by appropriating these items. This would be analogous to another company appropriating, for example, Disney’s trademarks, violating the copyrights held by Random House or the patents held by Google. Culture could be thus regarded as a property owned by members of that culture and passed down as a matter of inheritance. This would seem to make any appropriation of culture by outsiders morally problematic—although a culture could give permission for such use by intentionally sharing the culture. Those who are fond of property rights should find this argument appealing.

One interesting way to counter the ownership argument is to note that humans are born into culture by chance and any human could be raised in any culture. As such, it could be claimed that humans have an ownership stake in all human cultures and thus are entitled to adopt culture as they see fit. The culture should, of course, be shown proper respect. This would, of course, be a form of cultural communism—which those who like strict property rights might find unappealing.

The response to this is to note that humans are also born by chance to families and any human could be designated the heir of a family, yet there are strict rules governing the inheritance of property. As such, cultural inheritance could work the same way—only the true heirs can give permission to others to use the culture. This should appeal to those who favor strict protections for inherited property.

My own inclination is that humans are the inheritors of all human culture and thus we all have a right to the cultural wealth our species has produced.  Naturally, individual ownership of specific works should be properly respected. However, as with any gift, it must be treated with due respect and used appropriately—rather than misused through appropriation. So, cancelling the yoga class was absurd.



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26 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 9, 2015 at 10:40 am

    I noticed you used the word “human” nine times. “In human development, a fetus (/ˈfiːtəs/; plural “fetuses”), also spelled foetus, is a prenatal human between its embryonic state and its birth.” (Wikipedia). Would you be willing to say “prenatal human” instead of “fetus”? Most people believe human life is worthy of protection. Including prenatal human life. What sort of appropriation is it when certain peoples say it’s okay — even praiseworthy — to destroy and dispose of prenatal humans before they are born? The prenatal human says to you: “Homo sum”.

  2. TJB said, on December 9, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Mike, where do you stand on belly dancing?

    Why I can’t stand white belly dancers

    Whether they know it or not, white women who practice belly dance are engaging in appropriation

    Randa Jarrar


    • TJB said, on December 9, 2015 at 10:44 am

      What about “I Dream of Jeanie?”

  3. Michael LaBossiere said, on December 9, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Sure, a fetus is a biological human and does have moral status. My moral tolerance of abortion is not based on the view that the fetus has no status. Rather, it is based on the same sort of harsh moral calculation that allows the death of innocents in war on utilitarian moral grounds. I would prefer a world that had no unwanted pregnancies and hence no abortions. That is why I favor health care that covers birth control, sex education, and strong social programs for children and mothers.

    • ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 9, 2015 at 11:24 am

      Can you begin saying “prenatal human” in place of “fetus”?

      You say: “I would prefer a world that had no unwanted pregnancies and hence no abortions.”

      Following your logic, here, couldn’t we also say: “I would prefer a world that had no unwanted Jews and hence no Holocaust.” Or: “I would prefer a world that had no unwanted Muslims and hence no terrorism.”

      It’s the “unwanted” part, here, that should concern us.

      Who’s to say which humans are unwanted?

      No murderer wants his victim, does he?

      No woman who hires a man to kill her husband wants her husband, does she? Is he an unwanted husband?

      Likewise, no woman who hires a man to kill her baby wants her baby.

      She has an unwanted baby, not an unwanted pregnancy.

      You really do love to use euphemisms.

      Just say “unwanted baby”, instead of “unwanted pregnancy” professor.

      You need to examine your own use of logical fallacies. (Google: Argument by Emotive Language; Euphemism)

  4. ronster12012 said, on December 9, 2015 at 10:55 am


    My first thought when i heard about the yoga cultural appropriation story a few weeks back if it was cultural appropriation that would mean that the Indians would have to give up everything they have received from Europeans. No more English as a lingua franca, no motor vehicles, trains, planes, any technology including computers or even a telephone. They can reinstate suttee and carry on as before….

    But it isn’t Indians who are complaining(and if they are too bad. their claims are invalid from the first time an Indian published a yoga book)but rather mentally ill westerners, SJWs etc.

    “It could be contended that any appropriation of culture is harmful by using an analogy to trademark, patent, and copyright law. A culture could be regarded as holding the moral “trademark”, “patent” or “copyright” (as appropriate) on its cultural items and thus people who are not part of that culture would be inflicting harm by appropriating these items.”

    Wouldn’t that be considered wayciss if white people tried that on? If it were being floated as an idea(and I have no doubt some will be trying it in the next few years) it will be just a way try to scam money out of us.
    Screw ’em.

  5. muzzybarker said, on December 9, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    What is a morally unproblematic reason for a dominant culture to take from a marginalized culture?

    • TJB said, on December 9, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      Isn’t that the whole rationale behind multiculturalism and diversity?

      • muzzybarker said, on December 10, 2015 at 9:53 pm


        • TJB said, on December 10, 2015 at 10:56 pm

          Sure it is. Multiculturalism involves learning about and participating in the culture of others.

          • muzzybarker said, on December 11, 2015 at 11:03 am

            You don’t really need to ask questions when you’re satisfied with your own answer.
            The rationale behind multiculturalism is not to have a dominant culture take from marginalized cultures. Cultural dominance impedes multiculturalism.

    • ronster12012 said, on December 10, 2015 at 8:33 am


      Perhaps the first question to be asked is does any one person ‘own’ their culture? If no one person ‘owns’ their culture then who does?

      Thinking of the practicalities,take the yoga example above.Who has the right to either allow non Indians to learn yoga or refuse non Indians to learn yoga?All 1.5 billion Indians? Or a majority? And should there be a vote taken every time a cultural practice is ‘licenced’ for use by outsiders?

      • muzzybarker said, on December 10, 2015 at 9:57 pm

        Those questions aren’t necessary, because it’s never a matter of allowing or forbidding. Everyone is allowed to appropriate.

        • ronster12012 said, on December 11, 2015 at 2:02 am


          That was my point, that no one really owns anything to do with culture.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 10, 2015 at 6:54 pm

      One obvious reason would be because the cultural aspect of the marginalized culture is respected and valued rather than being mocked or abused. For example, a Western artist studying with non-Western artists because she loves and respects their style of art and wishes to learn it.

      • muzzybarker said, on December 10, 2015 at 9:59 pm

        Okay, so it’s a diction issue. I wouldn’t equate learning a practice with taking it.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 11, 2015 at 3:17 pm

          True. One could take appropriation to be negative by nature (like theft or murder) and use other terms like “learn”, “adopt” and so on for the non-negative.

  6. TJB said, on December 10, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    In what sense is mocking or making fun of another culture “appropriating” it? Appropriating means taking for one’s own. It does not mean mocking.

    • TJB said, on December 10, 2015 at 11:00 pm

      White women belly dancing is a good example. I see this as the whole point of multiculturalism.

    • WTP said, on December 10, 2015 at 11:17 pm

      C’mon TJ, it’s not about the words and theyz meanz, it’s about theyz feelz. Alas, it’s a solipsistic thing…you wouldn’t understand.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 11, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      A stock example is when white college kids “appropriate” aspects of what they regard as black culture as mockery. But, you are right to note that mockery is not the same as appropriating. However, I was just going with a common use of the term which is taken to refer to mockery of appropriated cultural stuff.

  7. TJB said, on December 11, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Jazz is a perfect example of how culture evolves. Notice how it started within a “marginalized culture.” Notice how it was appropriated by the “dominant culture.” I see no problem here. It’s all good.

    Jazz is a genre of music that originated in African American communities in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It emerged in the form of independent traditional music and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African American and European American musical parentage with a performance orientation.[1] Jazz spans a period of over a hundred years, encompassing a range of music from ragtime to jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s and 1980s, and has proved to be difficult to define. Jazz makes heavy use of improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation and the swung note,[2] as well as aspects of European harmony, American popular music,[3] the brass band tradition, and African musical elements such as blue notes and African-American styles such as ragtime.[1] The birth of jazz in the multicultural society of America has led intellectuals from around the world to hail jazz as “one of America’s original art forms”.[4]


    • muzzybarker said, on December 12, 2015 at 11:33 am

      So you think cultural appropriation is just evolution. Rock and roll is a better example.

      • TJB said, on December 12, 2015 at 12:06 pm

        I would say that one of the ways culture evolves is via cultural appropriation. Look at how Mexican food has permeated the American diet. We have clearly appropriated the burrito 🙂

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