Friday, 31 October 2008

Halloween: some random musings

A group of five kids just came to my door, trick or treating. Except for a wee guy aged six or seven, they were in their early teens. I'd never been visited by trick or treaters before, and I was taken by surprise. All I could find to give the youngsters was a bag of unexciting Farmbake biscuits. Their dismay at this shite bounty was painfully obvious. Nonetheless, they politely thanked me (even the girl who rejected my offered biscuits). The Grim Reaper amongst them told me cordially that he would not be stealing my soul, and the trick or treaters went off into the un-scary late afternoon sun.

The kids' visit made me feel even guiltier about refusing to allow my own daughter to go trick or treating. She's been preemptively nagging me about it for some months now. I've got a range of philosophical and other concerns which I've been wrestling with, as only a namby pamby liberal leftie feminist can. Number one is safety. I just don't like the idea of letting kids roam the streets seeking goodies from strangers, whether or not they're accompanied by adults. Number two is dignity. I don't feel at all comfortable asking for food from strangers (particularly not in my poor neighbourhood). But the thing I dislike most about Halloween - and I admit it's kind of irrational - is that it's another cultural import from the USA, brought to us by the telly, and with no relevance to NZ whatsoever. When there's so much kiwi stuff stuff we could be celebrating, it's rather odd to draw on foreign concepts for inspiration.

In my day (and here I go sounding old and crusty) we celebrated Guy Fawkes. That was dumb for a host of reasons: it was a commemoration of an irrelevant, centuries-old gory event from the other side of the world, replete with horrible injuries from fire crackers. I still feel nostalgic about it, though (except for the horrible injuries), and look on Halloween as a kind of frivolous imposter.




Halloween is not the only thing to make it here from the US. Opposition to this pagan carry-on from fundamentalist Christians also seems alive and well. My daughter came home from school with a flyer promoting a 'Saints and Angels' party. Kids were invited to come dressed as their favourite saint or angel, and Halloween costumes were strictly forbidden. For f&#k's sake, I thought to myself - how many saints and/or angels can the average kid name? How many can the average grown up name? I'm stuck on two angels (unless you include Lucifer before The Fall, which the organisers of this event would likely disapprove of), and most of the saints I can think of died in hideous ways. I would not consider it good taste to dress up my daughter as St Catherine being tortured on a wheel, for example.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with dressing up and having fun, and I try not to let my dour politics turn me into a complete killjoy. I just didn't like the options on offer - indulging in the culturally alien consumerist silliness of Halloween itself, or hanging out with the nervously Satan-fearing puritans at the 'Saints and Angels' party. My daughter and I reached a compromise position: she was allowed to have a few friends over for a Halloween party. The kids painted their faces, ate junk food and watched a kids' doco about bugs. I wouldn't say that it was particularly scary; but with the possibility of a National government looming, we've got all the fear we need in our lives right now.


37 comments:

Brett Dale said...

Not everything that comes out of USA Cultural is Bad.

They have given the world some great artists and thinkers.

The music of Garth Brooks, The Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson,Lucinda Williams speaks to Equality for all.

Hugh said...

I presume your dislike of culturally irrelevant events from other parts of the world doesn't extend to celebrations like Diwali, Ramadan etc etc?

Nikki said...

Ah, I quite like Halloween/Samhain. And I think if you learn about it and teach your kids about the meaning behind it, it's relevant all over the world. Maybe I'm just outing my obsession with paganism/wicca. heh.

Anyway, good, brief background post here: http://mamauktalesfromwales.blogspot.com/2008/10/samhain-halloween.html

So while I'm not sure I support trick or treating, I do see the link with the pagan stuff and like the idea of connecting with the spirits that have moved on.

ideologicallyimpure said...

For f&#k's sake, I thought to myself - how many saints and/or angels can the average kid name? How many can the average grown up name?

Well, our house definitely doesn't count as average, seeing as the SO is a dedicated In Nomine roleplayer.

And you know, I hardly think it's xenophobic or racist (as hugh's comment could be seen to imply) to reject US-centric Halloween customs, and no fucking parallel to Diwali, or the Lantern Festival, because those are part of living New Zealand-based cultures. Not, "let's do what all the characters we watch on TV do even though we have no historic cultural attachment to it".

Besides which, there's the logistical problem - by no means are all NZ households kitted out with a trick-or-treating stash of sweets on October 31st. So not only are there the begging-for-food-from-strangers issue, there's the presumption that other people are somehow failing a Great Social Expectation by not going along with it.

homepaddock said...

I'm with you Anna - it might have worked in the USA years ago when everyone knew their neigbours, kids made their costumes, the adults they visited would have been happy to receive see them and the only other celebrations were Chirstmas, birthdays and (in the US) Thanksgiving.

But here and now the costumes are almost always bought and the adults are strangers. It's not about creativity and neighbrouhood friendliness - i'ts just another excuse in mindless consumerism.

The difference between this and eg Diwali & Ramadan is that they are celebrated by people for whom its part of their culture and adds mulitcultural threads to our social fabric.

Halloween is driven not by culture but retailers.

Tui said...

Also, Hugh, Ramadan and Diwali are religious/cultural festivals celebrated by limited numbers of people, much like Christmas (except without the public holidays and totally consuming hysteria, but I feel strongly that this is a matter of scale. I have never had to work on Christmas because there have always been people who do not celebrate Christmas working with me, for example.) If Hallowe'en was publically celebrated by Wicca et al as Samhain (Erm, I know Wicca is nature-based, does it celebrate autumn holidays in autumn in NZ or the reverse?) it's very unlikely, IMO, that there would be any objections (except by the conservative Christians, whose import I find as concerning as anyone?)

That being said, there probably are plenty of people in NZ who do have cultural attachment to Hallowe'en (US immigrants, for example; and, I mean: television is a cultural medium and it does affect us.)

Finally, I am as paranoid about cultural imperialism as anyone - but, guys, it's chocolate or lollies, plus costumes. Lollies and costumes. In what possible world are there preteens who can resist this? I just don't think it's that sinister and, you know... it's kind of fun. I don't feel the need to reject having some fun because it's maybe not my culture.

dave said...

Call me an old fart (is 45 old?) but I dont appreciate children and their parents, who I do not know, knocking on my door wanting food. for goodness sake its friday night I had beer and pizza and a DVD and then strangers kept knocking at my door!

Hugh said...

I hardly think it's xenophobic or racist (as hugh's comment could be seen to imply) to reject US-centric Halloween customs, and no fucking parallel to Diwali, or the Lantern Festival, because those are part of living New Zealand-based cultures.

So the thousands of New Zealanders of American descent don't constitute a New Zealand-based culture?

The difference between this and eg Diwali & Ramadan is that they are celebrated by people for whom its part of their culture and adds mulitcultural threads to our social fabric.

So you'd have a problem with Diwali and Ramadan if a bunch of Pakeha saw them on television, thought they were cool, and suddenly started celebrating them despite not having any Hindu or Muslim friends to celebrate with?

I also think you're underestimating the degree to which Ramadan and Diwali are driven by retailers. I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that purveyors of Ramadan-friendly food make a killing at the appropriate time of year, ditto retailers of fireworks on Diwali.

Also, Hugh, Ramadan and Diwali are religious/cultural festivals celebrated by limited numbers of people, much like Christmas

And Halloween isn't celebrated by limited numbers of people? Is the implication here that a holiday is only problematic if it's celebrated by literally everybody? I don't really think that's a possibility.

Personally, the only people I know who work through Christmas do it for the money.

Anna said...

I'm with Dave. As HP notes, the community aspect of Halloween hasn't made it over here with the trappings. All you're left with is kids in silly hats purchased from the Warehouse interrupting you while you try to have a quiet night in front of the telly.

Anonymous said...

Well before kids I used to be very staunch about everything - my kids would not have barbies, celebrate commercialism etc. Well that bit me on the bum having three girls!!! I ended up relenting on the barbies - they know how I feel about them and even they joke when they lose heads or accidently remove barbies face with nail polish remover. We do play around with halloween but it's a local thing and the girls get our old shed looking scary and then scare themselves and their friends shitless with stories. our neighbour is american and a witch and right into halloween so it's great fun for them. We don't bother strangers at doors cos we just go to people we know. You could put up a sign telling kids to piss off, that would do it!

I guess for me, it's just dress ups - I would prefer to do it on 30 April when it is our Autumn but I can't convince my kids to do it then. I have a great book called celebrating the southern seasons where you can celebrate ritual in time with our seasons.

Sometimes as parents we do have to compromise and negotiate with our kids and maybe i have learnt to take stuff less seriously then when I was in my 20's.

ideologicallyimpure said...

Wow, hugh. You might have a point there if we all ignored the fact that trick-or-treating differs radically from other cultural celebrations in that it necessarily affects the wider community and neighbourhood. When Anna, or dave, or any number of people I know are having people presume they are taking part, or that there is an expectation that they be prepared to take part, it's obnoxious.

Nobody's ever hassled me for not fasting during daylight for Ramadan, nobody's ever been disappointed that I haven't gone to Diwali celebrations. Heck, none of the Wiccans I've known have expected me to attend there Samhain/Beltane celebrations as a matter of course, and the major television channels and retail outlets have never given the impression that any of those should be a part of our culture. There's a world of difference there.

Lucy said...

As a student flat in an area with families, we also face this problem; we tend to solve it by putting up a sign saying we don't do Halloween and shutting the curtains. It's a bit blunt, I know, but we don't know any of our neighbours and don't really want to be asked for sweets by random kids all night.

However, when I lived with my parents, all the families would organise to take the kids around the neighbourhood to their houses, and that was fine. It works in neighbourhoods where everyone knows each other, but asking strangers for food strikes me as a bit, I don't know...rude, especially when it's basically a commercialised import. And it's that obligation - which no other festival imposes - that I dislike. There's also all the other stuff about it being an autumn festival and meant to be done in the dark, but we manage well enough with Guy Fawkes', so that's more of a quibble.

Emma said...

Erm, I know Wicca is nature-based, does it celebrate autumn holidays in autumn in NZ or the reverse?

I'm a Wiccan. The 31st of October is Beltaine Eve. Celebrating the feast of the Dead in Spring would be completely arse about face. I do NOT appreciate having kids dressed as 'witches' turn up on my doorstep on the night of the Fertility festival.

We have teenagers turn up to the door here without costumes, which I'm pretty sure is just Demanding with Menaces.

I date my ridiculous fangrrl crush on David Haywood from the day I read this column:
http://www.publicaddress.net/default,2664.sm#post

ms poinsettia said...

Just want to chime in that I too think Halloween is a different kettle of fish to other festivals and holidays. I certainly didn't get any feeling from Anna's post that she thought Halloween shouldn't be celebrated at all by those groups of people who see it as part of their cultural or spiritual identity. More that it's (in its traditional expression) the sort of celebration that relies on widespread community support which it doesn't have here in NZ. I too feel annoyed at people knocking on my door asking for candy. When I was a kid I once got invited to the American Base to participate in trick or treating and it was great fun - but it worked because it was held within a community invested in the idea of Halloween. The commercialisation aspect of Halloween can seem more crass in NZ than other celebrations because for many there's not the cultural traditions underpinning the spending spree:)

On a tangent, I also often find the dress-up part of Halloween depressing - such as the woman in Welly who love Halloween and was in the news recently boasting about her lawn display including "the mother-in-law" and 'MOnica" (as in Lewinsky).

The ex-expat said...

I am going to go against the grain and say that I love Halloween. But then it is one of the few 'Canadian' things my family does outside of real maple syrup.

When my sister and I were kids we were fortunate to live on a cul-de-sac so were lucky to know our neighbours well enough that they were warned in advance about the upcoming visitors and most of them knew us well enough to be happy to join in. My parents also hosted a number of halloween bashes over the years.

Next year I'll probably carve a pumpkin with the suit's daughter but there is lots of fun apple bobbing and silly games associated with halloween that I've enjoyed that I'm glad to hand down.

Tui said...

So you'd have a problem with Diwali and Ramadan if a bunch of Pakeha saw them on television, thought they were cool, and suddenly started celebrating them despite not having any Hindu or Muslim friends to celebrate with?

I can't speak for homepaddock but yeah, I would have a problem with it, I would identify it as cultural imperialism and appropriation.

And Halloween isn't celebrated by limited numbers of people? Is the implication here that a holiday is only problematic if it's celebrated by literally everybody?

My suggestion is that there is a distinction between Diwali and Ramadan, which are part of a specific cultural heritage and celebrated by people of that cultural or religious heritage, and Hallowe'en (as it is currently celebrated) which is celebrated by people more or less at random. The point about it affecting other people is accurate, although I feel that it's kind of exaggerated (we lived in a neighborhood with tonnes of kids, my mother hates Hallowe'en, we put up a sign every year and that was all we heard of it. No hate mail or anything!)

I don't know. I guess I feel that it's harmless, and since whatever inconvenience it may cause can be easily avoided, why the fuss?

Tui said...

Personally, the only people I know who work through Christmas do it for the money.

Personally, the only people I know who work through Christmas are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and/or recent immigrants or international students of indeterminate religious persuasion who have no family; plus one or two who do it for the money. (In other words: yeah, but you don't work at a convenience store.)

muerk said...

To be fair Halloween _does_ have a religious aspect for Catholics. It's All Hallows Eve because November 1st is All Saints (Hallows) Day where we celebrate the feast of the saints in Heaven. On November 2nd it's All Souls Day.

November is the month where we are liturgically focused on praying for the souls of the dead in Purgatory. At my local church we have a display of all those from our parish who have died this year and a box to put slips of paper in with our beloved dead's names written so that we can pray for them. It's the time when we visit cemeteries and think about our losses.

In a wider, more sociological way, I think it's good to take some time to face our mortality and remember our dead. It's another part of our existence that is celebrated, along with birth, coming of age and marriage.

I disagree with trick or treating unless it's something an entire community buys into, but the scary and festive aspects of Halloween are something authentically human.

Anna said...

You're right Muerk - there's nothing at all wrong with reflecting on death. My daughter came home from school with homework involving thinking about people in our family who have died (the school's religious ed curriculum is obviously tied in with the church calendar), and I thought it was a good thing. We talked about the lives of her grandparents, the kind of people they were, etc. She enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. That reflective aspect certainly hasn't survived in Halloween as most kids celebrate it, though. This is kind of a shame. In a society in which people expect to be able to purchase good health and longevity, I think it is healthy to consider death.

Even though Halloween is the eve of All Saints Day, that's presumably not where the imagery we associate with Halloween comes from. Is this pagan in origin as the fundies would have us believe?

muerk said...

I'd say the imagery is just plain human, rather than specifically pagan (although it probably does have those roots). I'm fairly sure it was the Irish who had carved turnips with candles inside and when the Irish immigrated to America it became pumpkins. But then I did find this quaint wee folk tale about who Jack of the Lantern is -

http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Halloween/jack-o-lantern.asp

As a Catholic I'm not bothered by appropriating older local customs into our Catholic culture. So for example Mexican Catholics celebrate The Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos on November the 1st and 2nd, which has it's origins in the previous religious culture. We have fir trees (or scraggly pines in NZ) for Christmas, eggs and rabbits to celebrate Good Friday etc. These are all images appropriate to enriching Christian worship.

I think the deeper point is that we are celebrating our progression through the year and in the Northern Hemisphere the movement through the cycle of seasons. We are reminded of our own life experiences and we hope for something better.

I know these festivals are commercialised, but we don't need to buy into that. For me, I'm surrounded by the Christian meaning of these "feasts", but I think any family or community can create its own relevance to themselves.

glosoli said...

"Hallowe'en (as it is currently celebrated) which is celebrated by people more or less at random."

Much like our other big "religious" festivals, Christmas and Easter?? Festivals are just about having fun and appropriating festivals to local circumstances is what humans have always done and will continue to do.

I wish people wouldn't think so deeply and would just enjoy Halloween for what it is, a chance to interact with the local kids!

Anna said...

There's not much meaningful interaction with the kids, though - or not in my neighbourhood at least. They just stuff their gobs and run! And I feel a bit bad about that too. Some of them clearly don't have good diets as it is.

Anonymous said...

I find a veges-and-dips plate works quite well. Cheap, healthy and (apparently) absolutely terrifying.

Moz

glosoli said...

"I find a veges-and-dips plate works quite well. Cheap, healthy and (apparently) absolutely terrifying."

lol.

Does it have to be food?? My friends made bamboo whistles this year. I went trick or treating when I was a child (only once, when I was staying with my stepmother and father; no way my mother ever would have allowed such a thing) and the best thing we got given (which I still remember, 20 years later) was a pack of double-happies.

glosoli said...

Bamboo whistles to give neighbourhood kids, I mean.

Carol said...

Halloween does have a long and interesting history:

http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=713&display_order=1&mini_id=1076

I had heard that it was transported to the US by Scottish people. Well Halloween does have a Scottish sound to it.

I have no problem with Halloween dress-up parties and have enjoyed the ones I've been to - usually a friendly thing amongst a community of people, out of which I usually know quite a few.

But the whole 'trick or treat' thing seems to be a US innovation that has been turned into a consumerist event, much like the current approaches to Christmas and Easter. As such, I find the commercialised aspects a turn-off. When kids have knocked on my door (very rarely happens), I haven't had clue who they were, Doesn't seem much of a communal thing to me, unlike the original rituals that included communal, non-consumerist acitivities.

I would work on Christmas if it was an option. As it is I am usually one of the few in my workplace to always volunteer to work Christams Eve, on years when it is an option.

I always enjoy the low-key family get together on Xmas Day. Just a day to spend some (non-consumerist) time with family.

It all depends on how it's done IMO.

barvasfiend said...

Two things:

Thing One: Celebrating Halloween as part of an ex pat community's traditions, (like NZ's French community celebrating Bastille Day etc)

Thing Two: The widespread import of a US customary tradition as ubiquitous because it is part of American culture, and looks and feels strangely like television.

See the difference here?

For the record, when I was living in the US, Halloween wasn't just a charade of consumerism - it was about kids having fun. People went to great and creative lengths to decorate their houses and it was a really exciting time. Halloween is great, it's just that it shouldn't be a default setting in NZ because it's American.

Hugh said...

This is really interesting.

Some people are saying they like Halloween because it's community based, some dislike it because it's intrusive.

Some people are saying they like Halloween because it's exotic, some dislike it because it's alien.

Unfortunately people seem to be unable to see past the rhetoric. It seems obvious to me, for example, that when people describe a positive Halloween experience that involves linking up with the neighbourhood kids and when other people describe the unpleasant experience of being badgered by strangers for candy, they are describing the same thing, but from two perspectives. Whether this is characterised positively (community engagement) or negatively (intrusion) is a matter of opinion, although it's interesting to me that many of those who speak positively of building community on other issues seem disinclined to do so in this respect.

What prompted me to comment was the language Anna used - the disparaging reference to Halloween as a "cultural import" and its lack of "relevance to NZ". Usually when I encounter this sort of language it's in reference to Somali or Asian or Pacific Island culture. Personally I find a lot of American culture obnoxious - but to be perfectly frank I find a lot of Asian culture obnoxious as well. Unfortunately, part of standing up for personal freedom is defending practices you don't like, and to me anti-Americanism is the thin end of the wedge - if we start saying US popular culture is to be rejected because of our dislike for US government policy or American people, we're opening a door that is quite hard to close.

Hugh said...

Oh and Tui, I'm reading two things from your reply to my reply:

1) That American, or perhaps more broadly Caucasian, culture cannot be appropriated, and

2) That cultural practices should be limited to those who are members of that culture (eg, Ramadan for Muslims) or have achieved some sort of dispensation from members of that culture.

I've got a few things to say about these, but I thought I would check that this is what you're saying before I shoot my proverbial mouth off.

Tui said...

@Hugh

1. Obviously it is literally possible to appropriate US culture. However, appropriation is something a dominant culture does to a marginalised culture. I do not think that Caucasian culture is marginalised in New Zealand, and I think that American *popular* culture in NZ moves from strength to strength through the rather pervasive influences of TV, music, and film. This is not a priori a bad thing - for example, I don't have a problem with Hallowe'en - but it can be (for example, I *do* have a problem with our increasing gun-culture.)

I also would prefer not to be associated with American-hating. Dude, I love American TV, american music, and I know lots of lovely Americans. I know that there is a culture in New Zealand of disparaging *Americans* as ignorant and *American politics* as corrupt and just generally bad news, and I think this speaks to a complacency all of its own.

2. Yes, absolutely.

Anna said...

Hugh, please don't accuse me of anti-Americanism or xenophobia. It just pisses me off.

My problem is with the culture industry which spreads/sells American cultural products across the world, like any other product in a capitalist market place. The economic preeminence of the US makes it difficult for other cultural traditions to compete in the cultural 'marketplace'. You might note that more people know what Halloween is than know about Matariki for example. I dislike this like I dislike crop-dumping.

I'm not sure why refusing to regard all expressions of culture as equally worthy and relevant to New Zealand is so heretical to you. I don't support female genital mutilation either, and don't really feel much need to apologise for hurting the feelings of any New Zealanders who subscribe to it for cultural reasons.

Tui said...

if we start saying US popular culture is to be rejected because of our dislike for US government policy or American people, we're opening a door that is quite hard to close.

I'm not sure what your exposure is to this kind of thing, but I have never met anyone who opposes the import of popular culture from the US on the grounds that they *don't like Americans.* I think this is actually a straw man you're ascribing to people who have perfectly rational reasons for disliking American popular culture (Unrealistic hyperbeauty; overcommercialisation; emphasis on the perpetuation of violence; emphasis on heteronormativity; etc.)

Hugh said...

Anna, I'm sorry it pisses you off, and I don't mean to accuse you of any personal indulgence in American-hating* or xenophobia. I simply meant to draw attention to the ramifications of some of the language you were using.

I think your example as regards female genital mutilation is a good one. If you were to say that female genital mutilation was irrelevant to New Zealand and had no place here, I would indeed say something, chiefly because to say that would imply fairly strongly that genital mutilation was more acceptable in a non-New Zealand context, something I pretty firmly disagree with.

This is really the crux of my argument. If a cultural practice is bad, to say 'it's got no place here' is to condemn it more weakly than it deserves. If it's good, to say 'it's got no place here' is to dismiss it for no reason.

You do have a good point about the cultural marketplace and American culture's artificial domination of it. This is a problem I often grapple with - we may suspect that a person or community's behaviour are motivated by false consciousness derived from advertising, but it's hard to address this specifically without taking away their agency.

*I should probably disclose I have a pretty strong dislike of Americans, thanks largely to an ex-girlfriend, but it's really irrational and I try to rise above it. Nonetheless if I were to accuse you of this, it'd be at best the pot calling the kettle black.

Hugh said...

Tui, well if all the doom and gloom we hear about America's future prospects as a world power is justified, perhaps we will see the true appropriation of US culture in our lifetime?

Less flippantly, I agree that it's far too easy to tar those who rationally criticise aspects of the USA with anti-Americanism (I remember the 2003 anti-war movement quite well). I wouldn't have felt motivated to say anything if Anna hadn't used the 'cultural import' and 'no relevance to NZ' arguments herself. For the record, I dislike Halloween intensely, and this is in part what makes me want to stick to my guns here - it'd be personally very easy of me to rejoice in finding somebody who agrees with me. Unfortunately I actually feel more responsibility to challenge people who agree with me for the wrong reasons than people who disagree.

As for the two points, I mostly agree with the first one, although I think any discussion of appropriationism needs to sit within a dialogue that talks more broadly about community trauma among minorities.

I guess the problem I have with the second point is that it assumes a monolithic identity to minority communities. In almost every single case where something that can be identified as appropriationism occurs, approaches to that appropriationism within the minority community run the full gamut from acceptance to hostility, with a large helping of indifference. It's impossible for the potential appropriationist ever to get wholesale approval; the best s/he can hope for is selective approval mixed with general apathy.

Given that minority apathy to appropriationism is usually created by preoccupation with other issues, such as child mortality, access to healthcare and economic opportunity etc, can appropriationism ever really be avoided until the entire minority community is in a position of absolute equality, and can afford to turn its attention to cultural matters?

Tui said...

This is really the crux of my argument. If a cultural practice is bad, to say 'it's got no place here' is to condemn it more weakly than it deserves. If it's good, to say 'it's got no place here' is to dismiss it for no reason.

Suggestion: some cultural practices may be good in some places, and bad in other places. (For example, a cultural practice of sitting on tables would be neutral overseas, but understood as disrespectful here. There is nothing intrinsic about sitting on tables that is good or bad, it's a way we modify our behaviour in line with the different cultures we're in. Or, for example, not eating certain kinds of meat is neutral here, but may be good places where, say, chickens all have birdflu. (Silly example, I know, but I'm trying for religion neutrality here.))

Tui said...

I wouldn't have felt motivated to say anything if Anna hadn't used the 'cultural import' and 'no relevance to NZ' arguments herself.

Fair enough. I usually read these responses within the context of frustration with the cultural imperialism that American pop culture presents, and its associated baggage, so I don't find them as problematic as you do (although I agree that the bare statements "it's bad because it's different" do not present a coherent argument.)

I guess the problem I have with the second point is that it assumes a monolithic identity to minority communities. In almost every single case where something that can be identified as appropriationism occurs, approaches to that appropriationism within the minority community run the full gamut from acceptance to hostility, with a large helping of indifference.

This is exactly why I feel that we should err on the side of caution in terms of our interactions with cultures that are not our own - for example, I've read a few debates about wearing a particular style of Indian clothes (I think it's called kalwar shameez, but I could be so wrong.) Some people feel strongly that clothes are clothes are clothes and they should be able to wear what they want, and point out that they have plenty of Indian friends who wouldn't have a problem with what they're doing ("some of my best friends are Maori" revisited!). Other people point out that that they have to look at what they're engaging in within the broader picture of cultural imperialism and appropriation, and the marginalisation, consumption, and commercialisation of many cultures. Wearing things like kalwar shameez is engaging in the production of non-white cultures as objects of consumption rather than cultures of equality. My single exception to this would be someone who married into this culture. It is, again, not a total pass, but I think it's a compromise. And it's a convenient dividing line for me.

As for whether appropriation can be avoided until a culture is in a position of equality - well, no. But I think that appropriation contributes to the perpetuation of *inequalities*.

Hugh said...

But leaving that aside, what you're discussing isn't actually about location, it's about community. To say that sitting on a table is inappropriate in New Zealand but not, say, Australia is to say that somebody visiting a Maori cultural group in Sydney or London could happily sit on the table because, hey, they're in Australia. Or, to look at it the other way around, if I want to sit in the table in my own home, it's not really disrespectful to anybody.

I can accept that one should shape one's practices according to the people affected by them, even if one doesn't agree with them. Personally I think the don't-sit-on-tables thing is simply cultural germophobia, but I don't try and change people's minds about it any more than I would start going on about how god isn't real if attending a religious wedding. But to say 'I am in New Zealand, thus I should behave this way', I can't abide by that. And never mind whether I (white heterosexual middle class male and all that) should abide by that - what about immigrants and refugees? Are we truly to expect arriving from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe to start behaving in a New Zealand way once they're in New Zealand?

Regarding reading responses in the context of frustration at American pop culture, fair enough, but this relates to what I'm saying about the thin end of the wedge. I hate to harp on about my own experiences but I think I can say I am well positioned to understand visceral anti-Americanism. But principles always break down beginning with the most obnoxious examples. It's like free speech - if you're not prepared to defend its most offensive incarnations you're not really prepared to defend it at all.

Your example of the Kalwar is a good one, although not one I've personally encountered. The need for caution is obviously well noted, but I think the broader implications of a conservative stance towards appropriation on the part of ethnic majorities need to be considered. The best way to avoid appropriationism is to simply retreat into one's own cultural practices. If we want to have a multicultural society the barriers to white adoption of non-white culture can't be too high. Nor is it fair to force the role of cultural gatekeepers on members of the minority - particularly if we're also placing on them the responsibility of critiquing what needs to be critiqued within their own culture.

But there's one issue that is probably closer to the heart of this discussion that I think needs to be considered. You've said:

This is exactly why I feel that we should err on the side of caution in terms of our interactions with cultures that are not our own

I presume the 'we' doesn't necessarily mean 'white New Zealanders' but more broadly 'members of the dominant culture in a first world country'. The question that this thread really hinges on is this - is American popular culture, as exemplified by Halloween, 'our' culture? You've said that you feel television is a valid cultural influence, and I agree. But you've also used the terms 'white/caucasian culture' and 'American culture' in what seems to me to be an interchangeable manner. So, ultimately, when celebrating Halloween, is there a need to be respectful, or can pakeha New Zealanders feel it's 'their' culture, and thus go nuts.