Syncretism versus cultural appropriation?
I’ve been mulling around a topic lately that has to do with my own personal practice. Lo and behold, the topic recently came up on Facebook on one of my friend’s pages: Sorita D’Este.
The topic? To quote from Sorita’s page: "When is it ok to take practices and beliefs from a culture other than your own and claim it for yourself?".
My response was, "When you have a tie to the culture through research, ancestory, or calling and you do it with both respect and honesty" and "Syncretism = good; cultural appropriation = not so good, usually".
The range of other responses truly surprised me. They ranged from the likes of "Whenever you feel the urge to!" to "If you adopt a tradition, you should adopt it 100% - no picking off the bits you don't like, no altering it just because you like it better that way. You don't claim it for yourself - what you are doing is theft, no matter how sincere".
After seeing a few of the other responses (especially on the side of "Never!"), I clarified my position by stating, "I think that one of the keys (besides respect and honesty and adaptation) is to make sure that you are not presenting it AS the original practice or within the original cultural practice. There will always be fine lines of what is or isn't appropriate. However, immigrants used syncretism (as opposed to cultural appropriation) in order to adapt to their new culture (sometimes as a survival technique) and created something that wasn't exactly from their origin and wasn't exactly what they were integrating into. Related to both (part of both?) but still unique. Of course, I'm specifically thinking of Italian culture, magic, and witchcraft as it came to the "New World" in the late 1800's/early 1900's with the mass immigration but it applies to a broader topic, too".
I really was startled to see how many folks assumed that syncretism could only equate with something bad. Do they really think that things (spiritual, cultural, or other) exist in a vacuum? Do they think that it's impossibly to blend cultures? Do they assume that it can't be done honestly and intelligently?
I'm for positive syncretism if done with honesty and respect and done knowledgeably. This happens all the time (albeit slowly) with immigrants who integrate to a new culture while holding onto what they find important (and a source of identity) from their old land.
One of the things that we have to remember is that the modern world is far more "international" in our overall culture and flavor that we have been at any time in the past. There WILL always be an interchange and exchange of beliefs and practices. With people immigrating to new countries, they will find themselves in new cultures. The Italian immigrants of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s went through this. They had to find a way to hold onto what they felt was important from "the old country" and balance that with the ways and culture that they were becoming a part of. Today, those American-Italian descendants are American by culture and Italian by ancestry. Many of us are trying to "rediscover" our roots and reintegrate aspects of our ancestry into our modern lives. Not all of what was part of native Italian culture is applicable to us as modern Americans. Some things are and can be smoothly integrated. Some things can’t. So, are we guilty of cultural appropriation of a foreign culture or are we re-integrating our ancestry in a positive syncretic way, or are we abandoning our current culture for the golden ideal of what we think the past ancestral culture was like?
In terms of how this applies to spirituality and specifically to modern Paganism, I don’t think that there is any one, right answer. It’s not clear cut. Part of the reason is that spirituality can be rooted in a culture, can be near inseparable, or can be ONE aspect within a specific culture. Then you need to look at what exactly is being talked about. Are we talking about picking and choosing aspects from the "greater" common culture of that is foreign to your own? What about picking and choosing aspects of a culture that you have immigrated away from? Picking and choosing aspects of the greater culture that you are immigrating TO and integrating them into your life? The religious practices (as opposed to purely social) that are a subset within a culture? Spiritual or magical techniques that seem to be hallmarks of a culture or people? Practices, concepts, and/or techniques that are "Universal" but have different cultural glosses depending on their origin?
Perhaps it's a matter of perspective and time. If we're talking about the time frame when something is integrated, is it cultural appropriation? When does it transform to becomming part of the culture or ok? After 5 years? 10? 50? 100? Our own American Culture is syncretic and pluralistic by it's nature.
Basically, it is not so clear-cut as many folks on the extreme ends make out. The only two bits of advice that I have for modern pagans struggling with this concept is: 1) be honest with what it is, where it came from, and the part that you play in it; and 2) do your research and really understand what you are doing and what "it" represents in the original culture.