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Monday, 28 December 2015

Cultural Appropriation: A Hoax Waiting to Happen

When I was a British teenager in the early 1960s, there was a campaign in the USA to make animals above a certain size but including both pets and farm animals wear diapers – that’s nappies to me. It attracted many supporters until  - three years into the campaign - the movement’s founder was caught out and obliged to admit that it had been started as a hoax. Meanwhile, it gave me and my school friends another reason for thinking there was something wrong with America. The hoaxer thought so too and the point of the hoax, as he explained in a subsequent book, was to highlight the absurdities of American moral conservatism. (For details, start with Wikipedia’s “Society for Indecency to Naked Animals” – even the name of the organisation should have given the game away).

When I read news reports of the latest cry of “Cultural Appropriation!” I think to myself, This is a hoax waiting to happen (if it has not happened already). In fact, I predict that in 2016 we will be hoaxed. 

I hope it’s an effective hoax which targets the fact that those who cry “Cultural Appropriation” most loudly often express themselves in terms which show a congruence with apartheid or segregationist doctrines. They are not flying the flag for liberty or equality or fairness; they are building walls to protect identity and exclusivity. The banner they raise often reads Each to Their Own Kind’s Hairstyles.

On the Internet, there are two main systems operating; these account for maybe 75% of Google Images for “Cultural Appropriation” :

First, people go to a Fancy Dress Party with an ill-judged theme, they take selfies of themselves in their hastily assembled (and dire) costumes and post them on their web page. In turn, those selfies are re-posted into someone’s “Hall of Shame” specialised to Native Indian headdress or sombreros or straw skirts or whatever. Of course, the people look ridiculous. That’s simply what happens when you freeze-frame your ill-chosen Fancy Dress.

In England, upper class fraternities like the Bullingdon Club have got wise and ban smartphones from their gatherings. That way the lower orders will never know how they once behaved. Unlike Prince Harry, they will never be outed for dressing up as Nazis. A simpler solution would be to conclude that Fancy Dress Parties are really not such a good idea anyway, whatever the theme. They are usually coy, inhibited attempts at transgression and they don't work.

Second, young women get their hair done and of course post a selfie. In America, this alerts the Hair Police and if you are a white girl showing off a black hairstyle [ and the Police - remarkably - know what makes someone White and what makes a hairstyle Black] then you are hauled off to the neighbourhood  Hall of Shame and Discussions will occur – I read one in which a mature black woman (ten years a college counsellor and now enrolled as a Ph D student) solemnly discusses a 12 year old white girl’s box braids and concludes that there was no malicious intent but, nonetheless, she has no right …

Something has gone badly wrong if that is where we have ended up.

 All cultures at all times everywhere have copied, borrowed, appropriated from their neighbours. The traffic is ceaseless and does not just go from oppressed to oppressor, from low to high, from poor to rich. It goes all ways. You do not need wealth or an army or control of a school system to copy the way those guys over there are whistling. You don’t even need those things to learn your neighbour’s language – and languages are the most appropriated cultures of all. We do it all the time. 

A textbook of cultural anthropology is always going to be a textbook about cultural appropriation. The “isolated tribe” is a myth: it’s hard to find a tribe without a very lively interest in what their neighbours are or were up to, with frequent visits (friendly or hostile) to find out what’s going on and, sometimes, to copy it. 

The History of Religion is a history of ripped-off ideas. That's probably the most important fact about it if you want to challenge your local religious police. But they won't like you for it.

No one (to my knowledge – and we have a Hoax upcoming in 2016 remember ) has ever said that you need permission to learn their language. No one claims copyright on languages. That’s partly to do with an understanding that languages are not things which can be stolen – they are not finite physical resources. That I speak French does not stop French people doing the same, only better. In the same way, if I copy your hair style, it leaves you with your hair to style. You will probably do it better just because you have been doing it for longer.

I don’t steal anything from you if I copy your hairstyle and you don’t steal from me if you copy from me. I don’t demean you nor you me. If we want to, we can compare notes. If we want to, we can be friends. When a white woman has her hair done in corn rows or plaits or locks or whatever she is not doing anything like what is done in “blacking up”. She isn’t going to talk differently, move her hands differently, because of her hair style. She is not pretending . She is a white woman wearing a black hairstyle in the same way that she might be a white woman wearing a (Kashmiri) pashmina.  She’s not on her way to some Fancy Dress Party themed “Passing For Black”.

In England, not so long ago, there was an advertising campaign on the sides of London buses: “Some People are Gay. Get over it”. Maybe in America they need “Some People want to try out your hairstyles. Get over It”.

I know there has been a very bad history but with a black woman and her children in the White House, it’s not now all one way history.

My question is this:

Does it help America become a better place to live - and it really does terrify me from this distance away  -  Does it really help to call out a 12 year old white girl on the Internet and tell her that, No, she has no right to have her hair done in box braids? And make her apologise for the offence? Is the Hair Police really helping things along to a fairer, more equal, more just society?

Cultural insensitivity or appropriation isn’t something which can be dealt with by some kind of computer app. which generate offending selfies, their  categorisation and their place in a Hall of Shame. Each bit of history has to be thought about and weighed separately. There is no one size that fits all. Of course, some general principle might underly it all.

If it’s about defending chosen people, superior people, exclusivity, purity ... – well, I’m against it. I don’t believe in  segregationist ideas. They lead to bad places like Trumptown.

But if the principle is about moving forward to a fairer more equal society where people can live well, move about free of fear, feel respected, eat in other people’s restaurants  … then, yes, I am on side. 

Very marginalised groups, very small groups who are always on the receiving end of discrimination and Fancy Dress Parties, may have a good claim on different kinds of advocacy and protection than big groups, more powerful groups who aren’t so threatened , who aren’t living with their backs to the wall all the time, who have a big say already in how things are done.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Twenty Years Ago Today: Bethlehem, 24 December 1995

When in Israel at Christmas, the place to go must be Bethlehem, especially in the year when the Israelis are going and the Palestine Authority arriving. So I went, three times.
On Christmas Eve morning, I boarded a dusty Arab bus from outside the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem and paid my thirty pence for the eight mile ride to Manger Street. Bethlehem is not a pretty town, even on a bright sunny day. It is pretty squalid, a mass of litter, untidy precast buildings, and in the absence of traffic lights honking traffic chaos, controlled or contributed to by the newly deployed Palestinian police and defence forces. A visiting French journalist from one of Bethlehem's twin towns told me that the Israelis had made no effort to develop the town's tourist potential during their 28 year occupation, preferring that tourists like me should stay and pay in Jerusalem.
Manger Square is crammed with people at eleven in the morning, and Palestine flags and pictures of Arafat outnumber pictures of Mary and the Infant Jesus. But they are there, as is a giant Christmas Tree outside the old Israeli and new Palestine Police Station, the roof of which is full of armed men. In the past few days, the barbed wire fence surrounding it has been torn down.
We appear to be waiting for the Latin Patriarch, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem whose entry into Bethlehem is preceded by an endlessly long procession of bands, scouts and guides. I spot the Greek Orthodox Patriarch disappearing up a side street in a shiny stretched limo. He is the custodian of the Church of the Nativity, and others worship there as his guests. Orthodox Christmas happens in early January, and Armenian Apostolic even later. Today's celebrations are the first of the trio.
Clinging to municipal street furniture with half a dozen Arab young men, I'm wilting in the heat when, several hours later and to cries of 'The Patriarch', Michel Sabbah, clad in pink, eventually enters Manger Square. I can only take my photos now by holding the camera over my head. The crowd has been relaxed throughout but it occurs to me that the Palestine security forces, three days into their rule here, have no experience of crowd control and a sudden surge could easily result in people getting crushed. I'm also not sure that I can last out until the midnight mass which Yasser Arafat is scheduled to attend. I decide to return to Jerusalem by clapped out taxi (five dollars) to rest and to come back later.
But how to get back? Israelis have been told Bethlehem is off limits for Christmas, a closed zone, and what transport will be running is unclear. I've discovered that the Anglican cathedral of St George in Jerusalem runs a coach to Bethlehem in the evening in order to conduct a carol service at the Church of the Nativity. This sounds attractive: my lack of religious conviction has always had to take second place to the pleasure I take in singing carols. So, leaving my camera behind (I've taken enough photos for today), I head over to St George's, where an assortment of English pilgrims and American tourists (some in Father Christmas hats) fills no less than three modern Israeli coaches at three pounds a head. We've got a police escort, to make it easier, and the Israelis take us down the new and eerily dark Bethlehem by pass road, built to allow travel to Hebron (Israeli) without going through the Palestine Authority enclave. At some point we are invisibly handed over to a Palestinian escort, which pushes aside Bethlehem's packed crowds to allow the coaches to come close to the Church of the Nativity. Inside, we get to see the Star of Bethlehem, which marks the apochryphal place of Jesus's birth, before being escorted up to the roof where we have our carol singing pitch for the evening. A lovely idea!
There to welcome us is the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Her Britannic Majesty's Consul and Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Authority, who shakes hands with each of us and stays to listen to an hour's ragged English carol singing. We have no choristers or instruments to help us out. Then Arafat makes a prepared speech before the one TV camera on the roof. I forget what he said, and it scarcely matters, but it was brief and modest. His job is to reassure Christians that they will be secure under Palestinian rule, and much has been made of the fact that his wife was born a Greek Orthodox Christian. He is surrounded by a bodyguard shield, but for the first time today I cannot see a gun.
Well, to stay in Manger Square for the open air TV relay of midnight mass inside the Church would be an anticlimax after this strange encounter, so I go back in the coach to Jerusalem with the Anglicans. The Bishop goes in his Mercedes and H. M. Consul in his Land Rover, a path cleared for both by a blaring, flashing Palestinian police jeep.
It occurs to me that as pilgrims and tourists we haven't spent a shekel, dinar or cent in Bethlehem( which has three legal currencies) and I mention this to the Bishop's Chaplain, asking him to pass on the thought. It was clear from the Bishop's address to us that his sympathies are with the Palestinians; he effectively said 'Today Bethlehem, next year Jerusalem'. So he might well take heed. A compulsory snack, drink or knick knack would have done none of us any harm and the Bethlehem economy a tiny bit of good.
Christmas Day sees me back on the bus to Bethlehem, where it's the morning after the night before. The crowds have gone, and I head to a deserted Post Office to fabricate philatelic souvenirs. They haven't got special Christmas stamps this year, but they have managed a special Palestinian Authority postmark with a candle, holly and what I think we would tend to call wedding bells. I stick regular Palestine Authority stamps on Bethlehem postcards and get them specially cancelled at the post office counter. It's still novel for the post office clerk, who laughs at my eccentricity. We don't have enough language in common for me to explain that with any luck these cards will pay for my holiday.
When you find yourself shaking hands with Yasser Arafat, what do you say?
My knowledge of the situation amounts to this: Rabin is dead. Arafat survives, despite rather more death threats and under pressure from all sides: Israel, on which he is economically dependent and which requires him to clamp down on his extremists; his people, who want an end to poverty and Israeli checkpoints; Hamas, which won't participate in the January elections for what they regard as a Bantustan; Arab states which have their own agendas.
So I shook hands and said the sort of thing someone bent on open air English carol singing might be moved to say.
"Good Luck"

Written shortly after my visit, re-posted unchanged from

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Must We Mean What We Say?

Dictionaries are misleading. They give us the meanings of words. But when we use words we don’t always mean them in the way the dictionary defines them.

“Hey, you’re a real friend!” someone exclaims and it seems the meaning is all there in the words. But when someone exclaims “Hey, you’re a real friend!” ironically the words are exactly the same but the meaning has changed to its opposite.

So there’s often a difference between what a word means (in the dictionary) and what someone means by using it. Technically, it’s the difference between semantics - defined in dictionaries - and pragmatics - the meaning an utterance has in context.

This is a main reason why dictionaries struggle with words they label pejorative. Take the word “Negro”. Some dictionaries think the word is pejorative (in English, in American) but others don’t. This disagreement arises because dictionary makers cannot make exhaustive studies of how words are actually used. Nor – remarkably – do they always position a word in what you might call its semantic field and the changes which such fields undergo through time.  For example, once upon a time in America (white) people who did not want to use the word “Nigger” because it was mostly used pejoratively could opt for the more neutral “Negro”. (Is that historically accurate?) Among other things, this re-enforced the pejorative status of “Nigger”. Things then changed and a new word entered the semantic field which laid claim to replace “Negro” as the non-pejorative term of choice – the word “Black” which was promoted by black people, as in 1960s “Black Power”. [ I think that’s more or less accurate, but it works as history only for American English not my British English and still less for Spanish ]

To continue. Aren’t there some terms which  in the US or UK can now only be used pejoratively? It seems that the answer is “No” if we take into account language use in intimate relationships. It’s true that I am not in a position to use “Nigger” non-pejoratively, ever, and I would not even try, but there are people in intimate relationships who can and do use the word affectionately towards each other, just as there are people who manage to say “You cunt!” and mean it as a term of endearment. That’s just the nature of language: there is always some context in which you can turn it against itself . The bedroom is a very obvious place.

Sunday School teachers of all denominations are not comfortable with either irony or intimacy. A word means what it says in the dictionary, not what you pay it to mean.

The nearest I have ever been able to find to a word that can’t be turned for a different use is the word “just” as in “She’s just a housewife”, or "You're just jealous" which it seems can only be used as a put – down, hence pejoratively. I struggle to think of a plausible ironic use of those two expressions but I have to say I think it could be done with a bit of imagination. What is interesting is that in this case, we are no longer dealing with a noun. It is usually only nouns which arouse debate. But it may be that the inflections which words like “just” enable should attract more of our critical attention. Sometimes we do fasten on them: “ I was only trying to be helpful” sometimes gets the tart reply, “What do you mean, ‘only’ ? ”

Dictionary makers are actually finding their work even harder than it always has been. The globalisation of communication and the ready access to means of communication (“social media”) by people who would not normally have had a public voice is speeding up the introduction of new words, the revision of semantic fields, and the rate at which people find new ways of doing things with the words they have. Set against the carnivalesque world of the Internet, the Académie Française has no chance. It also makes hard work for novelists (who are trying to write to be read for more than a week). A writer like Junot Diaz tries to reflect the Carnival in his writing but I noticed reading his book This Is How You Lose Her that he avoids the topics of Sport, Music and Drugs where any material is likely to date quickly.

When a good case is made out for not using certain words or expressions then people – even on the Internet - do change, do adapt. People are most easily convinced when what they are being asked to do is show respect for others in the language they use to name them. Above all, to avoid or not use at all terms which most often have been used pejoratively and which are used almost exclusively to stigmatise those who belong to groups whose members are generally less powerful in society. In these cases, a large part of the world is now really remarkably well-behaved.

Of course, each society is different. Today I read that the latest poll says that 50% of American voters would be "embarassed" to have Donald Trump as President. We sure do need to talk about the other 50%.


[A piece of autobiography. As a small (say 3 to 7 year old) white child growing up in southern England, circa 1950, I was fascinated  by the colour words which my mother (born 1907) and her sister Nellie (1897) used to talk about clothes and house decoration. My mother liked Powder Pink and Powder Blue. Auntie Nellie’s bungalow (just round the corner) was painted Cardinal Red & Cream and her favourite colours were Mustard Yellow and Nigger Brown. Apart perhaps from Mustard Yellow, these words were like proper names to me, parsed in my mind as if they were referring to Mr Cardinal Red and Mrs Nigger Brown [characters like those I would later discover in Cluedo]. I would not describe either my mother or my aunt as racists and, now I think about it, when talking about people both would have said “a black man” or a “coloured woman” – as in “there’s a black man who works at the factory” – and that in the 1950s. I don’t think I ever heard either of them use “Nigger” or “Negro” to talk about people.]

The title of this Blog derives from a 1960s essay by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell entitled, “Must We Mean What We Say?”

Friday, 18 December 2015

Political Correctness Gone Mad and Political Correctness Gone Sane

Every day, I read some new account of misguided action condemned as “political correctness gone mad” and I sometimes find myself in agreement with the critics. I find myself suspicious of the people who get up the campaigns and unimpressed with the arguments they advance.  At the heart of my unease is a sense that we are often enough in thrall to people who, given half a chance, would love to be working as full-time bureaucrats in some police organisation for the promotion of virtue and suppression of vice. And very unpleasant bureaucrats they would be.

It’s not so long ago that England had such a police force. Until 1968, if you wanted to present a new play on a public stage, you required the prior approval of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, an official body dating back to 1737. In the end, people (especially playwrights and theatre managers ) tired of the ludicrous changes demanded by this anachronistic bureaucracy and even more tired of the outright bans. So in the end it was abolished by Parliament and very few people had any regrets.  Those who did took the opportunity to sponsor a “family values” theatre in Whitehall where you could go safe in the knowledge that you would not be amused, shocked or provoked. I never went there but I did go to see the first new London stage play to open after the ending of censorship, the musical Hair. And, yes, at the end I did dance on stage.

The Lord Chamberlain’s office had no clear sense of what it was that it wanted to discourage. Immorality. Things to which your wife or servants should not be exposed. Things which would not be suitable for a Sunday School performance. Potential double entendres. It was really no more than a dusty catalogue of prejudices and insecurity which guided them.

I don’t exaggerate. Remember that when Penguin Books was prosecuted for publishing D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, the prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones addressing the Jury actually asked them if they felt the book was one  “you would wish your wife or servants to read”, a question for which he will be ridiculed until the end of time.

Unless of course opinion changes and we decide that in England, Saudi Arabia should be our role model. They still know how to do wives and servants. We already supply them with massive amounts of military hardware to help keep it that way.

But if “political correctness gone mad” is to be feared, is there still a sane version of political correctness which should be supported?  Yes.

But what does the sane version look like? How can it be articulated so as to see off the witch hunters?

At the heart of public policy as it has developed in England over my life time is the idea that a civilised society and a democratic society can only be sustained if and when people routinely grant respect to all those they encounter in daily life (including in their life as public officials). Most of our encounters are with people we know little about beyond their appearance, how they look and how they sound. And we absolutely should not use how they look or how they sound to calibrate the degree of respect (or disrespect) which we accord them. Nope. You just cannot use the colour of a person’s skin, the sex or gender they present to you, their accent, their dress, their presumed social class or educational level , their religious beliefs if those can be inferred … nope, you cannot use any of those to calibrate how and whether you say “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me” and so on. That is basic respect, that is basic civility. The look or the sound of someone gives you absolutely no basis for withholding or graduating civility, still less for indulging in outright and unprovoked abuse (of the kind currently popular on our public transport systems). 

Correct behaviour towards someone is also inherently politically correct behaviour since society as a whole has an interest (self-interest) in sustaining polite, respectful and civilised face to face conduct.

I have made that sound a bit old-fashioned. Never mind. But it is quite radical: it is the kind of thought which makes it difficult for someone like Jeremy Corbyn to kneel when he meets the Queen because it is the other end of a spectrum of behaviour which delivers only a grunt to a woman at a supermarket till  .

Starting from the core value of mutual respect, it will be immediately clear in some cases what should not be tolerated. But in other cases, it will not be so clear. And in those cases, rather than proceeding stridently – which is one of the problems we have at present – we should proceed with care. Because it’s not blindingly obvious what is right and what is wrong.

This is the case with our current anxiety about not causing offence to anyone who may happen to read what we have written, see what we have painted, hear what he have to say. That anxiety has grown to such a level that it extends to cover cases way beyond those of the person who sets out to insult a group or stir up hostility towards a group, both of which fall foul of the idea of the basic respect owed to individuals. And it requires thoughtful debate to decide what to do in a difficult case. And that means No Bullying.

A word about bullying. I have never been bullied in what you might call the public arena, except once and I responded to it. It was in a University (Brunel) in the 1970s. At the end of a seminar, I was talking to a philosopher of science at that time getting a name for himself on the basis of his thorough-going relativism (out of the Kuhn-Lakatos-Feyerabend debates). I wasn’t a relativist (Karl Mannheim “relativism calls everything into question and criticises nothing”) and I was making the usual moves which non-relativists use against relativists His response was to get angry, and angrier, and to attack me personally. To which I pointed out that his relativism left him no means of argument with me and seemed to lead straight to bullying.

If you stand up to bullies, they often shut up. 

We have in our universities now people who get off on getting angry about things they don’t always understand very well. I would like to engage in argument, because one of us might change our mind. But if instead I am bullied, well, I know what to do.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Anachronism and Political Correctness

A political thought can be politically correct only if it is scientifically painstaking

Michel Foucault

All kinds of things can be anachronistic: a person, clothes, language, behaviour … Sometimes it is not intended; sometimes it is wilful.

Mostly, we think something is anachronistic when it is the past appearing in the present. In England, a man who goes to work in the city of London carrying a briefcase and rolled umbrella and wearing a black bowler hat is an anachronism. It is anachronistic to call a radio a wireless and to write “Roumania” instead of “Romania”. It is anachronistic if a man when introduced to a woman, bows, take her hand, kisses it and says Enchanté . 

Anachronism is about a fairly distant past intruding on the present: it is not just a matter of not being quite au courant or dans la vente – up to date with things or in fashion. It is about bringing what is clearly past into the present.

That phrase can serve to introduce the idea that anachronism works both ways, both when we bring the past into the present and when we lay the present over the past.

When the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam recently went through the computerised list of the paintings it owns and changed their titles to eliminate words like “Negro” or “Mohamedan” [ see yesterday’s Blog ] the results are sometimes anachronistic. But not always.

If the Rijksmuseum provided a title for an untitled work (or a work whose title had been lost) a hundred years ago, it is not anachronistic to retitle it – it is just the Rijksmuseum updating its labelling to be more appropriate to the world its visitors inhabit. The label is not part of the painting and never was. It is part of the history of the Rijksmuseum.  Changing it is probably no more tendentious than changing the spelling of “Roumania” to “Romania”. There is nothing wrong with changing a title from “Charabanc Outing” to “Coach Outing” if you judge that many of your visitors will no longer know the meaning of the word “charabanc” [ the French char à bancs became English charabanc the term (once) popularly used for coaches which (once) took you on trips to the seaside. My relatives sixty years ago pronounced it sharrabang and I still do. There is a nice Wikipedia entry].

But if an artist a hundred years ago titled their work “Portrait of a Mohamedan”, at the time a straightforward and non-derogatory title for a portrait of a follower of the Prophet, it would be anachronistic to whitewash the artist’s title and change it to “Portrait of a follower of Islam” or “Portrait of a Muslim” or – which seems to have happened in some cases at the Rijksmuseum – “Portrait of a Man in an armchair”. 

The last would  clearly be whitewash, designed to obscure the past and block any access to understanding it. It reduces the sum total of information available about the artist’s relation to their work. It also ignores what may have been the sitter's relation to the work. And, finally, it treats visitors to the gallery as children who need a Nanny.

You shouldn’t do any of those things, certainly not if you are a historian or guardian of an historical heritage. You cannot settle these things using a Political Correctness app. on your computer. You have to look at each case - each painting - individually and strike a balance between, on the one hand, maximising the information you make available about the past and, on the other, making something accessible to people in the present. There will be difficult cases. The Rijksmuseum seems to have treated them all as an administrative task.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Jonathan Jones and The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam - On Not Looking at the Paintings

To read the updated and better organised version of this Blog, please use the side bar to navigate to my Blog for 10 January 2016. Thanks. A later version now appears in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016) available online at or 

An article in The Guardian  by Jonathan Jones (15 December 2015) reports the fact that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is busy re-titling paintings to remove the word “Negro”. So far, they have removed the word from 132 paintings. Jones thinks this is a jolly good thing. I am not sure: anachronism is never a good thing and the appreciation of a painting is not served by whitewashing its history if that history is known.

The article is illustrated with a cropped version of the first image below, which used to have the Rijksmuseum Gallery title “Young Negro Girl”  (or "Young Negress") and now has the title “Young Girl Holding a Fan”. The portrait is attributed to a Dutch painter and art dealer, Simon Maris (1873 – 1935), who appears to have spent his whole working life in The Netherlands. He had his home and a studio on Keizersgeracht in Amsterdam from 1904 to 1927.  The painting is assigned dates between 1895 and 1922, when it was acquired by the Rijksmuseum. Two other versions of this painting can be found on the Internet and are illustrated below: 

Above: The Portrait in the Rijksmuseum now titled "Young Girl with a Fan"

"Portrait of Mrs Allwood with a Fan" [Artnet], signed "Simon Maris"bottom right
This painting was offered for sale in 2008 by Glerum Auctioneers in Amsterdam; estimated at 8000 - 12000 euro, it was unsold. Provenance given as from the De Visscher family in Zeist who acquired it from the artist in the 1920s

portret van een spaanse schone met waaier in de hand en mantilla by simon maris

" Portret van Eene Spaanse schone met waaier  in de hand en mantilla"  [Artnet] signed "Simon Maris" bottom right

Artists do not always title their works and, if they do, it may only be for the purpose of inventorying them. The title may not be designed to guide an audience – in which case, it is in no sense part of the work. Even gallery titles may be no more than Inventory titles.

Curiously, galleries don't indicate the status of titles they give to works. They should. The labels could and should read: 

 - “Not Titled by the Artist”
-  “Artist’s Title Lost”
-  “ Titled by the Artist: …” 
-   “Given the title  … by this Gallery in the year …”
-   “Re-titled by this Gallery Young Girl Holding a Fan in 2015; previous Gallery title Young Negro Girl" 

It sounds a bit cumbersome but then those bits of labelling are meant to be informative – they tell you things like “Oil on Canvas” and “90cm  x 150 cm” so why not tell you who is responsible for the title?

On the Internet, the three versions of this painting accumulate the following titles, mostly with no indication where they came from:

       Little Negress
-          Portrait of a Young Black Woman
-     Young Woman in Hat
-          Portret van eene Spaanse schone met waaier in de hand en mantilla [Portrait of a beautiful Spaniard with a fan in her hand and wearing a mantilla”]
-          Portrait of Mrs Allwood with a fan”
-          Portrait of Mrs Allwood / Mrs Alting …”. 

In the present instance, in their haste to get rid of the word “Negro” – and as if all you need to do is run a Political  Correctness app. over your gallery’s inventory of titles – the Rijksmuseum seems simply not to have done any art historical research even of a preliminary kind, including research into its own history.

Is she a “Young Girl ... ” - as in the new Rijksmuseum title - or a married woman?  

[Well, look at the Rijksmuseum painting: Her hand is held so that you can clearly see what appears to be a gold band wedding ring. However, on the Rijksmuseum website the portrait appears grouped with children's portraits (Kinderportret)]. 

Is she Black or Spanish?  One Internet source suggests she is of Moorish descent; another source points out that "Alting" [ or "Alting Siberg"] is a  surname taken by freed Surinamese slaves. They took their surnames from their colonial masters who included Alting Sibergs. Google yields numerous results for Alting and Alting Sibergs in The Netherlands.

[Either way,  if it's a Mantilla that could indicate that this is a wedding portrait. But in the Rijksmuseum version, the "Mantilla" is clearly a bonnet - you can see the reflection of the back of the bonnet in the mirror at left of the portrait ]

In new Internet discussion of the painting, it has been argued that "Young Girl with a Fan" is a whitewash since the most important feature of this painting, for its historical period, is that it depicts a black woman. Even before the Rijksmuseum change, it had been informally retitled as "Young Black Woman" in Internet reproductions deriving from Esther Schreuder's work for a 2008 Black is Beautiful exhibition and book, though Esther Schreuder used"Young Woman in Hat" at the same time drawing attention to the fact that this is a portrait of a named individual

So, Is this a generic painting or a portrait of a named individual? And if it is not generic, is it the same person in each portrait?

The possibility that this is a portrait of a named individual is intriguing and perhaps the most important issue for an understanding of what the artist is up to in this work. 

I went back to Google and I got this:

“Portrait of Mrs Allwood / Mrs Alting. Given to the Rijksmuseum in 1922 [ as part of a bequest from the diamond dealer Andries van Wezel.] The museum renamed it “Little Negress”.

If this is true, then the Rijksmuseum is right to get rid of its old title, which is racist not so much because of the word "Negress" but because it takes away her identity from this individual. 

That is something which probably would not have happened if she had been one of Maris' wealthy white sitters. He was the leading Dutch portrait painter of his period and on the Internet I can find examples of portraits with named sitters - Rika Helt, Rita Hopper, Mejuffrouw Konig, Mrs S van der Schuijt, Henriette Dingemans. But I guess the majority of named portraits remain in family ownership. 

So the Rijksmuseum  needs to explain why, if it did indeed have that title, it did not revert to the dull title “Portrait of Mrs Allwood /Mrs Alting”. The new title "Young Girl with a Fan" simply assimilates the painting to the (very?) large world-wide art gallery collection of young girls with fans.

The first version of this Blog took me under an hour to compile and is undoubtedly incomplete. I have added new information into it and also a possibly important Footnote below.

I am sure there is a qualified person in the Rijksmuseum who could establish a fuller and more accurate history in a day. Why didn't they do it first time round? Surely they have art historians on their staff interested in art history? 

If they want my opinion, this is my guess: this is a wedding portrait, about a hundred and twenty years old [ but see Footnote], commissioned either by a husband or possibly a father and it is probably quite easy to get into the archive/s which would tell you who the woman was, her age and who she married and his age. Quite possibly she has living descendants. 

I haven't stood in front of the painting, but my guess is that if I did so I would find this a sensitive portrayal of a woman who (for all I know) may have married for love or who may have been a trophy wife.

Footnote added 18 - 20 December 2015

Is the Rijksmuseum painting by Maris? If you look at images of his work on the Internet, for example at Artnet, there are some stylistic similarities in the way clothing is treated. But the face is treated in a manner which is not like the rest of Maris. And, overall, the painting looks as if it could be older than the 1895 - 1922 time frame assigned to it. And it seems to be more striking than anything else he painted. It's a splendid portrait. A lot of the images of his other works strike me as rather banal, something which is definitely not true of the Rijksmuseum painting. It is however signed "Simon Maris" bottom left.


On line dictionaries translate Dutch "Neger" into English "Negro" and  vice versa and either don't mark either as pejorative or mark both as pejorative. However, Dutch does not have a direct equivalent of American "Nigger". Someone can no doubt tell me if there is any slippage in Dutch (or maybe foreign tourists' perception of Dutch) which conflates Dutch "Neger" with American "Nigger" which would place the Rijksmuseum in a different situation with the word "Neger" than an English museum  with the word "Negro". For example, it may be that American visitors would translate a Dutch language sign using the word "Neger" as if it was saying "nigger" (which is not the case).

"Little Negress" [Negerinnetje in Dutch] comes across in English as (at a minimum) patronising and archaic and  offensive if used to describe a married woman. And the atmosphere of the painting does not strike me as intended to patronise or demean. The opposite: the sitter presents herself erect, composed and with an open and frank gaze. There can be no reasonable doubt that the old Gallery title had to go. The question is now, what would be a title which helps a visitor to the gallery appreciate what the artist was doing. If he thought he was painting a portrait of a particular person, and if the sitter thought so too, and if we have the name of the person available, then the most sympathetic title is "Portrait of Mrs [ vrouw] A ... " I just have this problem that it is unclear whether she is "Mrs Alting", "Mrs Allwood", "Mrs Alting - Allwood" or both Alting and Allwood at different times and nothing on the Internet resolves the matter, though Esther Schreuder, who researched the painting, goes for Mrs Alting in her 2008 description of it. The documents from the van Wezel Bequest might settle the matter. So too might the documents in the Simon Maris Archive which is held in the public domain in The Netherlands.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Self-Identification: Name, Address, Race, Religion,Sex ...

To my knowledge, no single or unified account of the limits and limitations of self-identification exists. Different practices prevail in different domains and reflect both fairly constant and sometimes rapidly changing perceptions of what is legitimate, what is safe, what is fair, and so on. The practices vary from one society to another, of course.

Banks no longer accept that you are who you say you are or that you live where you say you live. You have to provide proof in both cases – and the banks spell out to you what kind of proof they will accept (your passport, a recent utility bill, and so on).  This is justified as an anti-fraud / anti-money laundering / anti-tax evasion measure. We are not supposed to get indignant when asked to prove that we are who we say we are, though I imagine that there was a time when people (especially those in higher social classes) would indeed have become indignant: “How dare you!”

In contrast, there are situations in which you are asked to declare your religion. It happens when you go into hospital and it affects how your body will be handled if you die there and who will seek to visit you if you are dying. And so on. So you declare and no one queries it.

Thus it is that in the United Kingdom there are very many more self-declared Christians than have ever set foot in a Christian church. The self-ascription “Christian” on a hospital form is for all practical purposes a negative characterisation: Well, I’m certainly not a Jew or a Muslim and I don’t want to answer “None” just in case … (I did indeed have an Aunt who one day, reflecting on their advancing years, did suggest to her husband (and in my youthful presence) that perhaps they should start attending Church. It was quite clear that she was talking about an Insurance policy). Anyway …

But in other contexts, this casual attitude to religious self-ascription would not be tolerated. In the United Kingdom, school admissions provide a good example. In the United Kingdom since the 1990s, successive governments have encouraged a greater degree of social segregation through the mechanism of “Faith Schools” which are allowed to select their pupils by the religious affiliation of their parents. However, realising that parents are only too willing to perjure themselves to get their kids into Nice Middle Class schools, our more popular faith schools now look for proof that you are indeed of the religious persuasion that you claim. They impose religious tests. Indignation?  Not at all. Our modern parents (sociologists tell us) are more than happy to present themselves in the pews of the local Church of England or Roman Catholic church where for as long as it takes  they sit smugly, ghastly parodies of religious belief.

On most if not all of those forms which ask you to tick your Gender in the boxes which used to ask you to tick your Sex there is no follow-up requirement for proof, unless the form simultaneously asks for your birth certificate. This is a bit odd because historically ticking the wrong box was a means not only of avoiding social conventions but of avoiding the law: ticking the M box got quite a few women into universities and medical schools; ticking the F box allowed some men to avoid military service.

It’s true that everyone leaves a paper trail – and now a computer trail – from birth and at birth the M or F box was almost certainly ticked by a medical professional – though it was a parent who passed on the information when attending to Register a birth, an occasion on which no Proof of the truth of the declaration was ever asked for. If the Registrar was going to dispute anything, it would be the names you proposed to give your child: in modern Britain, “Adolf Hitler” would be queried not to mention “West Ham United” (It happens) .

But to return to the Sex / Gender boxes. I imagine that people would indeed become indignant if asked to prove that they had checked the right box, and regardless of social class. What do you want me to do? Drop my trousers? Most would be upset that it was not obvious to some official to which box they belonged.

The topic currently in the News is that of trans- sexual or trans-gender self-identification. On your birth certificate it says you are M and so it does on your Driving Licence and on every other bit of paper which can be found. But finding yourself sentenced to prison, you dispute that you should be sent to an M prison and insist that you should be despatched to an F prison because you are a trans-person

I have to say I have some sympathy. The thought of being sent to an all M prison appals me and if the facility existed to self-identify when being sent to jail, then I would take the option of ticking the F box. In the News right now though I can read about several tragic cases of M to F trans people being sent to M prisons against their wishes, I have not read any stories of F to M people reluctantly sent to F jails. If I was an F to M person facing jail, I think I might well decide to hang on to any residual F identity that I possessed.

You may find that development of the argument tendentious. But the point is this: if there are good reasons for avoiding M jails rather like the reasons for avoiding M military service, then someone with an M paper trail who asks to be sent to an F prison can quite reasonably be asked to make a case for  the request to be granted. And the case will probably take the form of a narrative provided by doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and so on. [ There is in fact a legal procedure dating back to a 2004 Act of Parliament which created a Gender Recognition Panel which can grant legal status to a person's self-identified gender. I don’t have a problem with that]. 

In the UK, there are few contexts in which self-identification by race or ethnicity is asked for other than for statistical purposes – the Census, notably. We don’t have Quotas and we don’t have Exclusions. In some contexts, notably medical, the accuracy of self-identification is important: there are some genetic disorders and diseases (like prostate cancer) which discriminate by race and it can be important for a doctor to know whether or not you are in a high risk group.

But in other societies, self-identification by race or ethnicity or their official ascription have long and complex histories and important consequences. Everyone is probably familiar with the idea of “Passing for White” which in the United States was – and maybe still is – a rational strategy for improving your life chances. If your skin is pale enough, then that opens up the possibility of passing for White and, if you decide to do that even in the knowledge that your ancestry is at least partly non-White, then you acquire immediate social advantages - but at the same time usually have to live with inner conflict. It is an important theme in American literature.

But when back in 1955 Rosa Parks declined to yield her seat to a White person on that Montgomery, Alabama bus, she was not trying to self-identify as a White person. She was challenging racial discrimination.  

On the other side from "Passing for White", if forms of Positive Discrimination are introduced designed to favour disadvantaged groups then there are also possibilities of abuse and once again Tests have to be introduced to verify that you are who you say you are or what you say you are. The long term strategy should be to create a society where Positive Discrimination is unnecessary.

Despite everything I have said here, in daily life people don't encounter many occasions when their self-identifications are challenged. Being asked for your age ID when trying to enter a club or pub is as bad as it gets and that problem, unfortunately, goes away naturally.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Prejudices, Stereotypes and Anger

Prejudice is judgement exercised in the absence of, or prior to, experience or information. In principle, prejudice can yield a favourable judgement just as much as a negative one – but it is the negative ones we hear about.

To the best of my knowledge, I have never in my life eaten raw fish even though in my country it has become a very popular thing to eat under the name of “Sushi”. But I don’t want to try it. I wouldn’t like it and, worse, I would get food poisoning. Of those things I am fairly convinced. This is prejudice in pure form – though I should perhaps add that it does not extend to other foods marked “Japanese”. In fact, I am an enthusiastic down-market diner at wagamamma.

But it’s a prejudice which links back to eighteen years of narrow home and school childhood diets – I never ate a curry or pasta until I went to University -  and which leaves me still rather timid and even fearful about strange foods.

Most prejudices aren’t quite so pure. They get started or are triggered by at least some scrap of experience or information. A bout of diahorrea after a visit to an Indian restaurant turns into a habit of avoiding all Indian restaurants; a newspaper story about dodgy practices in a Chinese restaurant does the same for Chinese cuisine.

In the 1950s, a Chinese restaurant opened in my childhood Dartford small town hometown and not very long after featured  in the local newspaper: it had been prosecuted for serving tinned cat food, the evidence provided by the very many cans carelessly left out in piles with the other rubbish. Clearly, enough of a talking point for the adults around me that I still remember it, though perhaps the story told with enough amusement for it not to have put me off Chinese food. Even a shock reaction to MSG in 1969 at a restaurant in London’s China Town didn’t stop me. It was only the advent of cheap Thai cuisine in England – just so much better than cheap Chinese – that did that.

In this little story, one can begin to see something of the unpredictability of prejudice. In terms of idiosyncratic negative experience and information, I had more reasons to avoid Chinese than to avoid sushi. But the prejudice actually went the other way and stayed that way. That is consistent with the idea that prejudice is essentially irrational.

When someone claims that a lot of experience or a lot of information (reading, TV programmes) informs their prejudices then – if and only if those prejudices are negative – they will often enough be accused of stereotyping. The correct response to this accusation is to accept it. A stereotype just is a judgement which, though not scientifically informed, has some grounding in experience or bits of information. We would find it hard to live – in fact,  impossible to live - without stereotyping. A philosophy or psychology  student could prove that in a short essay.

One way to think straight about stereotyping is to think about how we react to stereotyping which is expressed in positive judgements, not negative ones. Someone has taken several holidays in Italy and this gives them confidence to say, “Italians are so warm and welcoming!”. Nobody gets called out for such remarks. Why not? Stereotypes are stereotypes whether flattering or derogatory.

But, in truth, it seems that nor do we always get called  out even for negative stereotyping, “Italians are so warm and welcoming; not like the French”.

This is actually quite an interesting example: many English people feel free to negatively stereotype the French as a miserable, unwelcoming bunch and few of their compatriots turn on them and challenge the judgment. That the French are a miserable bunch is a matter of general consent and common knowledge.

It helps that the French agree: in the very recent past, French tourist authorities have launched Nudge campaigns urging French people (Parisians especially) to be at least a little more friendly to foreign tourists (who generate a lot of income for France). Parisians have been given little lessons in how to smile, how to be helpful, how to be polite.

You could see this as an abject response or you could see it as recognition of the fact that some stereotypes are true.

It is absolutely essential to understanding prejudice and stereotyping to recognise this. In everyday life, we arrive at our judgements by largely or completely unscientific means but quite often we arrive at the truth. How could it be otherwise? We would not survive if we always got it wrong.

Of course, we can’t be sure that we have arrived at the truth until someone better qualified than we mere Persons in the Street crunches the numbers, if we are looking at something where number crunching is relevant. In America right now, some of Mr Donald Trump’s supporters wear tee shirts proclaiming “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. This looks eminently testable – but for the fact that inability to agree a definition of “terrorist” may prevent us ever getting to the actual number crunching.

That is connected to the fact that stereotyping, when strong enough – and perhaps even when quite weak – interferes with our ability to understand what experience we are having or what information we are being given. For Mr Trump’s supporters, “Muslim” and “terrorist” are not independent variables so no number crunching is possible. The Muslim couple who went on a shooting spree at San Bernardino are terrorists (who incidentally took advantage of the ready availability in the USA of weapons and shooting ranges where you can learn to use them). But white racists who go on shooting sprees are not terrorists; they are just deranged.

The way in which experience is filtered through prejudices and stereotypes is obvious in contemporary relations between men and women which in some contexts are now so fraught as to be almost paralysed: She objects to what He did, He says “I was only trying to be helpful”, She dissents, and He concludes that the only way forward is not to be helpful in future, so there.

Back in 1969, in my early twenties, I recall a student party. I wasn’t in the room but in a  corridor when a man in the room, drunk or on drugs, took a dislike to a painting on the wall – a painting in fact by a then-young and  now-famous Indian artist Vivan Sundaram - drew a knife and slashed it. A young woman who I didn’t really know, ran from the room into the corridor and came in my direction, clearly very distressed and tumbling out a version of what was happening. Either I stopped her or she stopped and, either way, I put my arms around her, without thinking, held her and said the usual things about everything being all right. As I recall it, a few days she thanked me.

Today, I doubt I would risk doing anything like that. The likelihood of misunderstanding would just be too great. I would be paralysed and she would just have to deal with her own distress.

“Hands off” policies can be metaphorical as well as literal. When people narrate to me their experience of contemporary job interviews I have the sense that they have not been interviewed at all. A group of po-faced interviewers have taken turns to ask po-faced questions, agreed in advance, and identical for each candidate. Anyone who gives anything other than po-faced answers risks goodness-knows-only what kind of (denied) stereotyping from the paralysed panel. How you can decide who is the best candidate in such circumstances I cannot imagine. ( I recall an interview panel twenty five years ago where I was a member. In discussion of the candidates, one of my male colleagues supported one of the female candidates saying “She ticks all the boxes” only to be answered by a female colleague exploding with a “That’s the problem! That's all she does!” – and that was true. Nowadays, she would get the job).

None of this cool discussion will seem to touch the heart of the problem which is that the prejudices and stereotyping we really worry about are fueled by anger and provide a target on which that anger can focus, often brutally.

But the cool discussion does allow some insight into the heart of the matter. The anger and hatred channeled by prejudices and stereotypes pre-exist the channel through which they are expressed. They have specific origins, most often in brutal childhoods - the existence of which we don't much talk about because it involves talking about the effects of poverty, drugs, alcohol and stupidity. 

There is a fairly sound body of knowledge which will tell you that brutality at the right time and in the right doses will precipitate things like paranoia and the paranoia has to go somewhere. Sometimes it will go against the parents, who will be murdered. More often, it will go against locally available targets - Jews, Blacks, Muslims, Men, Women,Whites. There are people who grow up needing every day to pick a fight. Many will be satisfied with ordinary football hooliganism which is semi-organised violence on a Saturday. Some will join the Army, travel to far-away countries and brutalise people there. Some will become racists and -phobes of one kind or another, their anger mixed with the underlying fear which is also the product of a brutal childhood. And right now, from across Europe, those needing to pick a fight will go and join ISIS.

It's very difficult to address such anger and fear, because it is not assuaged by the usual kinds of anti-bigot propaganda. There is little  point in telling people that their hate figures are actually quite cuddly though it has been tried: skinheads in Germany have been offered the chance to hold refugee babies in their arms.

Extreme prejudice and stereotyping is quite often linked to lack of experience rather than mistaken interpretation of experience. The most racist or Islamophobic voters - in France or Poland for example - are often to be found among rural populations who have never actually encountered any blacks or Muslims. Here it does seem that actually having to meet and mix with the Other does sometimes reduce hostility - people will grudgingly accept that their local Blacks /  Muslims are not like the rest of them. For small mercies, we should be grateful. But the larger background problem of anger and hatred which has other origins than its present target still remains.