Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Cultural Sensitivity vs. Cultural Plagiarism

I'd done my level best to ignore this year's "Keep Christ in Christmas" vs. "Keep Christmas out of Christmas" debate, mainly because I think that both sides have some serious problems in their argument. And I'd probably have gone right on ignoring it if I hadn't run across an editorial in Sunday's New York Times that essentially called the angry Christians hypocrites.

This editorial's rationale:

  • Early American Christians, being mostly Puritans, did not approve of celebrating Christmas.
  • Later American Christians did not approve of the commercial aspects of celebrating Christmas.
  • Non-Christians have (surprise) never approved of celebrating Christmas.
Therefore, Christians have no right to complain when secularists try to force Christmas out of the public celebration altogether.

Now, I've been thinking about this for a couple of days, and it seems to me we have a confusion between two very different aspects of the culture clash here.

Being a Christian, I naturally have no problem with being wished a "Merry Christmas." I also have no problem being wished "Happy Holidays"--or "Happy Hannukah," or "Happy Kwanzaa," or "Happy Winter Solstice" for that matter, because each is an expression of the speaker's own religious beliefs. "Happy Holidays" as a catch-all term only makes sense; in that, I agree.

The problem is when "Holiday" is used, not as an encompassing expression, but--as it often is--as a mere substitute for "Christmas," as for example in "holiday trees" and "holiday ornaments." Co-opting another culture's traditions for one's own is a time-honored practice--heck, that's how the Christmas tree came to be in the first place--but what is it being co-opted for?

Nothing! The "holiday" in question is Christmas; the only point is to get around admitting that--while leaving everything else as-is.

And that, frankly, is a practice I put in the same boat as "scholars" replacing "BC" and "AD" with "BCE" and "CE." Both are examples of trying to use practices and conventions designed by others (the Gregorian calendar, as the name might suggest, was a product of the Roman Catholic Church, and "Year 0" was a rough estimate of when Christ was born) without giving credit where credit is due, or at least altering it enough to make it uniquely one's own.

It is nothing more or less than plagiarism on a cultural scale, and its perpetrators should not be allowed to get away with it.

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