Dec 7, 2016
The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 651: Batman: Gotham Knights #16, June 2001
My other love is Lego. Specifically, my other love is Bionicle, a buildable action figure line Lego produced between 2001 and 2010, and then again for a couple of years from 2015-2016. The original story drew heavily from Maori culture, to the point that the Maori people sued to keep Lego from using some appropriated words as character names. Which is entirely appropriate. There's a fine line between celebration and appropriation. One shows reverence for the diversity and uniqueness of a culture, and one perpetuates stereotypes. It's sometimes a tough line to walk.
So imagine my surprise when I opened up today's comic, one that I have never read before, and saw that the title was "Matatoa." According to the eponymous character, it's Maori for "fearless." Those familiar with Bionicle will remember that the island upon which the first story occurs is called Mata Nui, and the main characters are known as the Toa. Unfortunately, I think this comic falls onto the undesirable side of that line - the Maori-named character is, by his own admission, "not Maori...but...spent a little time with them..." His name, Matatoa, means to be fearless and valiant, but this character appears to be someone who is compelled to kill others - not particularly valiant.
I wrestle with these ideas. On the one hand, a set of religious stories and practices is there specifically to guide a person or people through life according to their best understanding of how to be a human in the world. Such stories and practices need to be flexible enough to move through culture, otherwise any claims of their being the "right" way of living are moot. If a way is appropriate for only a subset of humanity, that's fine, but then one cannot call it a fundamental truth - it's a truth based on, as Fish might put it, an interpretive community.
(Has anyone ever applied Fish's reader response theory and interpretive communities to religious works and communities? Seems like a good/bad idea.)
What I wrestle with is the idea that just because a series of stories is sacred that they somehow belong to a particular group of people. At a less profound level (perhaps), isn't the claim of ownership of sacred stories much the same as comic fans claiming comics and gatekeeping at conventions? (Bear with me - this is sailing into the territory that I was once accused of being a racist over.) When we think about cultural appropriation, we have to recognize it as the taking of aspects of a culture a) for a purpose other than that for which the aspect was intended (a tricky notion, to be sure), and b) that there is no quid pro quo, no exchange. Further, in the case of oppressed cultures, very often these beliefs are important to hang onto as they are ephemeral, have no material existence, and are therefore virtually impossible (though not completely) to summarily take away. And it is the conversion of such founding ideas into entertainment or fashion that is problematic.
So the question becomes is it possible to utilize elements from a sacred story in a less-sacred story (and let's not get into my belief in superheroes, because for me many of these stories are sacred) and still maintain respect for the culture, and people, from which that story comes? I suppose the answer has to be yes, but only if there is equitable treatment of the culture and people from which the element is drawn in contrast to the treatment of the culture and people who are utilizing the element. Removal of the superiority/inferiority dynamic between cultures allows for pollination of sacred/ethical/moral ideas into less-sacred spaces without fear of diluting or denigrating the cultural beliefs and practices of either. And as this happens, the lessons or practices associated with those stories and beliefs must be carried along too. Sidney told us that literature delights and educates. We really ought to remember this.
Plainly, Christians, Muslims, Jews, (sorry to pick on the Abrahamic faiths, but it's more often than not the case) have to relinquish the part of their faiths that tells them that what they believe is the TRUTH, and everything else is a lie. These faiths are a truth, just as any other faith or philosophical framework is. They're imaginary constructs that assist us in understanding existence as a human being. They are true, but they're not True. The sooner we all come to realize this, the better.