Culture Police Ride Again

Another interesting incident in culture popped up this week, one that illuminates where our society currently stands on the relationships between cultures. Living and working in Hawaiʻi, within Hawaiian culture made this event resonate on a personal level.

A Chicago based eatery has trademarked the name ‘Aloha Poke’. No issue there, simply a legal filing. What they failed to understand is that the word Aloha contains central concept in Hawaiian culture. Thus, when the lawyers for Aloha Poke sent out cease-and-desist letters to similarly named businesses around the country, including one in Hawaii, they were met with a firestorm of criticism.

Awaiting the Sea
An outrigger canoe awaits another voyage
Attempting claim ownership of such a word, even in a limited business context, is simply total fail. Legal? Yes. A good idea? Nope.

I suspect the owners of Aloha Poke are actually figuring that out. On the other hand the management at Aloha Poke has not withdrawn their legal assertions and have made a non-apology.

The missteps of Aloha Poke aside, what is more interesting is how some in the Hawaiian community have responded to the case. There have been statements from a number of community leaders. One of the most telling is from the head of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency charged with administering state programs for the Hawaiian community.

After similar controversies in 2003, a coalition of Native Hawaiians adopted the Paoakalani Declaration — a powerful statement affirming the Native Hawaiian people’s collective right, as the creators of our traditional knowledge, to protect our cultural expressions from misuse by individuals who behave disrespectfully and inconsistently with our worldview, customs and traditions. Critically, the document declares the willingness on the part of Native Hawaiians to share our culture with humanity, provided that “we determine when, why, and how it is used.” – Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, OHA Ka Pouhana (CEO), 1Aug2018

I admit, I am very much a free speech purist. As such, statements like these immediate catch my attention. I see almost any restriction of free speech as a crime against human rights. Yes, this means tolerating some pretty ugly speech on occasion. About the only thing I do not tolerate is incitement to violence.

Why do I take such a stance? As a student of history I realize that the acceptance of any restriction of free speech, even well meant censorship, can and will be used to stifle minority causes.

While we call this concept ‘free speech’ in law, I place a wider meaning in the phrase. Speech is the embodiment of ideas and concepts, thus free speech is synonymous with the free exchange of ideas.

The document Mr. Crabbe refers to is the Paoakalani Declaration, a document that defines the front lines in this idea of restricting the flow and use of ideas. The full section Mr. Crabbe quotes is here…

We declare our willingness to share our knowledge with humanity provided that we determine when, why, and how it is used. We have the right to exclude from use those who would exploit, privatize, and unfairly commercialize our traditional knowledge, cultural expressions and artforms, natural resources, biological material, and intellectual properties. – Part 4, Paoakalani Declaration

While the intent of the above text is noble, an attempt to preserve a culture, the implementation is fraught with difficulty. Who determines what is exploitation, what is unfair? If someone who is not Hawaiian attempts to use a Hawaiian concept or idea in art or business, is that exploitation? To many in this culture war the answer is automatically “Yes!”

The document goes on to declare that outside use of Hawaiian concepts, physical or biological resources, of any cultural idea is “theft”. In the process an expansively wide definition of what is Hawaiian intellectual property is adopted that basically claims anything, conceptual or physical that originated in the islands.

Palm trees and turquoise water at Anaehoʻomalu Bay, photo processed in Prisma
And that is exactly what Mr. Crabbe is arguing for, censorship in any use of Hawaiian language or culture he and his self-appointed cultural police do not agree with. In declaring “we determine when, why, and how it is used.” Mr. Crabbe makes it clear he wishes to build a wall around Hawaiian culture and appoint himself gatekeeper.

In the cultural conversation we should be able to express any idea, to trade and reuse those ideas in forming new ideas for living, for writing, and works of art. Those ideas may often come from cultures not our own, a fusion of the best from any source.

Reading a book allows one to see the world through the eyes of the characters, potentially characters of different cultures. Viewing artworks, or creating artworks using different culture values allows one to experience those values and ideas. Living and working within a culture not your own, living the values and using the technologies of another culture allows the same. These acts break down cultural walls, allow us to see the humanity in others, eliminates the fear of others. It gives lie to those who would use those fears to alienate, to create further fear, and to build walls.

Look back in history, the richest periods of history, the most successful and egalitarian cultures occurred when the confluence of events allowed cross cultural mixing. Likewise many of the darkest periods were those of nationalistic assertions of greatness and cultural superiority.

Even small events like those surrounding Aloha Poke can reveal where this cultural struggle is headed. How does society react? How do our leaders react? We see a glimpse of where we are as a society.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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