Ethics and other people’s words: Quakers, ‘Living our Beliefs’, and appropriation

When is quoting from someone else a good thing – acknowledging your sources, learning from different people – and when is it problematic – risking stealing ideas or co-opting content without enough attention to its original context? In this post I want to consider a specific case which seems to me to raise a number of complex ethical questions about what is sometimes called cultural appropriation.

In 2016, a group of young British Quakers, supported by Graham Ralph, produced a volume called Living our Beliefs: An exploration of the faith and practice of Quakers. Overall, I think it’s a great project. Much of it is clear and well-written. It uses a wide range of engaging short extracts to present multiple perspectives alongside brief explanations in plainer language than often used in documents aimed at adults. It supplements and expands on Britain Yearly Meeting’s book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. It’s well-produced with good quality paper, printing and design. It’s potentially really useful for the Quaker community, and the way it was created and the fact that it exists are signs that we are taking the contributions of young Quakers seriously. All good.

I have also heard it praised because, unlike Quaker faith & practice, it includes extracts which are not by Quakers. I’m very much in favour of learning from other people. But I think reprinting their words in a book which aims to explain Quakerism potentially goes beyond learning from other people – there’s a sense in which it involves making their words part of our own tradition, and as I said at the start of the post, this raises complex ethical questions. If we are going to include material from outside the Quaker tradition, we need to think carefully about what that is and whether we have the right to use it. (I mean here the moral right – the legal issues, about copyright etc., are separate.)

I think there will be cases where something written by someone who was not Quaker is genuinely part of our tradition. For example, although Quaker faith & practice‘s general policy is only to include quotes by Quakers, there are a few exceptions. One major one is Biblical quotations. The authors of the Bible were not Quakers, and couldn’t have been – although early Quakers sometimes argued that they were returning to the position of the early Church, as much as creating something new, Quakerism just didn’t exist as such until the seventeenth century. But it came into being with (English translations of) the Bible at its core, and the Bible remains a significant part of Quaker tradition. Quoting from the letters of Paul, for example, seems more like acknowledging our roots and showing the sources of our ideas than like taking something from another tradition. I’m not sure, though, that most of the cases in Living our Beliefs are like this. 

To consider this in more detail, I went through the whole book and looked at the authorship of the quoted passages. I identified 34 passages in Living our Beliefs which are, as far as I can tell, written by non-Quaker authors.

Three notes about my process for this: 1) I made a complete list of these passages in the course of preparing this post, but don’t discuss every single one of them here – if you want the details, comment or email me and I can share the list. 2) Some modern authors could have a Quaker affiliation which isn’t reflected in their public internet presence. 3) It’s possible that not all those individuals quoted anonymously as “participant in” a Quaker event identify as Quakers, but under the suggestion I made about thinking about Quaker belonging in terms of participating in religion-games, participating in a Quaker event seems like a reasonable level of participation in the Quaker community and I therefore count those as Quaker sources. 

Of the 34 passages which appear to be have been written by people who are not Quakers, I identified some broad groups. 

There are quotes from the Christian or broader European tradition, which although not Quaker in origin do not involve a power imbalance between quoted and quoter. For example, there’s a quote from the Gospel of Matthew (p21), which is in the same position as Biblical quotes in Quaker faith & practice, discussed above. John Donne (p72), William Shakespeare (p28), and William Wordsworth (p75) are all staples of the ‘dead white men’ canon – and that might be a reason not to use them (boring, done before, reinforcing power structures which value those voices above others), but might also make them seem like reasonable sources to include (they, their communities and their reputations aren’t going to suffer from their words being used by Quakers). Closer to the edge but still in this category might be Elvis Presley (p28), although we might want to note the issues around musical appropriation, and Aristotle (p74), who although not Christian is still widely read as a foundational author in the philosophical canon, influential in many European and Islamic cultures. I also think that public documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (p55), are in this kind of situation – it’s more like the Quaker community are endorsing than stealing a statement intended to be widely (indeed, universally) applicable.

There are also quotes from named individuals who were not Quakers and may or may not have been sympathetic towards Quakers. For example, on page 13 there’s a quote from Moses Shongo, who is described as “a Seneca elder, 1800s”. I haven’t been able to find the original source for this quote – Google searches for it only turn up recent Quaker contexts – but I did find out a little more about Moses Shongo. He was opposed to white colonial settlement, but fought in the British army during the revolution. Given his complex relationship with the British, would he want to appear in a book produced by British Quakers? On what grounds do we take his words and print them in a work of our own? We undoubtedly have things to learn from his perspective, but does a quotation given without his life story and context enable us to do that in the most rewarding way?

There are two quotes from Gandhi, or allegedly from Gandhi (p22, 28). This is a complex one – Gandhi knew about Quakers, was friends with Quakers, and visited Woodbrooke. On the one hand, this makes it easy for Quakers to feel a friendship with him, and there was some form of relationship. On the other hand, Gandhi didn’t become a Quaker despite being well aware of the option, and he was definitely against British colonial action. In reprinting his words, where is the line between learning from him and bringing him into a community which he did not join?

One of these passages also raises another issue about the accuracy of citations, because “Be the change you want to see in the world”, didn’t originate with Gandhi in this form. This is a complex case but we should perhaps be crediting Arleen Lorrance instead.

There are a number of quotations which are attributed to groups rather than individuals. For example, on page 23 there’s something cited as a “Sufi teaching”, but I have been unable to find out where it’s really from. It’s cited in several places online as a Sufi saying, and something similar appears in a song by Matthew West – but it’s cited in Christian and Jewish contexts, not Sufi ones, so it may be that it is attributed to but not actually from the Sufi community. That being so, I have doubts about whether in this case we are succeeding in learning from the Sufi community (with which, it has been suggested, Quakers have much in common). 

Also in this category, there’s a “Kikuyu Proverb” on page 55, a quote from “Ubuntu philosophy” on page 72, and a “Cherokee legend” on page 34. Quoting something so general, rather than a named person, seems dehumanising when almost everything else is attributed to an individual. Is there a writer from that culture whose specific expression of this idea could be cited? For example, Nelson Mandela is cited by name (p56) as is Kenyan activist Wangaria Maathai (p56), so could Desmond Tutu, whose ‘ubuntu theology’ did much to popularise ubuntu ideas outside South Africa, be quoted directly on this idea? 

That said, cited individuals directly is not a complete cure for the problems of appropriation and misuse. The pattern of quotation of black leaders by white people who take words out of context, choose extracts which appear to support the status quo, or behave as if quoting a black leader is enough to end racism, has been written about by others in relation to Martin Luther King Jr (who is cited on pages 35 and 41). British Quakers are not an entirely white community, but at the moment we are a majority white community, and because we are proudly pacifist we may be especially prone to taking out of context quotes which support nonviolence and ignoring the parts of someone’s larger body of work which reflect on the difficulties of the struggle and the injustices faced by oppressed communities. King could be one example – Gandhi and Mandela, mentioned above, are also open to mistreatment in this way. 

I could go on. It’s not clear to me, for example, whether the quotations from Buddha (p27) and Confucius (p48) follow one of the patterns above, or form a distinct pattern of the use of other religious writings – which might include the “Sufi teaching”, if it is in fact Sufi in origin, and perhaps also a quote from Joseph Bracket (p48), who was a Shaker rather than a Quaker. However, I feel like I’ve raised more than enough complex questions for one blog post! 

Having considered these examples, what can we say about the book as a whole, and what implications does this have for future projects? I don’t want to hold any individuals blame-worthy here – a project like this is a vast undertaking, and the kind of detailed cross-checking and referencing-hunting which I have chosen to engage in for a few cases where I already suspected there might be problems is a huge amount of work. (This blog post has taken me perhaps eight or ten hours, and these are among my professional skills – and you might think it unfair to subject a work mainly by young people and produced by and for a faith community to the same standards of checking which are required for a PhD thesis.) However, the various specific problems raised by the examples discussed above are worth understanding and taking forward into future projects. They include issues of attribution, of generalisation over some populations and not others (there are such things as European proverbs, but they don’t appear, or perhaps don’t get cited in that way, in this collection), and the problems of different power relationships and often power imbalances between colonisers and colonised or differently racialised communities

As in Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment we are currently revising our book of discipline, and I think we need to give careful attention to these questions, especially as we consider big issues like whether to include quotations only from Quakers, or from a wider range of authors. How do we provide appropriate context to help people understand what is being quoted and why, and the different relationships between the sources and the context in which their words appear? How do we express respect and admiration, and acknowledge the people we have learned from, without ignoring the complexities of the situations involved or crossing the often contested boundary between accepting gifts and taking without consent? 

5 responses to “Ethics and other people’s words: Quakers, ‘Living our Beliefs’, and appropriation

  1. My argument against including other wisdom traditions would be, this is a guide to Quakers, even British Quakers. I see the Americans Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly in QFP- I would want the greatest part to be British Quakers. I want it to say, this is who we are, rather than this is what we like. Part of the Tao Te Ching has spoken to me today, I feel I am there, I find it reassuring, that work says a lot about my spiritual journey, but I would not want it in QFP. QFP or Living our Beliefs should be “This is who we are”. It would not be the only thing Quakers would read, I seek wisdom where it may be found, and am happy to introduce non-Quaker sources in Quaker discussion.

    • On the other hand, we (Quakers) draw our inspiration from many sources. In the case of Friends in Aotearoa, there’s too few of us to rely purely on local wisdom. To do so would result in stagnation. To me, Quakerism is a way of living, perhaps more so than a framework of beliefs. and I’ll take my inspiration from wherever I find it. If a sufficient number of other Quakers find the same source inspirational, then why shouldn’t the source of the inspiration be shared in our publications?.

      As for context, I feel that even if our interpretation is different from that of the originator, it matters little. After all, even when we quote from George Fox and other early Quakers, our understanding often differs from what they no doubt intended. To quote from the Quakers Aotearoa website: “Truth is an ongoing revelation. There is no point in the past at which definitive teachings were given which are applicable for all time. Rather the essence of love and truth which are at the heart of all will find different expression according to the times.”

      When it comes to inspiration from other communities instead of individuals, we can look at how beliefs, or perhaps world views of one community become absorbed into a more dominant community. Here in Aotearoa, the Māori concept of mauri (life force or energy that can be found in every living and non-living thing) is gradually making its way into how we Pākehā view the world – so much so, that some mountains, river catchments and forests (and I suspect, in time, all parts of the nation) have had their own personhood recognised legally. It’s not a case of appropriation. It’s a process of osmosis – a gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc. Isn’t this how we as a species have evolved culturally – by weaving new tapestries from the fabric of old ones? I don’t believe that is appropriation.

      Another example might be the <em<haka. Māori don’t consider it appropriation when performed by Pākehā with the respect and in the spirit it deserves. Today we may see a haka at a funeral, wedding, and other significant occasions regardless of ethnicity. Yet too often in the comments under YouTube videos of the haka we see non-Kiwis commenting about cultural appropriation or the ethnic makeup of the performers being too white. They fail to understand that the haka has mana (another Māori concept understood by most Pākehā) which is respected and valued by Kiwis.

      How would you feel if another community found value in our testimonies we refer to by the acronym SPICES, and included some or all aspects of it into their own teachings? Personally, I’d be delighted.

  2. Interesting slant Clare…but isn’t “what we are” really quite the same as “what we like”?
    On the topic of “my spiritual journey” that is unique & personal…never to be assigned as “our spiritual journey”.

    Peace Profound, Jules

  3. Pingback: Remembering Ancestors | Rhiannon Grant

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