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No More Lasagna

piece of lasagna with fork
photo by Becca Fawley

I am not Italian, or even of Italian descent. Does that mean I have to stop ordering lasagna?

According to some culturally sensitive souls at the University of Ottawa, the answer might be “yes.”

Jennifer Scharf has taught a beginning yoga class at the university, designed to include disabled students, since 2008. However, this fall she received notice that the school’s Centre for Students with Disabilities would not be offering any sort of yoga instruction for the school year. Scharf, sorry to hear of the decision, offered to work for free if the concern was financial.

A student representative replied that “there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” and that “a couple students and volunteers […] feel uncomfortable with how we are doing yoga while we claim to be inclusive at the same time.” Scharf, while attempting to remain understanding, emphasized that the introductory course was “just stretching” and offered to rename the class “stretching for mental health” or “mindful stretching” instead.

The decision was final. No more downward dog.

“Cultural appropriation” began as an academic term of art, but has now filtered into debates on college campuses, sports arenas and, of course, the Internet. It is sometimes used in the context of discussing real problems, such as using another culture’s spiritually significant artifacts out of context or perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes. But all too often, the term is used to cry foul on a benign cultural exchange in the name of defending those who did not ask to be defended.

In an interview with Ottawa magazine, Scharf clarified that to her understanding, there was a single person who pushed for the Centre to drop their yoga offers. That person, who Scharf has chosen not to name, never approached her with any concerns prior to the decision to cancel the class. She characterized the incident as “bullying dressed up as political sensitivity.”

The complainer was, at best, also misguided about the history of yoga in North America. This is not the first time someone has tried to argue that yoga as it is currently practiced in many Western countries constitutes cultural appropriation, but the fact that it is not a new argument does not make it a well-supported one. As Michelle Goldberg explained at Slate, these arguments ignore the fact that Indians themselves made an effort to export yoga in the late 19th century, in the hopes of undermining the very colonialism and oppression that were cited in the email to Scharf.

Much like Americans, who are happy to export our movies, music and fast food around the globe, Indians have played an “active, enthusiastic role” in globalizing their culture, yoga included. Cultural exchange is not appropriation by default just because one of the cultures has suffered injustice in the past; yoga is no more appropriative than classes teaching martial arts or salsa dancing.

Moreover, there is the issue of free speech at play. In the controversy over the Washington Redskins, unlike the incident at the University of Ottawa, many people agreed that the team’s name and logo are offensive, including actual members of the culture at issue. As I wrote at the time, if this backlash grows powerful enough to damage the brand, team owners will want to change it without prompting. In the meantime, the ongoing trademark battle has pushed the National Football League to file a brief listing the names of a variety of registered trademarks that use offensive language but that have not been stripped of their legal protection. Regardless of whether you believe the Redskins ought to change their name, the NFL’s argument that a double standard is at play is hard to ignore.

Cultures have exchanged worthwhile ideas (and few are more worthwhile, in my view, than lasagna) for as long as there have been cultures. The Romans borrowed from the Greeks, the Greeks from the Phoenicians. To my knowledge, nobody is arguing - yet - that Westerners should stop using Arabic numerals or silk or coffee just because they originated elsewhere on the globe.

It is not unreasonable for someone to be put off by the inappropriate use of a culturally significant symbol - think of a Native American totem or a Christian cross - being used in a disparaging or trite way. There is a big gap, however, between thoughtfully discussing such transgressions and simply shutting down anything that might offend somebody somewhere, sometime, for some real or imagined reason.

The individual who was disturbed by yoga at the University of Ottawa could have written a letter to The Fulcrum, the university’s student paper, expressing his or her concerns. He or she could have taken to social media, written a blog post or even approached Scharf in person. Or the individual could have simply made the personal decision not to participate in yoga. Instead, the unilateral decision to shut down the course deprived many students of a resource they valued without the pesky need to convince anyone else that anything was wrong with practicing yoga.

For now, Ottawa students must do without their “mindful stretching.” But at least I still have my lasagna.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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