Poor Jamie Oliver can’t get anything right these days. Whether it’s sugar tax, his chain of Italian restaurants, or something else, he has become one of the nation’s most detested figures, right up there with Bono and Meghan Markle’s Dad.
I’ve always liked Oliver, though, ever since those tasty Naked Chef days – and that’s not just the lasagna. So I felt rather sorry for him this week when he released new product called “punchy jerk” rice. You might think that it was named after someone kicked out of Wetherspoons at 2am, but was, in fact, a title guilty of “cultural appropriation”.
Labour Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler was first to put forward this charge, writing to Oliver on Twitter: “I’m just wondering do you know what #Jamaican #jerk actually is? It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products… Your jerk Rice is not ok. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.” Across the internet others chimed in to tell Oliver what a monster he had been, and he has since had to defend himself.
Cultural appropriation – for those who don’t know – is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” It has become one of the biggest social deaths for white Westerners, who feel increasingly worried about how to prevent such terminology being levelled at them. Earlier in 2018, a young American girl was hounded on Twitter for wearing a Chinese dress, and there have been other examples of well-meaning souls attacked in quite traumatic ways for engaging in “cultural appropriation”.
To some extent I empathise with cultural appropriation arguments. There are communities who do not get as much commercial value out of their creations as Oliver has received, and perhaps retailers should pay more attention to making sure that is remedied.
Even so, the direction of the argument has become extreme and McCarthyite. It has moved from being a social debate to a way of making people feel ashamed for wanting to eat a prawn masala.
Embracing different cultures is almost always a compliment, and was once seen as a mark of a progressive society, but is now almost always judged as sinister. Some of the accusations have become ridiculous and hyperbolic, as well as trivialising history. On Twitter today, Clive Lewis suggested that Oliver’s act fitted into a “whole picture” of oppression, writing “We didn’t just ‘adopt’ other cultures. We actively raped, pillaged, enslaved and destroyed some of them”. That a respected MP would escalate a packet of rice to rape leaves one questioning the faculties of all the rest.
Cultural appropriation is part of a “whole picture”, but that is one of the West gently eating itself up. There is something Maslowian about our search for everything wrong in our society. During a recent trip to Cambodia, I spent a day at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields, discovering the evils of the Khmer Rouge. I thanked my lucky stars to be alive, let alone live in 21st century Britain. When I logged onto Twitter later, I found that the nation had spent the day arguing about cultural appropriation on Masterchef. I wondered what on earth we were all up to – why our energies are so negatively invested?
It seems that the freer the society, the freer the outrage, and so we will go on having these cultural battles until we are met by something more sinister than supermarket rice – Russia, warfare, Trump, who knows – and forced to turn our attention outwards. Yes, Oliver probably doesn’t know much about jerk rice, but making his efforts to try new recipes out into a national scandal? That’s cultural stupidity.