Things I have learned about controversy

by redvultureblacksaffron

I have been reading over various pagan blogs and message boards for the past few days.

I started late on the Pagan Blog  Project, at the letter E. After all of this reading I’m starting to wish I’d started at C, so I could write C is for Controversy.

Before I get in to this, a little about me and my perspective: I met my first spirit teachers when I was nineteen years old. I made an off hand comment about seeing ghosts, and a friend who had been dealing with magic all her life immediately picked up on what was happening with me. She and her husband taught me how to shield, so I wouldn’t bring home every nasty spirit with a bone to pick within ten miles (this used to happen to me regularly). I sense that some people in the Pagan community(es) have trouble buying this sort of experience, but suffice to say I certainly felt it as though it were very real.

Likewise, I was taught to walk the void in service to the Morrigan. I was taught how to change my shape, how to pick up a sword, how to fight evil beings. I felt myself manipulate shadow,, and molded whatever I could imagine from the raw stuff of nothingness. The basics came quickly enough despite one or two highly unscrupulous ‘teachers’ who gave me more scars than they gave lessons. Since then I’ve practiced a very solitary, highly secretive path. Partly that’s because I have a lot of friends who are atheists and I weary of getting in to arguments like “but Red, you’re so smart! How can you possibly believe in something so stupid?” Or the anti-religion/polytheism lite, which goes something like “I believe deities are just many faces of the same deity.” Note that I don’t think that concept is completely without merit, but I do perceive deities as their own beings. They may all come from a Source, but they have differentiated themselves from one another in my experience. No offense to those of you who think differently, but sometimes the whole “deities are just containers for ideas, they’re not really gods” thing is tiring. I do literally believe in deities. They’re not solely archetypes or cultural creations to me.

Anyway, as far as a patron or patrons goes, I couldn’t quite figure it out. The Morrigan obviously–I don’t even remember Her showing up, She’s just always been there–but there was something else to it. Only recently did I figure out a Name of Netjer was trying to get my attention and with that, I felt the push to reach out and find some sort of community for the first time in over ten years.

Only…there is a lot of drama out there. I don’t know if you all realize how off putting that can be to someone taking their first very hesitant steps out of a solitary all the time practice. The amount of vitriol is intense and a little overwhelming. It’s not as bad in Kemeticism–I suspect because Kemetics are still a fairly small group compared to say, Asatru folk–but wow the absolute flood of general pagan drama can make it very difficult to find actual sources. Not to mention the fact that pagan communities still have HUGE, GLARING problems with gender essentialism and transphobia, among other things. Sorting through all of this in the hopes of finding solid friendships and good information is daunting at best.

THAT SAID. Sometimes? Controversy can be a good thing. Yes, I said it. If there are controversial people out there in our community well, I want to know why they’re controversial. Then I can make my own decisions about whether they are people I feel comfortable reading about or learning from. I want all the opinions I can possibly absorb. Not everyone out there has your best interests in mind just because they can claim the same label as you. It’s naive to expect that every person out there calling themselves a pagan is somehow a sibling of yours, or working on the same path as you, or always acting for the betterment of those around them. We do indeed have cult leaders, frauds, and predators who are hiding behind a religious/spiritual mask, deceiving those around them and justifying their bad behavior with manipulative, coldly performative ‘spirituality.’ I have watched videos of these sorts of people being interviewed and they turned my stomach with how calculated their ‘mystical’ experiences supposedly were. It happens. It’s a fact of life.

It should also be said that if you personally know for a fact that someone violated a consent boundary, for example, because you were there and saw it then by all means scream it from the rooftops. We deserve to know these things so we can avoid being likewise victimized because no one spoke out. Abuse thrives on silence and shame. Anything you can do to overcome those two things in legitimate predatory scenarios is a plus.

Abusers in religious communities likewise like to heap a ton of important sounding titles and experiences on themselves in the hopes that their victims will be intimidated in to keeping quiet (I felt violated by Big Name Pagan’s actions, but I must be wrong because there’s no way High Muckety Muck of Muck could be wrong). They often paint themselves as having special knowledge that only they can properly manage. Or perhaps they require members of their congregation to go through rituals that aren’t spelled out before hand, removing the ability to fully consent. If someone does leave the flock, as it were, they’re often treated as an outcast and a traitor.

Beware too of the soft sell cult. They’re not all upfront with the crazy. In fact what I’ve seen far more often in pagan communities is the love bomb approach. The supplicant starts out skeptical, but the group is so welcoming and the members so nice that slowly the new adherent starts thinking, how could this be dangerous? Everyone here is so nice! If the group operates around a concept or idea that sounds ridiclous but you hear a lot of people sayimg “I was skeptical at first, but now I see it makes sense!” Well…just be careful is all I’m saying. Beware instant friends.

What’s not okay, however, is all they hyperbole and mudslinging that goes on, usually on a very personal level. This kind of criticism is about the person themselves versus the person’s ideas and is often based on absolutely nothing concrete. It comes third, fourth, or fifth hand, often from biased sources. It’s more about the person’s personal habits and lifestyle than it is about their spiritual message or their spiritual methods. If the main argument revolves around in essence the person’s practice being “icky”, well, you can probably toss that opinion to the wayside.

And you know what? It’s not just the “ew gross” people. When someone brings up a legitimate concern with someone’s public practice, it is likewise not fair to distort that protest in to something like, “why can’t you be tolerant of other people?” Criticism in and of itself is not a bad thing, and painting someone with a bigoted brush because they don’t 100% accept every single assertion about a deity, tradition, or practice is manipulative at best. I think we fall prey to the Geek Fallacy of having to accept everyone (because people who exclude others are Evil), so the few dissenting voices are immediately demonized.

I think everyone ought to be particularly concerned with how we present arguments. Distortion should be avoided. Read what is said and respond only to that. Avoid putting words in people’s mouths or responding to an argument the other person didn’t actually make.I’m saying this because I’ve seen it happen again and again on message boards.

The specific thing I am thinking of here went something like 1) Poster A has a problem with Pagan B’s practice because Poster A does not feel Pagan B’s practice is compatible with the belief system both of them have claimed 2) Poster C comes in and informs Poster A that he is acting just like a homophobe (or other bigot flavor) because Poster A doesn’t like Pagan B’s practice, and omg we all have to agree on those practices lest we be painted as exclusionary. While often times discrimination and bigotry does come up in pagan circles (see my comments about gender essentialism) painting all discord as bigotry is in its own way offensive. Don’t muddy the waters. Doing so runs the risk of making light of discrimination that ends in people losing loved ones, employment, even their lives, especially since I’ve seen more than once where people cry bigotry right up until something actually bigoted happens (they’ll shout down the house about whether say, godspouses are real, but as soon as oh, a person of color says they feel unwelcome everyone is weirdly silent).

This is all one big plea to practice discernment. It’s easy to jump on bandwagons in spirituality. Walk by yourself for awhile. Listen more than you speak. (haha irony because I just went on for paragraphs) Don’t assume everyone is your friend. Above all remember that your spiritual practice has to come first. If all of this starts creating static in your godphone, unplug the internet and get your ass to your altar instead.

tl;dr dissenting voices are good. Baseless rumor mongering is not.