I am not weak

After I wrote about issues of thin privilege and Pagan fat shaming, I was following some of the conversation on social media. I retweeted T. Thorn Coyle’s post Sacred Body, Sacred Earth, saying that she wrote about bodies, not about weight. MadGastronomer raised some issues of her own with Thorn’s post, and was able to get me to think about the ways that I both appreciate and really dislike some of what Thorn wrote.

Victor Anderson, one of my beloved teachers, enjoined us to neither coddle nor punish weakness.

I don’t know what she means by weakness, but with my personal background, this sounds like either obesity is a weakness or the things that lead to obesity are weaknesses. If that’s not what’s meant, then starting this essay off this way is a very confusing choice.

Regardless of how poetically beautiful the following discussion is about walking a fine line with respect to the challenges and struggles we all face – and it is beautiful, and I largely agree with it in terms of how I’ve tried to approach my own disability – no one, not Thorn, not anyone, gets to call my disability weakness. Anyone who’s struggled with disability can tell you that disability demands strength in order to cope.

There are two other major problems, in my view, and they interact. Thorn talks about how her students all commit to exercise, and that they “must find their own relationship” with exercise. Fine and dandy; she can insist on that for her students, and people can decide whether or not to study with her. But then she says:

We all go through our struggles as best we can. We also help to hold each other accountable.

Sounds great…wait, what? Does that “we all” apply to her and her students, or the whole Pagan community? Because if she and her students want to “hold each other accountable,” go for it; free agreement freely entered. But if you are talking about the community as a whole – “us all” – then accountability is off the table. You don’t hold me accountable if you don’t know me and have a very, very specific relationship with me.

This, specifically, is what is the hardest for me. I have an invisible disability. Thorn writes that she has gone through some similar issues. I don’t know if she ever experienced the stares, the mutters, the grumbles and sighs about taking the elevator up one floor. I wouldn’t be surprised if her spiritual practice helps her cope with that. Mine does for me. But it doesn’t erase it, and those things get wearing. And that’s just the subtle stuff.

I don’t know if she’s ever been publicly confronted by a stranger who insisted that she demonstrate her right to use a particular accommodation. I have. It’s not fun. And yet there are plenty of people who think that doing so is some kind of public service, and actively encourage such hassling.*

I know that’s not what Thorn is calling for…well, actually, I don’t. I hope it’s not, and I don’t think it is. But since she doesn’t explain more clearly how, when, why, and where to – and more importantly, NOT to – do this “accountability,” she, like Dybing, is opening up the field to more shaming, more confrontations, more pain and heartache for people who already have their fair share and then some, thank you very much.

If she’s talking about just her and her students, fine and dandy. But the third problem is that it seems like she’s not – she talks about assessing other people, perfect strangers. She goes back and forth, saying more than once that we can’t know someone’s situation without knowing the person, and then says that she can visually assess someone’s overall health in a snap.

Bottom line is this: we cannot know what another’s life looks like on the inside, by observing it from the outside.

I don’t know if someone needs a ride to their workshop because they have fibromyalgia. I can look at someone and assess pretty well – fat or thin – how healthy they are overall, but I can’t really know without asking. … That won’t look the same from person to person. (emphasis mine)

Here’s the thing: I don’t really want to be asked for the umpteenth time. If you’re my teacher, that’s different. But otherwise, unless I offer, unless I open it up first, you don’t need to ask. Even if I’m requesting or using an accommodation. You don’t need to know.

So while Thorn is promoting an interesting philosophical/theaological approach which might even be similar to mine, there are parts of her post that continue to contribute to problems I experience.

Note: I am responding to this from my personal experience; I’m not assessing what she says about exercise, and I’m glad she clearly didn’t describe health in terms of weight, but she didn’t disavow it either. People with more experience discussing those things and more relevant lived experience will read those aspects differently.

*Yes, I know that the website promotes an app, and that the website has fine print saying to use the app and not get into a personal confrontation. That’s worth the pixels it’s written in. The site actively encourages users to report people based on a whole host of assumptions that will lead to massive numbers of reports of perfectly valid handicapped parking tag use and says that nothing bad will happen to handicapped people as a result. Bullshit.

For starters, it suggests leaving a note. That’s a bad thing right there – yet another reminder that other people think you’re a fake, a fraud, a lawbreaker. I’m not going to detail all the other kinds of fail caught up in their assumptions. As far as I can tell, the app is designed for California, but the whole point of the website (and associated Cafe Press materials) is to promote this kind of monitoring of other people’s behavior all over the place. That amounts to encouraging more confrontations like the one I experienced.

Crowdsourcing: Examples of magical victim-blaming

I’m working on an article about the problem of victim blaming by magical practitioners. I have a handful of examples – including one stunning one from Buckland – but would like to collect as many as I can. So please share: where have you seen or experienced victim blaming in magical contexts?

I’m interested in either examples of written material that I can cite (print and internet both) or first-hand stories that you are willing to have me share and cite in the article. Unfortunately, second-hand stories (“This happened to a friend of mine…”) are not as useful.

If you have a story of your own that you’re willing to share, please include your reaction. Did you recognize it as victim-blaming right away? How did it make you feel? How did you respond, both at the time and after the fact?

Thanks, everyone!

Invisible disability and invisible critics

Since my collaboration with DMW about internalized criticism, I’ve been remembering one of the more painful forms of internal criticism, and how I need to include myself in my compassionate view of the world.

One of the worst things about an invisible disability, like the one I have, is the feeling that I need to justify myself to others when I use accommodations or other things that aren’t expected for able-bodied people. The absolute worst was at the gym. Until the latest decline in my condition, I used the gym frequently: I needed to work out, but for me, working out was at a level of intensity much less than normal for my apparent-to-others condition. I felt like I should hang a sign around my neck explaining my disability so that other people wouldn’t judge me. I was projecting my own self-critique onto others and worrying about it a lot.

As a result, I was pretty serious about telling people close to me not to judge others in similar ways. When my spouse watched someone use the elevator to go down one floor rather than taking the stairs, and said something afterwards about how the person looked perfectly capable of walking down the stairs, I was quick to point out that my spouse has a knee condition that sometimes makes walking down stairs painful and isn’t visible to the naked (or clothed) eye. Discussions like that have really gotten through to my spouse – he doesn’t make those kinds of judgments any more. At first he just got tired of hearing me come up with possible alternative explanations (I’m quite inventive at it, apparently.) but it did actually change his awareness after a while.

Along with “It’s More Complicated Than That,” one of my personal catchphrases is “You Just Don’t Know.” You don’t know whether that person has PTSD, or diabetes, or knee trouble, or anything else. You don’t know what choices they’re making, or how many spoons they have left, or whether that silver necklace was a present and isn’t worth that much anyway, so that’s why they’re wearing a piece of jewelry while begging for food money. You don’t know whether I decided to use the handicapped parking tag because I can’t face one more long walk today and might end up in the ER if I tried, but I still need to buy food. You just don’t know.

During the recent period when my disability worsened, these sorts of concerns became an issue for me not just at the gym but in more and more of everyday life. As a result, my internal chorus of critics got much, much louder. (It didn’t help that I wasn’t getting good support from the medical community – are you still paranoid if the doctor says, “I just don’t see what’s causing this,” and implies it’s all in your head?) Finally, I was expressing some of this internal criticism to my spouse, and talking about how I was afraid that other people would think badly of me for “faking,” and how it all made me doubt myself and wonder if it really was all in my head or all my fault somehow. He said, “You can come up with all these reasons that the homeless guy has an iPod and I shouldn’t judge him for that. Can’t you apply some of that compassion to yourself?”

I was stunned. I had never thought of it that way. Yes, I spoke up to others about the fact that invisible disabilities exist, but at the same time, I had internalized the worst of the criticisms. I had internalized the mindset that encourages people to go up to drivers using handicapped spots and challenge them to justify their use of the handicapped tag. I told others not to judge but was quick to judge myself and to worry about how other people were judging me.

These days, I’ve quieted my internal chorus of critics quite a bit, and learned not to care very much about whether or not other people are judging me silently. I’ve learned to take my own lessons to heart: compassion isn’t just for me to give to others.

Collaborative post: self-hate and trolling

This is a collaborative post written with the assistance of DetroitMechWorks, a fellow commenter in the Slacktivist community. Recently DMW used a sock puppet with the username honestwoman to post trollish comments and stir up controversy. The situation came to a head as DMW accelerated the frequency of posting and the ridiculous and inflammatory nature of “honestwoman’s” comments. Some community members started to speculate about whether this was a deliberate effort, calling honestwoman a Poe, a parody of extremism that is indistinguishable from real extremism.

Unfortunately, in the process, several people were offended and hurt by honestwoman’s statements. I responded with a “nuke” post when my personal sore spot was hit. Shortly thereafter, the parody effort was revealed over honestwoman’s username, and then DMW stepped up with his own username to admit that it was him and to apologize. Some of DMW’s statements in his apologies were both familiar to me and related to my recent attempts to explore how self-hate gets externalized, and I proposed this collaboration. DMW graciously agreed to join me. Following paragraphs are labelled with the respective authors’ names and colored differently. (The colors are an experiment for me – if they really don’t work, say so, and I’ll undo them.)

Literata: I realized that DMW had inadvertently helped me identify my personal trigger: accusations of “faked” disabilities and especially accusations that people with disabilities are faking in order to get money. That was the last straw that made me nuke, and it is a trigger for me because I have spent so much time and effort overcoming my own self-blame about my personal disability. When my disability worsened a couple years ago, to the point where I can no longer work full-time, I had an episode of major depression where one of the dominant things that drove the depression was the idea that people didn’t believe me or wouldn’t believe me about my condition. It was almost as if I had the chorus of doubting voices in my own head – and I spent so much time and energy justifying myself to them, and preemptively arguing with them, that it contributed to my withdrawal from the outside world. These kinds of critics are never silenced. Coming out of the depression was in part a process of eliminating those voices from my own psyche. When I heard them again from the outside, it echoed some of the worst times of depression, and I reacted with anger, an anger disproportionate to the situation. What struck me about your apologies, DMW, was how similar some of your descriptions sounded to the kind of experience I had during my depression. It was interesting to me that my defensive response came when you hit on something that echoed my depression, but you described the entire experience of using the Poe-sock-puppet as a lot like my internal experience, just turned outwards. Was the Poe a kind of defensive response of your own?

DMW: Yes, the Poe was originally a personal attack on myself.  During the original posts that led to the creation of the Poe, I had come under fire for being “hostile” when I was trying to express my very real fears.  As a result, I fired off a post under the pseudonym with the negative words I heard all of the time when trying to express myself.  Essentially it was a bait post, and I was expecting people to agree with the Poe in attacking me.  The extremely negative response to the Poe actually made me feel much better, and gave me hope that people weren’t trying to hurt me, and were in fact trying to help.  Looking back, it was a very immature thing to do, but at the same time, there are a lot of hurtful things that I just shrug off in my daily life, and don’t think about, or try not to.  It may have something to do with my army experience, and the need to control my emotions and reactions, but I am not a therapist.

Literata: That sounds familiar. I had internalized doubts and fears about how others viewed me – unreasonable ones, as it turned out – and was fighting with them constantly. They were hard to express, though, and it wasn’t until I had an opportunity in therapy to “voice” some of what my internal criticizers “said” that I was able to examine the ideas behind them and realize that they were unreasonable. It was especially hard because I knew in some ways I had internalized prejudice, and so it was hard to point to an external example. That made it more difficult to communicate what was going on inside me for a long time. The other danger was that since I had those concerns about what other people thought about me, I was at great risk of projecting those expectations and misinterpreting small signs as evidence that really, deep inside, those people were thinking exactly what my internal criticizers were. The Poe had a positive result for you in that you were able to know that the people who criticized you really weren’t thinking the same things as your internal critics.

DMW: I do see what you mean here.  Every word I threw around as the Poe was in some manner created by me.  It was very representative of the self-criticisms that I deal with daily, and the fears and concerns that consistently run through my head when I am feeling negative. The words I used were designed to get a reaction, since they were the words that tend to annoy and anger me.

Literata: You wrote a little bit about how you “have been on the receiving end of these types of arguments” and about an incident that “inspired” this Poe. Please tell me a little more about that. What made you pick that username, for example?

DMW: The incident that REALLY inspired the Poe was a discussion about corporate criminals.  I was discussing on another board I post on the corporate crimes that are going on, and one of the posters said that the solution to the problem was prison rape for the offenders.  I personally am horrified by the idea of sexual assault being tolerated in any capacity, and called him on it.  The person who I was speaking to refused to be sidetracked, claiming that I was trying to defend corporate criminals, and that I obviously was an idiot who didn’t understand the truth.  And that was what stuck in my mind, this obsession with “I’m right, and you’re wrong, and I am telling you the TRUTH.”  So, honestwoman.  I swapped the gender, and since I was making someone who attacked using feminist-esque terms, It HAD to be “woman”.  I was tempted to make it “Honestwomyn” but that would probably have been a dead giveaway as  to the Poe status of the post.

Literata: You wrote: “I find it frightening how easy it was for me to channel the self-loathing and doubts I feel into criticisms of others,” and “Most of what I wrote are doubts and fears that I myself have about my own life.” You implied that there was almost a feeling of relief when you wrote the honestwoman material. What was that like?

DMW:The negative response to Honestwoman really reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of the people on the board.  I know that’s cliche, but the anger directed at someone who really deserved it almost felt like justification.  As far as relief when writing the material, well, it was just easy to put together a caricature of every person who I can’t stand and then speak for them.

DMW: That’s what the Poe was, and every word she said was nearly the polar opposite of what I believe and stand for:  I try to check my spelling and grammar on my posts, but for Honestwoman, I had to go back and deliberately insert errors.  I try to have a decent grasp of history, Honestwoman was a complete historical illiterate.  I admit it and apologize when I’m wrong, but Honestwoman’s most true line was “So I got a Fact wrong, doesn’t change the fact that I’m RIGHT!”  Honestwoman played race cards, religious cards, and lookist/ablist cards, while I feel guilty if I claim my G.I. Bill.

DMW: In a very real way, Honestwoman was nothing more than a channeling of pure Id.  It can be very easy to do, but I honestly felt sick every time I wrote posts under the handle.  It’s a little thing that still affects me, but I feel guilty when I hurt others. The repeated posts that suggested that people were not only angry, but HURT and offended, well that’s when it really started to get bad.

Literata: How did you stop? What did you think when the community started speculating about whether or not it was a Poe – did you intend for it to be discovered? When you started, did you think about how you would stop?

DMW: I never intended to do the Poe for more than two or three posts.  It was just going to be a drive-by troll and that would be it.  I stopped because people were really getting offended, and there was a real sense to me that I was causing real distress.  I never thought about stopping, how long I would do it, it just started going on and on.

DMW: Once again, attention is a HARD thing to ignore.  I find it ironic that my best writing has never been published, my best videos have about 400 hits, but my heavily typoed porn  has over 45,000 downloads.  I don’t know if that means that my negative impulses are the ones that are the most profitable or what, but It kinda frightens me.  It’s like when I do the right thing, nobody cares, but when I do the wrong thing, the world says “Give Us More!”

DMW: I stopped doing the Poe because of 2 reasons.
1.  I hate hurting people.  I get sick playing “Bad Guys” in video games, fercryingoutloud.
2. To continue, I would have had to find even worse things to say.  And I was rapidly running out of material from my own life to draw on.  There are a few topics that REALLY anger me that I could have gone for, but that would NOT be a good thing for me to do morally or spiritually.  (Plain Vanilla ablism/lookism/bigotry are offensive to me, but not killing rage offensive.  It just says that whoever is espousing those views to me is an idiot.  Now, if you ever want to see me furious, here’s the topics that send me totally nuts: Genocide Denial, Single Fathers are Molesters, and BAD SF being passed off as legitimate fiction.)

DMW: In closing, from me at least, I still know what I did was wrong.  There’s really no excuse for it.  I can spend a lot of time justifying it and making excuses, but at the end of the day, I knew I was doing something wrong, and chose to go ahead anyway.   I hope that others can learn from the error, and how such a thing can happen even to someone who wants to be a good person. And to everyone I hurt.  I am sorry.

Literata: Thank you for the heartfelt apology and thank you even more for joining me in this exploration of what happened and why. It sounds like a few good things came out of this ugly incident: You found out that the people on the board aren’t like your internalized critics, even if they’re hard on you sometimes, and I discovered my trigger, which lets me handle that better in the future.

Literata: Hopefully, this can show some people who are immersed in self-hate, whether they’re internalizing it or externalizing it, that there are ways out, that you don’t have to let that feeling take you over. Find someone you trust and talk it over. Get an honest assessment – because it’s almost certainly not as bad as you think it is – and use it as a stepping-stone to start walking away from the internal chorus of criticism. There are other choices. Find them. Make them.

Don’t tell me to “free my mind”

One of the writers on the same Pagan e-zine that I write for posted an article this past month that made me truly furious. I commented on it, and she replied with a non-reply, so I’m going to express my analysis a little more fully here. In short: claiming that we all create our own reality – and that our minds are the entire determinant of our reality – is victim-blaming, insulting to people who don’t have your privilege, privilege-blindness, and sometimes flat-out dangerous or abusive. Here are the key parts of her post:

Once you understand that there is nothing certain that there is no one absolute truth then you have become empowered. It is at this point that you truly understand that anything … ANYTHING is possible and that you and only YOU are The Creator of your own life experience. You have infinite possibilities. There are no limits or boundaries to what you can experience in this lifetime. Isn’t that truly amazing?! What is it that you most desire to do in this lifetime? What is it that you have been told you will never be able to do? And why is it you believe them? I don’t believe them. I know that I can do whatever it is I desire most to do in my lifetime. I am the only one who places restrictions on myself. And those limitations are by my own choosing.
. . .
Regardless of what other people believe and what they think is impossible, I’m here to tell you that you can create your reality. You can have, be and do whatever it is you most desire. You ARE the creator of your life experience. So start deliberately creating!

In my comment, I said that what the author wrote is demeaning and insulting to people like me who have disabilities and very real limitations in their lives. Saying that “I am the only one who places restrictions on myself. And those limitations are by my own choosing,” implies that my physical disability is something I have chosen, and that if I consciously chose otherwise, I could make it disappear. That’s as reasonable as saying that if I flap my arms hard enough, I could fly.

Her reply was that “I am truly sorry you feel that what I have written is demeaning and insulting. I believe that life is all perception and perception is subjective. What I deem as reality may or may not be yours. This piece is meant to be inspirational and empowering to those individuals who feel powerless in their current life experience. I’m sorry you don’t feel it was. Love and light to you.”

My comment was tough but moderate in tone, because I felt the author genuinely deserved a chance to say that she (I think the author is female, but I’m not positive.) didn’t mean these words to apply to, say, gravity, or physical disability; basically she deserved a chance to admit that there are things in the world that aren’t subjective. But her reply simply infuriated me more. If I were speaking to her directly, I would use the refutation of telling her that her fly is unzipped or her shoe is untied. If she really believes what she’s saying, she’d just think about it and change it, not look down and do the zipper by hand or tie her shoelaces by hand. Since I don’t have that recourse, I’m going to explain why this position infuriates me and why this is insulting and demeaning by being privilege-blind and why it can be actively dangerous.

The absolute worst of this kind of nonsense comes out of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and related works. The so-called “Law of Attraction” touted by Byrne et al. says that whatever you think about draws similar events to you and makes them happen in your life. This isn’t just about thinking positive thoughts – this is stated as a natural law, and when faced with a question about the Holocaust, Byrne responded: “if [the Jews’] dominant thoughts and feelings were in alignment with the energy of fear, separation, powerlessness and having no control over outside circumstances, then that is what they attracted.” Byrne would rather blame victims for everything bad that happens to them instead of admitting that there are things in her world that she can’t control. The author of the post avoided blaming me directly for my disability, when I tried to confront her moderately politely about it, but she didn’t deny that she thinks my disability might be my own fault, either. That’s insulting, and degrading, and dehumanizing.

Starhawk had a good description in one of her books – I think Truth or Dare, but I haven’t been able to find it lately – about how the idea that “we create our own reality” in the puerile sense adopted by this author is really only true for people who have incredible amounts of privilege already. People who are generally upper middle class, have more racial privilege, cissexual, able-bodied, and so on, those sorts of people can maintain the illusion that they create their own reality, because they do have a tremendous ability to get the world to do what they want. But that ability doesn’t come from their minds. It comes from their status, which isn’t something everybody has. Ask a subsistence-level farmer if she can create her reality – she’ll look at you as if you’ve lost your mind, or she’ll say, sure, she can, as long as that reality involves working incredibly hard just to keep her family fed, as long as there are no weather upheavals or local wars.

But what the author of this post, like Byrne, is peddling isn’t just insulting to me and people like me. It can be actively dangerous. She’s standing on the roof of a tall building and insisting that she’s keeping herself up so high by flapping her arms. She says that she wants to empower me, so that I too can flap my arms and rise to the same heights. But what she actually gives an example of in her post is an instance where she says that she didn’t let little things like possibly not having a place to live discourage her: “We gave our thirty-day notice without even having a place lined up.” That’s not a message of empowerment, and it’s not about avoiding discouragement. That’s telling people that they should be reckless and believe that everything will come out all right. It also actively discourages them from going out and finding the tools they need to actually be empowered. It’s like her standing on the roof and flapping her arms, and then telling someone that the fact she doesn’t fall is proof that if the other person walks off his roof and flaps his arms too, he won’t fall either. Why should he look for a ladder to climb one floor higher to where you are? Just “free your mind!”

Yes, your attitude and perceptions make a difference, and can even make the difference between success and failure. But having a positive attitude isn’t an adequate substitute for taking basic responsibility for your own life, within the limits you encounter. It’s also not grounds to blame people for bad things that have happened to them or for the limits or burdens they encounter. Sorry, lady: The Matrix was cool, but it was just a movie. I feel sorry for how bad it’s going to hurt when the ground comes up and hits you one of these days.

Tolerance, pluralism, and safe space

There’s been some major upheaval on another blog I read frequently: the blogger has moved to the Patheos portal, and a lot of his very active and tightly-knit community of commenters are seriously upset about this, because Patheos does not meet the standards that community had established for inclusiveness. Since I’ve also recently read Gus diZerega’s post calling for religious pluralism rather than religious tolerance, and Jonathan Kirsch’s God Against the Gods, about the conflicts between polytheism and monotheism, and Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, about the differences between major world religions, the subjects of tolerance, pluralism, and safe space have been on my mind a lot lately. A lot of people don’t understand the difference between tolerance and pluralism, and even more people don’t understand that there is a third option: safe space. A lot of people want to work towards safe space, but because they miscall it tolerance, their very language undermines them and can be used against them by the kind of bigots they are trying to work away from.

Tolerance is an appropriate description of the attitude taken by the majority or the powerful when they decide to accept some things about the minority or those without power. Parents tolerate their two-year-old’s tantrums; countries with state religions may tolerate those who believe otherwise. Not every use of the word implies such a huge power disparity, of course: Roman Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians started learning to tolerate the differences among them after the Thirty Years War, both in areas that were Protestant-controlled and those Catholic-controlled. But it does imply a power inequality and that differences existence on sufferance, not because of approval or agreement to disagree.

Pluralism implies that there is more than one way to do or to be, and that more than one of those ways is protected. The US Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech is an effort to enshrine pluralism in the country’s laws. The government has, in effect, an agreement to disagree with others: the government’s power must be used to support the ability of others to disagree with it or criticize it. When certain kinds of speech are restricted, we slip back to tolerance, and the government deciding what is to be tolerated. Sometimes that’s necessary, but the principle in the Constitution is usually interpreted by courts as an instruction to be as close as possible to pluralism. The decisions by courts that some things, like “fighting words,” or incitement to violence, are intolerable is a point we’ll return to later. Pluralism, by its very nature, is inherently in a state of turmoil: people are allowed to say things like “You’re stupid,” and “You shouldn’t listen to him,” and even “He shouldn’t be allowed to say that,” or, in other words, “I’m using my position under pluralism to criticize pluralism!”

Safe space is where intolerance is not tolerated. Safe space is the idea of tolerance taken through pluralism and out the other side, to where tolerance becomes not just the powerful’s promise not to hurt those who disagree with them, but a reclaiming of that power by the previously powerless, to be used in their defense. It is inherently more regulated than pluralism – pluralism is the laissez-faire form of conversation, if you will. Safe space, like an effort to rectify economic inequalities, attempts to rectify power inequalities in conversation. That requires using power, and in particular, using it against the people who usually have more power.

Safe spaces exist because pluralism isn’t inherently safe. Pluralism is dangerous: people get to say things like, “I know better than you do what you should do with your body,” or “You’re not really a human being,” or “I don’t think you should exist.” I like a lot of things about pluralism, and I would never, ever try to enshrine the ideas of a safe space in law, for example, but pluralism is hard, and sometimes we need places that allow us to retreat from that. It hurts to be worn down every day. Even when each individual insult is light as a feather, at the end of the day you can barely stand up because of the fifteen featherbeds’ worth of insults that have landed on you, even carelessly, even accidentally.

Yes, safe spaces create the danger of an echo chamber, where we only listen to people who already agree with us. But for people who are routinely hurt by everyday life, there’s little danger of that becoming an issue right now. All I have to do is walk out the door to see people who disagree with me, some who show it quite regularly. Yes, safe spaces use power, and no, that use of power isn’t always “fair” by everyone’s definition of fair. But it’s something that I believe needs to be done, and especially when that use of power happens only to those who have given consent by entering the safe space to begin with, it’s a lot better than what happens on the outside. It’s not reverse repression: it’s an attempt to dream, and maybe even to create small pieces of shared dreams, of what a lack of repression would look like.

And yes, safe spaces do exclude those unable or unwilling to cooperate. That’s one good reason that most places aren’t safe spaces, actually. And it’s why creating safe spaces requires a major commitment from those enforcing them to be willing to reexamine their own motives, to make sure they aren’t letting their desire for safety become a cover for their own prejudice, and so that they are using that power in as minimal a way possible.

A claim that pluralism solves all ills is willful blindness. Prothero is right about this: many major religions have fundamental, irreconcilable differences about the world and the metaphysical. For religions and religious interpretations that make exclusive truth claims, existing in a pluralistic space can be hard, and if they create pluralism in areas where they have power, it is a remarkable exercise in tolerance. And they will reveal this by having limits on what they tolerate, just as the government has limits on some kinds of speech, even while holding itself to its promise of pluralism as much as possible. Kirsch is right that monotheism fosters exclusive truth claims and gives a stunning account of how hegemonic power and exclusive truth claims have been used to reinforce each other. I’ve met many monotheists who don’t make exclusive truth claims; perhaps they can move the center of gravity in their religions closer to a point where more mutual respect is possible. But I don’t know, and it’s certainly not the case right now.

Right now, plenty of bigots are still pretending that their religious (or other) bigotry is “fact,” rather than just asserting their right to speak (or act) as bigots. And that means that safe spaces are still needed. It doesn’t mean that everywhere should be a safe space: I disagree with diZerega’s conclusion that a commitment to pluralism should be required of all “true spirituality,” because what he means isn’t just pluralism in terms of speech, but a kind of mutual respect between religions that is not possible for religions with exclusive truth claims. I don’t want to say that those aren’t “true spirituality.” DiZerega wants a kind of safe space in the entire sphere of religion; he thinks religions should not tolerate intolerance. I think it would be wrong for me to dictate to those religions in their own space, and, frankly, I am committed to pluralism, which means that in areas that neither one of us controls, or where we agree not to exercise certain powers – like the public sphere – I have to “tolerate” their intolerance. And I do. But not in all spaces.

In this space, I commit to using my power to try to create a safe space. I haven’t made a comment policy yet, and this theoretical discussion isn’t very clear as one, but I’ll work on refining it. For now, let me say that I want to make this space safe for people of color, for women, for people who are QUILTBAG (Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transsexual or Transgender, Asexual, or Gay), for people with disabilities, for people of any religion who do not make exclusive truth claims or disparage my religion, and more. Because hurtful speech does harm, and allowing that speech is consenting or contributing to that harm. I will warn you, and then I will ban you. And if you think I’m making this space less safe for you in some way, please, let me know about it, and I will listen. Help me make this safe space.

Living with, not dying from disease

This is in some ways a follow up to “I refuse to live in fear.” The NY Times has a brief interview with the author of a new book, After the Diagnosis: Transcending Chronic Illness. This is something near and dear to my heart because I live with chronic illness. The author, Seifter, who is himself a person with a chronic illness (diabetes, in his case), says that people with chronic disease should exercise some denial. That’s right, denial! A healthy denial is a good thing, he says, “within reason,” because “everyone needs the chance to forget their disease for a while and think of other things. Otherwise, they can become their disease.”

This is another way that I refuse to live in fear. I refuse to live in illness. Oh, my illness impacts me all the time, sometimes more, sometimes less, and that doesn’t go away with my denial. Denial doesn’t make me able to run, it doesn’t make me less tired when I get tired, or less dizzy when I get dizzy. But it does help me deal with those things. Denial is, in fact, a kind of magic, in the Wiccan sense. Not the magic that fixes all my problems, poof!, with a wave of my wand, but the kind of magic that makes life better; more filled with love, more meaningful, and yes, even physically less painful.

On that last point, there’s a specific kind of denial that’s extremely healthy. I think of it as shifting my focus. It’s part of the way I’ve learned to deal with pain from my chronic illness. When I have pain, the more I concentrate on the pain, the worse it gets. I have to shift my focus away from it. I don’t say “La la la, I don’t hurt!” because that’s not the point. I acknowledge it and then refuse to let it dominate my experience. Sometimes I do that by meditating, even briefly. Sometimes I distract myself with something else engaging. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it goes a long way towards relieving the pain without medication most of the time and helping me tolerate whatever remains. It’s not that my pain is purely psychologically controlled, either in starts or stops, but I can control my response to it, and that helps my experience of it. It’s magical enough for me – and certainly works better than the docs’ best attempts to medicate me for it, so far.

I also refuse to let my illness dominate my life in other ways. Yes, I have to make adaptations and accommodations; so does my husband, and so do my friends and extended family and others I interact with. But one of the ways that an adaptation can be most successful is when it becomes nearly invisible. I use a wake-up light instead of an alarm clock; no problem. I don’t have to think about that every day now, so I am not reminded of my illness every time I set my alarm. And when it does remind me, I can shift my focus away from it, not in an “everything’s okay now” kind of way, but in a way that acknowledges the change and refuses to dwell on it.

I refuse to let just one aspect of my life dominate the others; I choose, to the best of my ability, how to define my life, my environment, my interactions. I recognize that I have more choices than are obvious, and among other things, I can create new choices for myself by redirecting my attention. That ability to direct my attention is one of the fundamental skills of magic, and this is why. Magic isn’t all about showy results – most of it is about what we do and who we are every day.