Speaking from (thin) privilege

There’s a dustup in the Paganiblogosphere right now that was kicked off by an elder speaking about his “concern” about obesity among Pagans. This was not a good example of someone with privilege speaking carefully to those without.

Peter Dybing apparently spoke without being aware of the problem of fat shaming. That happens; part of having privilege is not having to think about it, hence the idea of the invisible knapsack. But when called on it, you have to step back and consider the situation, especially from the point of view of the person who is telling you about an experience that you don’t have – being fat, being Pagan, being whatever.

Do people abuse that? Yes. The “War on Christmas” is a made-up piece of propagandistic puffery that some Christians use to make themselves feel good about being an embattled minority. When they bring up concerns like that, you can assess the situation and make a sound argument that they are misusing the concepts or simply being jerks.

But people who have experienced fat-shaming speak convincingly, to me at least, about how being fat is experienced as a lack of privilege, how it is used to marginalize them and as grounds for mistreating them. Some people could continue to deny that; I don’t see how they could if they actually listened to their co-conversationalists, but I suppose it’s possible.

Once you know you’re speaking about an issue from a position of privilege, the situation changes. There are lots of rhetorical tactics that are available to you that continue to disempower people who have less privilege, and a great many of them are laid out with delicious sarcasm in Derailing for Dummies. (I’m sorry about the ableist title; the website says it will change.) One that’s not mentioned there is speaking in a way that contributes to the marginalization of the group while claiming nothing but the best of motives; that’s concern trolling.

More importantly, if people tell you that you are contributing to the problem, you have to take a looooong step back and look at what you’re doing. I think Dybing’s approach, though it might have been well meant, did fundamentally suggest that we increase fat shaming in Pagan circles. He might not have thought of it that way, but when it was pointed out to him, I haven’t seen him explain how he or anyone else can possibly “raise awareness” about this issue without it contributing to or outright degenerating into hurtful fat shaming.

Speaking about an issue from a position of privilege is hard. You have to do “extra” intellectual work to examine your own position. You have to do “extra” emotional work to apply imaginative empathy to the experiences that others tell you about and how others may perceive your speech. If you’re smart, you’ll do “extra” shadow work to deal with your own problems surrounding these issues.

But that “extra” work is the least we can do for people who are marginalized on an ongoing basis, every day of their lives, whether it’s because of gender, sexuality, appearance, or anything else. I guarantee that it doesn’t add up to a tenth of the “extra” experience of problems, of being hurt, of struggling just to be treated equally that they go through. So I don’t think we can really call it “extra” at all.

Note: I am far from perfect. I am speaking partially from experience here, and in the full expectation that I, too, will screw up on privilege issues in the future. It’s basically unavoidable. If someone needs to point me to this post of my own in the future, I promise I’ll step back and listen, like I advise here. I’m writing it because I think it’s the best contribution I can make to the ongoing conversation. 

Christian Privilege

Here’s a very interesting reflection on the nature of Christian privilege that includes an “invisible knapsack” type list of specific examples of privilege. I recently thought about constructing a list like this, but ultimately decided not to; it would be too easy for someone with Christian privilege to dismiss a list like that as merely me complaining – see #18.

So I’m very glad to see it done, and done pretty well. I have problems with some of the way the list is put together – a couple of items nearly duplicate each other, while other items combine really important things that I think ought to be separated. And I wonder if the author was thinking mostly from the perspective of Muslims; there are a couple of pieces of privilege that I share, but not because I’m Christian, and on the other hand there are some particular things about fear of being outed as Pagan that didn’t really make the list.

Still, it’s a very good example of someone examining her own privilege with a careful eye, and it makes it a lot easier for people with less privilege to help explain what that privilege (or lack thereof) is like, and I thank the author from the bottom of my heart.

What do you think? How would you change that list?


Cry me a river about your bumper sticker

In a piece at Salon, writer (and ZOMG secret liberal) Lizz Schumer describes coming face-to-face with her family’s conservative worldview:

We agreed to disagree that afternoon, and the bumper sticker lives in my desk drawer to this day because I know what’s important to me. I don’t hold my political opinions like a sword, ready to skewer anyone who feels differently. …

Politics turns families inside out. It hurts me to know that those I love more than anything disagree on such fundamental issues as marriage equality, health care, immigration, some environmental issues and tax reform. It hurts even more to know that the pervasiveness of politics this time of year is likely to draw us further apart than ever. I am more than the sum of my beliefs. I have to think that they are, too.

… I will share my opinion when asked, but I won’t fight it to the death of our friendships. I value those more than any spot on a ballot.

Cry me a river. I’m sure it really does hurt Ms. Schumer that she and her family disagree about so many issues, and this is a well-written piece describing her (s0-far) “coming out” experience. But to someone who doesn’t have the choice of simply not discussing the difficult things, or agreeing to disagree over differing opinions and political stances, it reads like a boo-hooing of crocodile tears from someone who hasn’t actually had to face much.

Those are harsh words, and they’re not any harsher only because I know that I, too, am a less-than-stellar ally to people who are worse off than I am. But think about it:  Ms. Schumer has the luxury – and yes, it is a luxury – of “agreeing to disagree” about opinions because for her they are merely opinions. They’re not who she is, what she lives every day of her life.

She doesn’t face getting thrown out on the street because she’s QUILTBAG. Roughly 40% of homeless youth are QUILTBAG, and most of them are homeless because they were rejected by their families. Not their opinions, not their political stances, they, themselves, the children, were rejected by their parents, their families. Now they have nowhere to live, nowhere to go.

But putting a bumper sticker on her car is too controversial for her, too likely to create discord and maybe some uncomfortable conversations. Kudos to Ms. Schumer for signing a petition and the other work she’s done, but the way this piece ends is nothing but an insult to the people who can’t simply separate their work and family life, who don’t have the option of deciding for themselves what is and is not more valuable than “a spot on a ballot.”

I’m not saying she needs to come out as a flaming liberal, dye her hair into a rainbow and affix the bumper sticker to her forehead. I’m not even saying she should put the sticker on her car. But she shouldn’t write about her own struggles and then end on a sanctimonious note that manages to combine whiny self-defense with implicit accusations that those of us who do, in fact, face discord within our own families should be blaming ourselves for not valuing what’s most important and silencing ourselves or hiding our identities.

I don’t face this as a QUILTBAG person, but I do face it on the basis of my religion. Star Foster, among many others, has mentioned how her family relationships have been damaged by being Pagan. I myself am thinking deeply about this because depending on what steps happen next in my effort to get recognized as clergy, I may be “outed” to the conservative members of my family. Do I tell them, and get it over with, knowing that they’ll harass me, belittle me, and probably sever all communication with me? Or do I wait and hope that they don’t Google my name and that there are no slow news days this fall where reporters revert to the “Look, a Witch!” form of filler?

So, look, Ms. Schumer, I’ll listen to your “coming out” story, and I’ll sympathize over the problems of family discord and the difficult decisions about how much, when, and where to stand up for one’s values. I won’t criticize you for your decisions in those areas; I’ll even share some of the hard decisions I’ve had to make and talk about when I’ve decided to stay quiet. But don’t give me this crap about how noble your silence is, how it’s in the service of higher values.

This is the kind of conciliatory bullshit from would-be allies that ends up as just more victim-blaming for people in tough situations. You’ve just succeeded in not only staying quiet but providing added momentum to silence those whom you claim to support.

Go ahead, cry me a river about your bumper sticker. But don’t tell me you’re staying silent because it’s the right thing to do.

Evangelical tribalism and persecuted hegemons

I really respect Fred Clark who writes the Slacktivist blog over at Patheos. He’s an evangelical Christian who has the increasingly rare talent (among evangelical Christians) of being able to stand outside his group and look at things from others’ points of view. And in so doing, he writes some of the most insightful, intelligent, and incisive critiques of evangelical Christianity and its role in contemporary American culture.

I’m going to be quoting from and linking to him quite a bit in this piece because it’s an attempt to tie two of his ideas together, because when Fred has written something well there’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel, and because it’s important to show that the kind of problems I have with the majority of evangelical Christianity today aren’t just my observations as an outsider; these issues are being raised (first, and more loudly) by someone within the group.

One of Fred’s writing talents that I admire is the ability to turn a phrase that neatly summarizes an idea. Two of those phrases are “evangelical tribalism” and the phenomenon of the “persecuted hegemon.”

I posit that evangelical tribalism directly gives birth to the phenomenon of the persecuted hegemon. I think this is important for anyone who struggles with issues of recognition for majority religions in the US, and the issues of discrimination against minority religions, to understand.

Fred may have drawn this connection himself, but I haven’t seen it done explicitly. So I think it’s worth pointing out; these aren’t separate things that accidentally developed along the same timeline, they’re directly interrelated.

Fred described evangelical tribalism as a particular kind of zero-sum thinking:

This is what’s at the root of many of the worst aspects of American evangelicalism. It’s the idea that evangelical Christians constitute “Our Team,” and that Our Team is in a constant competition with Their Team.

And it’s not just musicians and athletes — evangelicals can do this with everything. Everyone can either be claimed as “ours” or condemned as “theirs.” Every event can either be claimed as a victory for Our Team or mourned as a defeat.

This causes problems.

He also describes how tribalist evangelicals try to de-legitimize other Christians and how such superficial tribalism can replace the ethical struggling of deeper religious commitment and provide existential comfort of a kind seriously needed in some versions of Reformed theology. (That last bit might be a bit obscure to anyone who’s not engaged with some of the subdivisions of Protestant theology. Feel free to skip it if that’s not your area of interest; I threw it in because it’s a smart observation, and an example of good theological investigation.)

Fred describes the “Big Four” of evangelical tribalism as four positions or attitudes that one must demonstrate with sufficient vigor in order to maintain in-group credentials:

  • anti-choice, which is evolving from simply anti-abortion to anti-contraception as well
  • anti-QUILTBAG rights and homosexuality in general
  • anti-evolution, especially in the form of Young Earth Creationism
  • anti-environmentalism, especially in the form of climate change denial

Note that each of those starts with “anti.” Yes, some evangelicals differ on some of these, largely in matters of degree, and many try to spin them in terms of pro-something else, but functionally in our evolving culture, they take the form of arguing against something, not standing for one’s own values.

This is why evangelical tribalism directly gives birth to the phenomenon of the persecuted hegemon. Fred has also had some lovely things to say about people who get high from taking offense. The apotheosis of this phenomenon is religious majorities, replete with privilege, who constantly decry their status as the persecuted outcasts of society, which Fred accurately describes as the (non-)phenomenon of the persecuted hegemon.

And Fred’s right that part of the problem stems from these folks engaging in what has been called “hegemonic religion.” In evangelical Christianity, this comes in the form of the requirement that everyone must hear the good news – or in some versions, that everyone must actually become a (evangelical) Christian. Taken strictly, these positions demand that evangelicals become hegemonic, or even the sole religion. Every example of someone who is not an evangelical – or even a Christian who is not your approved flavor of the evangelical tribe – is an example of the work undone, a reason that your mission is not yet accomplished. The very existence of people who disagree with you – whether or not they are trying to take away your rights – is a kind of insult or at least a problem.

But this attitude of resistance to the presence of non-Christians isn’t restricted to the aggressively evangelical groups, and that’s because of questions about privilege. Christians have a ton of privilege in this society. I thought about trying to provide examples of this, and I decided not to; at best it wouldn’t convince those who need convincing, since they think that such privilege is simply the Right and True way for the world to be, and at worst it would become sour grapes or a catalog of reasons for me to take offense myself, and that gets exhausting.

As the US becomes more pluralistic, some Christians are experiencing marginal loss of privilege. I don’t deny that, and I’m sure that it’s difficult for some of them. And again, every example of the very existence of people who are different seems like a step away from the mythical Good Old Days where Christianity was so hegemonic that no one had to defend it, and those nice respectable others, like the Jews, knew how to keep in their places and be thankful for their scraps.

One way that the formerly super-privileged can respond to these changes this is to withdraw into a kind of tribalism and in-group-ism. At the same time, as culture evolves, they’re being faced with more and more challenges to their tribal markers. Because of all of this, retrenchment in the anti- positions described above becomes ever more important as an affirmation of one’s tribal credentials and hence, one’s righteous claim to the privilege that is being questioned.

This is what causes the Persecuted Hegemon. Staking one’s religious identity on a handful of oppositional points – what you’re against rather than what you’re for – and marginal loss of privilege create a vicious cycle of perceived persecution, retrenchment that involves escalating demands of privilege, which leads to more perceived persecution.

In fact, I think that the perception of being persecuted, marginalized, or somehow fundamentally at odds with the rest of society ought to be considered as a fifth marker of evangelical tribalism. It both identifies the phenomenon of tribalism and is the source of some of its most toxic effects in the broader society.

Beliefnet shows anti-Pagan bias

They reported on the upcoming Celebration of the Divine Feminine and Religious Freedom, but managed to do so in a tone that presents Pagans as weird, fringy characters who probably just don’t like God, prayer, America, and apple pie. I commented there, and used the “send feedback” function, but I doubt either will ever see the light of day, so I’m reprinting it here:

This article was openly contemptuous with its anti-Pagan tone. It was an insult to Pagans and a discredit to Beliefnet’s pretense of being open to all religions.

The word Pagan should be capitalized, just like Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or any other tradition name. This and things like putting “Samhain eve” in quotes – as if you’d never heard of it before, when it’s explained elsewhere on your own website – subtly denigrate Paganism and make it seem like you don’t actually believe or understand what you’re writing.

The “prayer campaign” that we are reacting against is not simply “for America.” That statement is so disingenuous it’s not even funny. Would you write that the Occupy Together movement is demonstrating against people who are “for the economy?” The DC40 campaign is very, very specifically a prayer campaign aimed at recreating the US as a theocracy of conservative Christians. That’s not “for America,” it’s against the fundamental values enshrined in our Constitution.

Finally, the he-said, she-said style of reporting (“the pagans say is ‘preaching that all feminine forms of deity are demonic'”) makes you look lazy and stupid. If you want to report on this, do some research. Multiple sites have documented exactly what the New Apostolic Reformation preaches in great detail. It would take you about ten minutes to verify this statement.

The fact that you don’t bother to research it further adds to the impression that you find this Pagan event a rare oddity to be commented on from a distance but unworthy of real engagement.

I would be happy to help you revise this article so that it does credit to Beliefnet’s stated mission.

Yeah, I bet they’ll take me up on that last offer when the hell I don’t believe in freezes over. The real question, to me, is how the Pagan community ought to react to mistreatment like this from a supposedly interreligious site. I wonder how Gus DiZerega, for example, is feeling about this being on the same site as his blog.

At what point does continuing participation in interreligious projects that continue to misrepresent our religion start doing more harm than good? To me, it’s one thing when individual commenters at Patheos slam Paganism; this comes from a “senior editor,” which to me means that Beliefnet ought to take some responsibility for it, and if they don’t, it makes me seriously concerned about an institutional bias.

I know that participating in interreligious efforts is one of the ways we can work to counter this kind of bias, but I also think it’s fair that we demand a certain level of respect from projects we participate in – otherwise we risk giving a semblance of approval or support to those who are perpetuating the problem. (But some of my best friends/co-bloggers are Pagan!) I don’t have any answers, but it’s a question I’m going to continue to keep in mind.

You’re not doing me any favors

In the midst of a wonderful and spirited discussion on social and political matters this weekend, the following exchange took place:

Someone mentioned the “Mormonism is a cult” news splash. The lady next to me turned to me and said, “Well, that’s true! If you look at it, it is a cult!”

I gaped, dumbfounded, for a moment as my hand went to my pentacle pendant hanging in plain view. When my voice came back, I said, “Well, the word ‘cult’ gets thrown at my religion a lot, too, so I’m not so quick to use that term.”*

She looked surprised and asked, “And you are?”

I replied, “Wiccan.” I had to repeat it for her – I’m not sure if that was because she’s unfamiliar with the term, or because of the background noise. Oh, shit, I was thinking to myself – did I just ‘out’ my hostess? Did this lady actually not get the joke behind the giant wooden silhouettes of three witches around a cauldron on the front lawn that had me almost doubled-over in laughter? (They say a Witch lives there!)

She said, “Oh. Well, I’m Quaker, so everybody always thinks I’m weird,” and turned back to the larger conversation.

I let out a slightly relieved breath and didn’t even stop to boggle at the total ignorance of Christian privilege inherent in her statement. (Yes, I know there are Pagan Quakers – some of them do some great blogging. But by and large, most Quakers are Christian or Christ-centric, and that was clearly assumed by this lady’s attitudes.)

Aside from causing a nifty little moment of gut-churning fear, this exchange helped clarify why I agree so strongly with Star Foster about Project Conversion. The blogger behind this “Try the flavor-religion-of-the-month!” experiment showed up in her comments section and basically said that Star was being a meanie and that we should all be oh-so-grateful that he’s trying to bring Wicca some positive PR. (After all, it’s the only religion he got negative comments about, he said.)

First of all, Star’s right about his problematic framing. (If you haven’t read Hecate on the topic, go do that. I’ll wait.)

But more importantly, I don’t have to feel grateful that this dude is doing me a favor, because he’s not. Yeah, Wiccans have a lot to gain from positive PR. But we also have a lot to lose, especially from people who think they’re doing us a favor by giving us more media exposure when they are actually reinforcing negative frames with that exposure. As Cara Schulz more eloquently put it, he is running a significant risk of making us all look like “fluffy bunny asshats.”

I look forward to the day when being Wiccan is no more weird than being Quaker, when religions less than 250 years old aren’t automatically dismissed as cults, when monotheism isn’t seen as the only way. (I also look forward to the day when someone who is called out ever-so-gently on privilege doesn’t double-down by asserting hir status as also less-privileged.)

But we’re not there yet, and in the meantime, pretending that you’re doing me a favor by helping out the poor, oppressed Wiccans is orders of magnitude more rude than ignoring the existence of Christian privilege. It’s one thing to be ignorant, even deliberately, and another thing to acknowledge that privilege exists and then claim you’re using yours to help the less-privileged without actually acknowledging the feedback you get from them on how they want to be helped – or not.

*Recommended reading on “cults” and the dangers thereof: The ABCDEF.

Given names: Up now at the Slacktiverse!

I’ve got a new piece up at the Slacktiverse called “Given names,” on the topic of names and power. I draw from several different examples and intersections: military interactions, men using women’s names to create an unwanted sense of intimacy, and the ongoing “nym wars” about real-names-only policies on social networking platforms. Enjoy!

When ads are annoying, now with added irony

Edited to add: I originally titled this post “What I hate about Patheos,” and while I said that I didn’t mean to attack anyone who works with Patheos, I managed to sound as though I was, and I’m deeply sorry for that. Star Foster, the hardworking manager of the Pagan portal at Patheos, was kind enough to inform me that the ad selection at Patheos is driven by Google Ad Sense, and thus based on my Google search history. The rest of this article is edited to reflect that. My apologies and thanks to Star, Cara, Lupus, et al.


I get really annoyed at certain kinds of ads, and I found a couple of those on a Patheos page today. The accumulated irony made me post about it, and as a result, I found out that my own actions have probably contributed to me seeing more of exactly the kinds of ads that annoy me most. Google, thy name is irony.

I was trying to read P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’ new piece on The Dangers of the One-Stop Shopping Mentality, which looks quite interesting – Lupus is one of the writers I’m happy about discovering at Patheos, even if I prefer to read minus the ads in my RSS feeds – when I kept getting distracted by the overtly Christian ads on both sides.

“Christian Mingle” is not so bad, as ads go. Even with the obnoxiously ubiquitous fish symbol, it’s certainly better than some of the stupid mortgage ads with dancing people or moving faces that distract me with their sheer creepiness. But even before I’ve gotten into the midst of Lupus’ piece, it certainly is ironic to see that ad there: Look within your religion for a partner! Your religion provides everything! Their tag line is “Find God’s Match for You.” One stop shopping mentality indeed.

But on the left-hand side is an overtly Catholic image, with the header “Find out more about our ministry,” and a link to the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. This is much more disturbing. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to this right now, in the wake of the terrorism of a would-be Christian Knight in Norway, and in the lead-up to Christian spiritual warriors preparing to “lay siege” to my city and the seat of our country’s government. But then again, perhaps I’m not. The KHE’s About page begins:

A knight is one elevated by a king to a position of special trust, service, and honor. He is one who has made the interests of his king his own. He serves and protects his lord not for profit, but from the kind of selfless loyalty that can only be called noble. Jesus is the Eucharistic King Whom the Knights of the Holy Eucharist have pledged themselves to serve and to defend.

Eucharistic adoration I’m familiar with; if it’s a way that Catholics enhance their relationship with their deity, then good on ’em, go for it. But defense of the Eucharist? I am not aware of any declared campaigns to attack either the Eucharist or Jesus. If I was aware of such an attack, I would almost certainly denounce it and support my Catholic brothers and sisters in their defense of religious liberty. I was angry about PZ Myers’ stunt just like I was angry about people leaving a cross at the new Pagan circle at the Air Force Academy.

But who is it that they think they’re defending against, in their little adjunct to a convent in Hanceville, Alabama?

Is it campaigns to ensure that women have reproductive freedom and access to good health care at all hospitals, regardless of their religious affiliations? That is why I included the “almost certainly” qualifier in the statement above: Catholics may see demanding quality health care as an infringement on their religious liberty, whereas I think it is merely demanding that they fulfill their declared intent in building a hospital, which is to provide health care. When you go into business taking care of sick people, your religious liberty does not include forcing me to bleed to death.

Different arguments but the same separation between your religious liberty and my rights apply to marriage equality. Catholics can be Catholics to their heart’s desire, and I will defend them fervently. What they can’t do is try to enshrine Catholicism in the country’s laws or require people coming to them for secular matters like adoption to live by Catholic standards.

Now, I have no idea if the KHE think they’re “knights” in these culture wars, or if they just wanted a cool title and nifty masculine imagery to support them in their duties of wearing robes and taking care of a small shrine and helping out a convent. But either way, their chosen warlike imagery, combined with current events and the position and power of the Catholic church, are disturbing to me.

Finally, it’s ironic that the KHE site is also powered by WordPress, but at least I don’t have their imagery all over my own pages. That does mean that I’m not going to link to them in this article, partially because I don’t think they need the hits, but mostly because I don’t want to take the chance that if they got a pingback from me, they’d decide to crusade for or about me.

It’s not that I just want to be left alone. If that was what I wanted, I wouldn’t be writing a blog. I love engaging in interreligious dialogue. But dialogue has to mean listening as well as speaking, and listening and speaking to each other, not just to our respective deities.

It’s just sad that right now my efforts to understand people like DC40 and the NAR (through Googling them) have made me see even more similar crap. Time to take a deep breath, ground and center, and try to reach out and contribute to that dialogue more myself. Thanks again to everybody trying to help me do that.