Syncretic Electric: Building Echo Chambers Instead of Communities

Vicious Circle, Jacek Malczewski, 1897

Vicious Circle, Jacek Malczewski, 1897

I have to admit that this is not the topic I intended to write on this week. I had every intention of returning to my previous post on cultural appropriation and examining the topic more thoroughly. However, I had an experience, recently, that greatly disturbed me, and I have decided to reflect on that instead.

In a public Pagan forum, I disagreed with a post that someone had made. The players involved and the topic are largely irrelevant. What shocked me, though, was the level of vitriol and spite that I received for daring to disagree. I had attempted to conduct myself in a respectful manner and express my concerns while being careful not to insult anyone, and I was belligerently attacked and belittled. I suspect that many of us have been in similar situations. Regardless of the topic, it seems like certain quarters of the online community are simply unwilling to engage in sensible conversations, and they fall back on petty name-calling to avoid actually dealing with the issues of faith.

Many Pagans’ primary access to community is through the internet, and I have been concerned for a while about how that shapes the way that we relate to community. It has been noted before by various people that the internet allows for a wall of anonymity, and that people will behave online in ways that they never would in the outside world. I have to wonder, then, how that affects people whose faith community is largely virtual: what is appropriate behavior, and how do we relate to the idea of community when we do not have to worry about the repercussions of our actions or the effect that we have on those around us? When we can simply insulate ourselves in groups of like-minded people, when we can build up little virtual echo chambers, how do we know that we are actually engaging with the community, and not just forming high school cliques?

Indeed, it is this clique mentality that I find so unsettling. The internet, combined with insularity, allows us to artificially inflate the members of any given community. We can feel as though we are speaking for the whole of Paganism, make broad claims about the definition and usage of that term, because our little corner of the internet all agrees with us. But then, we really do not have any way of actually knowing just how many people we are speaking for, or who they really are. On top of that, if we are unwilling to tolerate critique, then we are even further slicing ourselves off from true community experience.

Part of being in a community of any sort is encountering people who disagree with us. That disagreement is a good thing. As long as everyone is willing to be reasonable and listen as well as speak, then we all have the potential to grow and learn from the experience. However, if some of us cannot extend even the most basic level of respect to our peers, then the whole system crumbles: we no longer have a community at all, but a bunch of separate little islands, all lobbing coconuts at each other across the waves.

The great virtue of online communication is that it can put us in touch with people around the world, open us up to new and strange viewpoints. It is a terrible waste of this technology to use it merely to bully and control. I have always applauded the variations within Paganism, and the internet should help us to truly learn and engage with our peers, but we must first extend a modicum of respect, if not for each other, then at least to the community. Regardless of how much we may think we are defending our fellow Pagans, if we refuse to accept critique and listen to other views, then we are creating as many walls as we accuse others of doing.

The online community can also reduce everyone across the board to the same level. People who have been practicing for decades, who have lifetimes worth of experience and knowledge, can be suppressed by a deluge of beginners. There is really no way to know if someone is speaking from long experience, or if they are simply reciting something they saw reblogged a few times on Tumblr. When many of us rely on the internet as our connection to the Pagan community, we are putting a great deal of trust into those we encounter online. The authority of elders that used to exist within Paganism seems to be fading away. We no longer have to listen to people who know what they are talking about, because our ideas, our beliefs, our unverified personal gnoses mean just as much, if not more, than anything anyone else has to say. Indeed, we do not have to listen to anyone at all, because we know: the Gods speak to us, and our friends agree with us, and there is nothing more to say on the issue.

For the Pagan community to continue to grow in a positive and inclusive way, then we need to be willing to come together and talk about our faiths, they ways we relate to our Gods, our practices, and our theologies and be willing, simultaneously to accept critique. We need to understand that people will disagree with us, sometimes vehemently, but we must strive to be respectful and civil, and be willing to accept critique and learn from those around us. There is no sovereign authority of Paganism, and that allows us a great deal of freedom, but we need to be careful that we are not setting ourselves up in the place of that authority. If we cannot accept others disagreeing with us, then perhaps it is time for us to examine what Paganism really means, and whether we can really all claim membership to the same religious movement anymore. This is honestly why I believe that it is of paramount importance for us to work out what it really means for us to be members of a religious community both online and in the world at large.

Syncretic Electric is published on alternate Fridays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

About Julian Betkowski

Julian Betkowski is an artist currently living in Washington State and has been a practicing Pagan for the last ten years. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, with the intention of setting up a private counseling practice to serve the Pagan and Queer communities.

  • John Beckett

    I have to think much of this phenomenon is spill-over from mainstream politics, where the concept of “loyal opposition” has been replaced by the view that the opposition is an enemy which must be defeated at all costs. Different ideas aren’t simply different approaches to serving the greater good, they’re evil attempts to manipulate the system for personal gain.

    The internet makes this worse. When you’re dealing with someone face to face, you get to know them at least a little, and you come to understand they’re a lot more like you than not, even if they worship different gods. On the internet, they’re a one-dimensional figure to which you can attribute whatever stereotypical characteristics you’re inclined to assume.

    The only cure I know for this in Paganism is to cultivate mindfulness and compassion, and to have more face to face interaction.

    I think the political system is broken beyond repair.

    • Allec

      I don’t think this is solely a political mindset, but rather a human one. I forget who said it, but there is a quote that goes something to the idea that human nature sees debating is about winning, not being right or finding Truth.

      I have always seen the internet as a tool that amplifies human behavior, rather than creates it or exaggerates it. I consider myself “raised” on the internet, where almost half my life has been spent on the internet. I am almost certain that how people interact online is truer to themselves than how they appear in person…due to a number of reasons.

      Anyway, I digress. I do agree completely that the only cure to the mindsets on having thoughtful conversations are mindfulness and compassion–mainly understanding that not everything is a debate and not everything is a personal attack. Though the face-to-face interaction is subjective in my opinion. (I have mostly negative encounters with the pagan community in person, for example.)

    • Julian Betkowski

      I honestly wish that I could disagree with you about the state of mainstream politics. I think that you are right, at least, that these two effects are related. I think that part of the problem is the rabid individualism that as plagued the American political and social scene for decades now. Across the board we seem to have difficulty recognizing the importance of community, and the roles that we play within it. The majority of political rhetoric anymore is designed to divide one group against another, rather than unite us in common cause.

  • Allec

    By the by, You are quickly becoming my favorite blogger on Agora.

    While I agree and have experienced everything on your blog, I do disagree with one sentence. You wrote, “The authority of elders that used to exist within Paganism seems to be fading away.” However, I have come across people twice my age who reacted in the manner you described and/or showed too much hubris to be credible teachers. I have also known a woman almost three times my age who did not understand what Chakras are. I met someone else who was in retirement who tried to tell me that mental illness is a sign of a weak person. A handful of people in the local pagan community disregard cultural appropriation and use slurs…even after I sent them all the links I sent them last week. (And by doing so, I have been banned from one of the local groups.) There is a leader of a pagan religion who is very loud and proud of her bigotry towards LGBTQ.

    Yet one of the most knowledgeable people I know (in witchcraft) is in her late twenties. Another person who has a developed personal religion and books of knowledge is even younger. The people I have encountered that are not perhaps the most knowledgeable but the most willing to have a civil discussion about paganism are in their teens, twenties, and early thirties.

    So while age can be important, I don’t think it holds that much weight.

    • Julian Betkowski

      I’ll agree that age isn’t necessarily the issue, but I do think that experience itself tends to get erased. The importance of elders isn’t so much their age, but their wealth of experience. I think that a lot of our online interactions tend to negate the experience of others, because we have been told, over and over again, that our own experience is paramount.

      Also, many thanks! I’m glad that you enjoy my writing!

      • Allec

        While I agree that we should not negate the experiences of others, I think it’s equally important what someone takes away from experience.

        For example, a person most likely has 12 years of math experience if they graduated from an American school system. However, that doesn’t mean that a person has the knowledge of math retained. Whether they can actually find the value “x” from an algebraic equation isn’t related to their experience with solving those problems, but their comprehension.

        Likewise, most of the people I mentioned in my previous comment do have experience. Yet I do not think their experience equated to a better understanding of belief, faith, universe, etc.

        • Julian Betkowski

          That’s not a problem with internet communication so much as a problem with people in general. People can be a self-centered at any age.

          • Allec

            I agree. Which is why relying on someone’s age and time spent with a subject–online or off–is not a fool-proof assessment of someone’s knowledge.

            • Julian Betkowski

              Eh? I’m pretty sure that time spent with a subject is generally accepted as a decent way to judge someone’s experience. Chances are high that a fifty year old mother of three is going to know more about motherhood than a twenty-six year old pregnant woman.

              My concern with internet community is that it can be near impossible to tell if people are speaking from real experience.

              • Allec

                That too I disagree with that generalization. I have met mothers who I wish I could be more like, and mothers who shouldn’t be called a “parent” by any stretch of the term. Even mothers who technically raised the three children. That twenty-six year old may be the senior lecturer about child psychology at a renowned university, and the fifty year old mother could be someone who doesn’t even know how to change a diaper.

                Instead of placing the concern on validating experience or having a certain amount of years practicing X, I think the focus needs to be on critically asking anyone why they think their knowledge is accurate and who else can validate it. In my history class freshman year, my teacher kept me after class to tell me that in our group discussions I didn’t back up my arguments with anything other than my experience. I then worked on gathering other scholars and writers so that while making a point in our discussions, I could reference them.

                I may be rambling now… Does that make sense? Basically, I don’t think it’s enough to have experience because people will always have their personal perspectives that will skew the knowledge gained from those experiences–for better or worse.

                • Julian Betkowski

                  I honestly don’t know what you are trying to say at this point, or if you even agree with anything I’ve said in the above article. If you don’t think that life experience really means anything or can be used as a foundation for knowledge then I’m not sure where you are trying to invest authority.

                  Really all that you have done in your counter example is replace one kind of experience with another. Your senior lecturer 26 year old is going to have a particular kind of experience that is utterly different from the 50 year old mother of three’s, and neither invalidates the other.

                  I certainly agree that we need to utilize good research techniques, but that was never in dispute. This should be apparent from my insistence on providing a reference list for my writings and taking my time to do the proper research. I obviously agree that need to be able to cite sources, at the same time a library card is no substitute for hands on practice.

                  My issue was with people who speak from positions of authority who have no way of backing any of that up.
                  Reading stuff on the internet is no replacement for actual experience, and it seems to me like a good deal of what passes for “knowledge” in the online Pagan community is really little more than memes and “common knowledge” with very little grounding in experience. That was and always has been the thrust of my argument in the above article.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Sometimes, the biggest issue in understanding each other on the internet is the written word.

    Without inflection and body language, people can easily misinterpret words.

    Then there is also cultural difference. People may talk about the ‘global village’ or what have you, but there are a lot of differences between people from different places, even when they speak the same language.

    In the UK, we have the ‘north/south divide’, then there is the ‘Britain and America: two nations divided by a common tongue’ thing…

    Combine this with generational differences (I used to know an older woman called ‘Gay’. Wouldn’t happen nowadays, would it?) and you find that ‘community’ is practically impossible online.

    Those of us who feel alienated from their ‘real world’ community will often retreat to the ‘online world’ to try and find those of like mind. Only, when they do find people with a shared interest, they often argue over details that would be laughed about over a shared drink.

    It is unfortunate that ‘getting out into the real world’ is not as easy as it sounds, for many of us.

    To use myself as an example. I am Heathen-inclined, but I am in England. In the 2011 census, only 1,867 people described themselves as Heathen. This is out of a (reported) population of 53,012,456. That means only 1 in 18,753 identifies as Heathen. That makes meeting those of like mind (locally, in ‘real life’) pretty tricky. Especially since most will likely be clustered in major urban areas. (not places I am a fan of.)

    How, then, do we improve our religious community?

  • Robert Scott McKnight

    I have to seriously agree with the thrust of your article here. Recently, I had to pull back from a community of people who actually did practice together but mostly talked online. The community went from a tight knit group who laughed, love, argued, and fought face to face to an online community exhibiting the cliquish behavior you note.

    I had decided to re-engage with this community after an absence due to personal issues only to find that, with the exception of two people, the entire membership had changed. They had become a very tight knit little group primarily centered around one dominant personality, and the very thorough scholarship we use to do had been replaced with Wikipedia and unsourced blog opinion pieces. I and my wife made the mistake of commenting on this, and we were summarily set upon and eventually kicked out by the person I had called friend for 8 years.

    This is the danger of tight knit online groups. There was no debate skill, no discussion of source materials, just see it our way now or get out. Now, I am looking for a new home with new people that hopefully will not mind a little scholarly debate and good fun (Like the ritual of the The Banishing of the Chocolate Easter Bunny. My wife loves that ritual).

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