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.