Your Words

I’m not sure if this is a larger problem, a sort of human-thing, or if it’s specific to Pagandom, but I’ve noticed something: we want to be able to say our words, but we don’t want to take responsibility for them. We consider our words sacred (some of us), but we don’t want to own up to what that means. We want to be heard, but we don’t want to have to answer when we are listened to.

We want debate, but we want our opinions to be untouchable. (After all, it’s “just an opinion”.)

This post today is in response to Sam Webster’s article here. I’ll be upfront: I didn’t like the article much at all. (Probably why I’m writing a response to it…) It read as a lot of excuses. It read as ‘I don’t have to take responsibility for my words’. It read as, “It’s just my opinion.” His statement was a ‘rhetorical flourish’. He knows he irritated people, but he didn’t intend to (oh, could I write essays on intent), he merely meant to focus us. And, really, why should we be bothered by what he says – it’s not like he can enforce what he writes, and it’s entirely up to us whether we agree of not.

Still my favorite image of Christ – and from a movie I’ve never seen.

What got a lot of people’s hackles raised was that he said that one cannot worship Christ and be a Pagan. I wasn’t really irritated. That’s a common statement in most Pagan circles, not exactly a new proclamation. I was irritated, and a little bit shocked, at his second article though.

No one has to agree, as he said. But to act as though your words exist in a vacuum is bordering on dishonest.

I admit, I’m probably losing a lot of important nuances to the argument he’s making. I’m not well-educated, and I’m pretty young, and I love me some simple words. I may always have my nose in a book, but I sure don’t sound like it when I talk. Which suits me just fine. I ain’t trying to be smart, I’m trying to be myself. My words are not gonna be pretty when I say them, but I’m gonna say them just the same. And I’m gonna take responsibility for them, and I’m not going to say, “Well, you don’t have to agree.” Of course people don’t! We know that!

But we speak and dialog to learn and influence. Humans are social, we listen to each other. It’s a common opinion that Christ-worshipers shouldn’t call themselves Pagan, regardless of anything else – that is not a new proclamation. And because of that opinion, groups are closed off to Pagan-identified folks who still involve Christ in their practices. Our words influence, and we shouldn’t act like we want them not to, and they have actual effects on communities and people.

Webster’s right – we can’t enforce our opinions. I doubt any Pagan group will send its members into each others’ houses to make sure they aren’t worshiping Christ. But we sure can make spaces hostile by saying them. I don’t care what people believe when we do ritual together, but you can bet that if someone says, “Ugh, atheists aren’t real Pagans,” or, “Polytheists are so weird, I can’t believe they think the gods are real!” somebody is gonna be making scarce. It doesn’t matter that those are just opinions. They effect people.

Your words do not exist in a vacuum.

With that, though, I’m going to have to stop – this week has been a harsh reminder of why I enjoy solitary practice even as my soul longs for company. The next week of posts will hopefully all be spirit- and practice-oriented rather than on the usual kerfluffes in the wider communities; though, being who I am, I’ll probably find myself unable to keep my mouth shut about something.

Aletheia & Redemptive Violence
Happy 5th Anniversary
Basics: the Clarene (Relationships)
Basics: the Clarene (Worship)
About Aine

Aine Llewellyn is a 20 year old girl creature currently mucking about in southern Arizona. She enjoys the winters and rain but can’t stand the heat. She is a difficult polytheist that natters on and on about her faith.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I’m with you on this: that post also rubbed me in the wrong way. Why make a proclamation on why one’s own words don’t matter if one really believes they don’t matter? There’s a lot that myself and Sam agree upon, but there’s also quite a lot that we don’t, and I think his approach in his two columns here thus far have been far more in the “not in agreement” section than anything. That doesn’t have to mean anything for either of us, granted; but, if it doesn’t, then why are any of us bothering to say anything? I don’t know…

  • Aine

    Yes, this! I speak because I think my words do have meaning, and I listen to people because I feel the same about theirs. You succinctly described my feelings about the article.

  • Soliwo

    I agree. Reading his latest article, I felt a bit patronized as a reader too. Of course we can disagree. And I do! I am glad dashiven’s reply referred to reader’s authority.

  • Christine Kraemer

    I understood the article more to say, “I am trying to persuade you, not force you” — in response to replies that appeared to reacting to something stronger than an attempt to persuade.

  • Aine

    You can’t persuade someone without assuming some authority and surety of your words, though. You don’t really get to have it both ways :/

  • Emily Carlin

    Well said! Our words have a tremendous impact on those around us and we need to take care how we use them, and take responsibility for their effects.

  • Moondrawn

    It’s actually a slap in the face the UU in many ways and that’s sad as they are very inclusive and in some parts of the country are a safe place for pagans to worship and have rituals.

  • Christine Kraemer

    I see a difference between an attempt to persuade versus an attempt to set policy and doctrine. Like, Sam makes a point about participating in magickal groups with people he actively disagrees with, and not making any attempt to eject them — in fact, perhaps even welcoming them and having cordial relationships with them.

    Is the fear here that authoritative figures expressing opinions about what a Pagan is will create actual, widespread group policy? I think in a different historical moment, that may be a concern, but at this level of (dis)organization, it’s not a concern of mine.

    PVSL has complained recently about people reacting to his opinion pieces by calling em a Nazi fundamentalist — which is ridiculous, because “Nazi fundamentalist” implies some kind of political power, the power to set policy, to include and exclude. I see this as the same sort of thing — I don’t think PSVL is trying to set policy for all of Paganism by writing opinion pieces, I see him as trying to encourage people and groups to think more as he does (while assuming that many people simply won’t).

    I actually work in a coven where several of the members there are openly skeptical of my beliefs. We had a problem for a while because they were actively warm and welcoming toward me as a person and yet would make rude comments about polytheists in front of me without seeming to remember that I was one. My position was that I was happy to talk about our differences, and even happy to work in a group where we disagreed strongly on theology, but the mixed messages were no good. The result were some extremely interesting and intimate personal conversations about belief, practice, and religion, and though I don’t think anyone is convinced, I feel comfortable in the group now because the level of discussion and understanding are so much higher and more nuanced. I’m also confident that we can be committed to each other as friends and fellow Pagans while simultaneously thinking the other one is totally wrong about some things.

    All of this is to say that, like Sam, I tend to experience other people’s strong opinions as invitations to engage. It’s only if they’re not up to actually having the ensuing conversation in a respectful way that I see a problem.

  • Aine

    While personally I wouldn’t go to a UU church to worship, or a CUUPS group either, I think this is a good point.

  • Aine

    Exactly – words affect the world, and our communities.

  • Aine

    I don’t really see where there would be fear – I’m not afraid of Sam, and I’m certainly not afraid of authority. If anything, I’m more inclined towards hierarchy and structure and authority than most people I’ve met, if only because I’ve seen people thrive in it and watched as other completely equal groups squabble and fall apart.

    I think the ‘nazi fundamentalist’ bit was ridiculous because tossing out ‘nazi fundamentalist’ is a way to completely tar someone and attempt to stifle dialog. Then again, I think most of the accusations of pagan fundamentalism are tiring and ridiculous, and I’ll be happy when more groups splinter off from the umbrella.

    There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing or being at odd. There is something wrong when people say, ‘it’s just an opinion’. Saying that you can’t be Pagan and worship Christ isn’t like saying you don’t like the color blue. People are going to take issue with it, and you don’t create dialog by patronizing your audiences or telling them not to assume your words have any authority. The entirety of Sam’s piece made me assume anything he writes is going to be an exaggeration or rhetorical tactic to stir a response, which isn’t trying to engage in dialog – I think we call that trolling nowadays.

    If the people in your coven had responded with your concerns by saying, “It’s just an opinion,” or, “You don’t have to change anything you do,” or, “We’re not the authority,” or, “We can’t make you do anything,” I don’t think a good discussion would have come out of it (though that might have been what they said – in which case, you and I are very different people, as those responses would have edged me towards throwing water in someone’s face). Strong opinions are great. Actually debating rather than excusing them is even better in my book.

    You don’t engage in good dialog by patronizing your audience. You don’t engage in dialog by saying, “I want to stir up opinions” and then sidestepping when people try to dialog about the opinions you stirred up. And, I admit, there are a lot of nuances to his argument I’m probably missing, but I felt patronized too. He quoted a book…as a reason why you shouldn’t quote books.

  • Christine Kraemer

    > He quoted a book…as a reason why you shouldn’t quote books.

    Haha! That is pretty funny, isn’t it?

    It seems like there has been actual, interesting dialogue in the comments on the posts, so perhaps the bear-baiting is working.