Y’all. I got the most amazing comment on my last blog post about Wicca, and I’m excited about deconstructing it, because it’s a magnificent example of confirmation bias — the human tendency to a) interpret new information in a way that reinforces previously-held beliefs, or b) devalue new information that conflicts with or disproves beliefs.
But first, I want to share with you the best story my BFF Mike has ever told me.
Many years ago, Mike was experimenting with self-portrait photography and decided to try out some white clown makeup he’d gotten hold of. He painted his face, added a wig and some costume jewelry, and then, on a whim, wrote SODOMITE across his forehead in lipstick and took a couple of pictures.
A few years later, a friend of Mike’s came across one of the photos and asked if he could include it in an upcoming art show he was curating. However, the photo got pulled from the show over concerns about its “indecent” nature, which accelerated into a rat king of counterprotests and news coverage. (You can ride the whole roller-coaster chronologically by clicking here, here, here, and here.)
As Mike relates it, “People starting writing letters. And a whole bunch of them were these armchair psychiatrists, analyzing the photo and questioning my motives for taking it. I kept saying to people, ‘It doesn’t mean anything. I was trying out some clown makeup.’ But nobody would believe me.”
Eventually, he just gave up and started telling people that the photograph represented the oppression of homosexuals and that the SODOMITE across his forehead was a symbol of public shaming. The media ate it up, and, as he put it, “It’s probably the thing I will get the most attention for. Ever.”
I asked him how he felt about the whole situation, and he was like, “ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS PRACTICE WRITING A WORD BACKWARDS ON MY FACE.” Which is all any of us want, really.
That idea that Art Must Mean Something? That’s the confirmation bias in this tale. Factual information (i.e., the artist explaining that the photo didn’t have a deeper meaning) was dismissed in favor of a fabricated explanation that upheld the bias.
Confirmation bias can occur when we aren’t willing to accept a readjustment in beliefs, but it’s also a way of dealing with cognitive dissonance. You know that gross feeling you get when someone you can’t stand says something profound? Or the guilt you experience when you make a joke that turns out to be way more offensive than you thought it would be? That’s cognitive dissonance: a sensation of mental discomfort created by conflicting beliefs or behaviors.
An acquaintance of mine recently blew some fuses on social media over pronouns: “Unless you’re wearing a huge sign saying what your ‘pronoun’ is, please don’t get pissed at me because I was being respectful by saying ma’am or sir,” he wrote.
So I was like, “Who hurt you?” and he explained that someone had corrected his pronoun usage (he said “she,” and they preferred “them”). I asked if they had gotten angry with him, and he said no: It was really just, “She…” “They, please.” “Thank you. They…” within an otherwise unremarkable conversation. So where did the anger come from?
Let’s break it down and find out.
- Dude [Ed. Note: Not his real name] uses an incorrect pronoun and is politely corrected.
- Dude feels embarrassed, because he’s a nice person [Ed. Note: He really is] and is usually very aware of these things. <- cognitive dissonance
- Dude doesn’t want to feel embarrassed and shifts responsibility to the person with whom he was conversing.
- Dude hops online to affirm that people are “too sensitive” about their pronouns. <- confirmation bias
Make sense so far? Okay, good. So now that we have an understanding of confirmation bias, let’s delve into that comment on my post.
Omfg, maybe if rule of three thumpers didn’t stalk every online Pagan space claiming to know better than everyone else and warn other people about how their magick will come back on them, whether they believe that or not, they wouldn’t get so much hate.
So right off the bat, we’ve got Wiccans portrayed as warranting the negativity directed at us, because we’re actively trying to convert hapless Pagans over to our way of thinking. From a confirmation bias perspective, this is the interpretation of new information to reinforce standing belief: I wrote a post about online attacks against Wicca, and their response was, “Yes. And you deserve it for being Wiccan.”
They love to make sweeping declarations about what magick is or isn’t like “there’s no devil in the craft” completely erasing the existence of Luciferian and Satanist witches. OK, maybe there’s no devil in YOUR craft.
First off, let’s take a moment to appreciate the sweeping generalization about sweeping generalizations, because that level of meta just demands acknowledgment.
Alright. So. Before we go any further, we need to tangent about the Satanic Panic for a bit, which our commenter may or may not be quite old enough to remember.
Throughout the 1980s and into the early 2000s, there was this conspiracy theory that a vast network of Satanic organizations was secretly trying to take over the world through occult and political means. Like, people really, really believed this (and still do): In fact, when I was a kid, my mom wouldn’t let our charcoal-gray tabby outside on Halloween, in case any Satanists happened to be roaming the neighborhood in search of black cats to sacrifice.
According to both the popular press and fundamentalist Christian propaganda, Satanists recruited new members through a variety of means, including role-playing games and NeoPaganism, and books like Wicca: Satan’s Little White Lie and The Goddess Unmasked proliferated. In response, Pagan books published during this period put a lot of emphasis on the separation of Witchcraft from Satanism, and even movies during that time (The Craft, Practical Magic, etc.) went out of their way to underline the distinction.
And it was all ultimately a losing battle, since, in the fundamentalist worldview, you’re either Pro-Christ or Anti-Christ, but it was definitely worth the shot. “No Devil in the Craft” got drilled into a lot of heads, and it’s a tough sell to get people to let go of it.
But back to confirmation bias, since what’s going on here is the devaluing of information. It doesn’t matter why Wiccans might aver that there’s no Devil in their Craft. That information is irrelevant. The point is that by doing so, we’re oppressing those who do venerate a Devil. And we’re definitely doing it on purpose.
(The fact that a growing number of Wiccans are joining the Satanic Temple is probably not worth mentioning at this point, but I’m going to toss it into the ring anyway. Just for kicks.)
Seriously, it gets so bad that in multiple baneful magick groups I’m in, the admins have had to create alerts for “rule of three” and “karma” and “free will” so they can shut that shit down. And we’re like if you follow that why are you even IN a baneful magick group?!
So this is more than likely my own confirmation bias at work, but I’m pretty skeptical of this claim.
I did do some digging, and I was able to find three Facebook groups that focus on “baneful” magic. (I’m sure there are more, but those were just what popped up based on my search criteria.) Of the three, one had rules posted that specifically ban discussions of karma and the Threefold Law.
And there’s actually nothing wrong with that: Social media groups are allowed to set their own boundaries as to what discussion topics they will or will not tolerate. But again, the OP’s confirmation bias says that Wicca is a problem, so it’s easier to believe that Wiccans were tearing at the walls of the baneful groups like zombies (“Brrraaaaaiiiiinnnnnsss… Haaaaarrrrrmmmm… Nooooonnnnne… Brrraaaaaiiiiinnnnnsss…”) than it is to accept that the rules were in place long before any Wiccans wandered into the mix.
Anyway, the groups look interesting, so I joined two of them.
And it’s not a new trend of younger/newer witches complaining – I’m 38. I’ve been practicing for 25 years, and I am sick to death of it. I literally had to create my own group to get away from the toxic positivity.
I mean… don’t you kind of want to join their group? I know I do. Even if it’s just a stream of inspirational memes about being Fearless and Unstoppable.
They are correct, though, in that complaints about Wicca have been floating around for as long as Wicca’s been in the public eye. But what’s important for us to understand is that they are the real victim here, having had to go to such unfortunate lengths to protect themselves from those gosh-darn Wiccombies. Or Zombiccans. Either way, we’re led inevitably to…
And if this whole article doesn’t SCREAM victim mentality, idk what does, LOL.
I LOLed too, but for different reasons.
So we’ve talked about the confirmation bias in this comment in terms of the interpretation of information and the dismissal of information, but I think it’s important to look at the cognitive dissonance as well.
Because here’s what I think (and where pronouns tie back in): I wouldn’t have received this comment at all if I had talked about Wiccans as “they” instead of “we.” But I painted a face on Wicca, and I think that triggered some icky internal stuff that might could use some shadow work.
It’s easy to look at a generalized huddle of “other” and think, “I am better; I am more evolved,” and use that scorn to lift ourselves up: “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not one of those people.” However, what gets factored out when we think this way is that those people are people, too. Sociopathy aside, it gets harder and harder to ignore this over time — especially when those people aren’t actually doing anything to cause qualitative hassles for the rest of us, other than simply existing.
As much as I make noise to the contrary, I do honestly believe that most people are basically good at heart. So if we experience cognitive dissonance whenever we notice the real, live human behind a particular mask — perhaps one we decorated ourselves — it might be time to set aside a few of our thornier biases and let them remain unconfirmed.
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