Problematic Origins Of Pagan Things And How To Handle Them

Problematic Origins Of Pagan Things And How To Handle Them December 20, 2019
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An ongoing problem with the pagan and polytheistic communities is not just our some of our problematic origins, but our influences. This ranges from founders of traditions who were/are sexist and homophobic to authors who inspired many but turned out to be transphobic, racist, etc. Prejudices and bigotry are common enough that we need to address it.

How do you handle material from a problematic source?

First we must ask the question: is the material itself problematic, just the source, or is it a mixture of the two?

There are many valid traditions that have dubious origins. It doesn’t render them invalid, but it DOES mean being honest when educating on its history.  We must acknowledge it, address concerns, and thus be able to move forward.

Initiatory Wiccan traditions are an excellent example of this. We can’t say that our founders were perfect beings by far, and some of those problems influenced the original lore. This is why it’s good to examine, teach what was, but also teach why we’ve evolved from it. A great example would be attitudes on gender and so-called gender polarity.

It’s a similar deal with fiction, too

I’m sure by now people are aware of the fact that JK Rowling tweeted support for an anti-trans person and is a known transphobe herself. Sadly her work is beloved by many (I grew up on it myself) and has inspired many people to go into paganism, magic, and witchcraft.

However, her work is a mixed bag. There were clear antisemitic references with the depictions of the goblins running banks and their descriptions as being stereotypically antisemitic. Many Jews pointed this out time and time again. And we can’t ignore this in light of the other issues raised.

Her work is not perfect. Many works are not. So how we do handle it?

Can we still be a fan of problematic things and if so, how?

It’s been the case time and time again that when society evolves and moves on, past popular tv shows, books, and movies do not age well. It’s also true that there are existing works today that have issues, and yet still have fans.

In some instances, you can address and acknowledge that said work has problems without giving up being a fan of it on the whole. Other times those problems can taint the entire work whether it’s the work itself or just the person or people behind it. It’s frequently on a case by case basis. For historical purposes, you CAN acknowledge the good that the work did originally. But you also have to mention that we’ve evolved since then and why.

Shows like Buffy, for instance, are an example of that. The show was revolutionary for its time from a feminist perspective. However certain aspects have not aged very well and some were problematic to begin with. Issues include its overwhelmingly white cast, outright racism, Willow’s bierasure, etc. I still very much enjoy rewatching episodes from time to time despite this though I’ll admit that some episodes bother me and I no longer can. I can also tell you right now that the entire The Cosby Show is now unwatchable to me. There’s no way I can even look at anything Bill Cosby did without being reminded of how he drugged and raped women.

Current producers of said works when they put them out into the public need to consider this too, especially from a historical perspective. Recently Disney+ was criticized for its handling of historical content in comparison with Warner Brothers, for instance. Don’t just call it “outdated” or appear dismissive. Outright call it what it is: racism. Address problematic origins with brutal honesty.

Your comfort level may not be that of others in your own community, but you DO need to hear other people out from other communities

It behooves us all to hear out the marginalized communities and listen to what they have to say about whether or not a person or a particular media is problematic. If Jews say that something is antisemitic, it is. When black people call out a particular tv show for being racist, it is. If trans people tell you that a person is being transphobic, they are.

Don’t get overly defensive of what you love. Stop and hear them out. Listen to what others have to say. Hear them out. Change your behavior and get recommendations for what is a better approach.

Often finding out the reasons WHY something is problematic is more important than what is problematic. We need a greater understanding of how frequently biases, bigotry, and prejudices are systemic and institutionalized. These prejudices can be so embedded in current culture to the point where people don’t even realize that they are there until pointed out.

Not everything is redeemable, and we need to stop supporting some things

It’s fine to still enjoy and be inspired by the Harry Potter books and movies, even if certain elements are problematic. But if you’re continuing to financially support JK Rowling by buying books, seeing movies, etc you’re doing many communities a disservice. Enjoy what you have, but it’s time to stop.

Boycotts can be effective. Voting with your money is a time honored tradition in capitalist societies. Embrace it!

As for as historically problematic origins, however, what can you do? For starters, you can support the traditions and their people who are honest about their the nature of their historical beginnings provided they’ve demonstrated that they’ve moved past them. You can accept previously problematic people into the community provided that they’ve demonstrated growth and a willingness to change. Changed behavior, after all, is the best apology.

The United States is an entire country founded on problematic origins. Maybe we as Americans need to take these tips to heart for how to move forward with our own issues. We need to be way more honest about history in general.

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  • MrFribbles

    This is my problem with my favorite film, Brazil. Saw it once, absolutely adored it, and then learned more about the director. Now I won’t ever watch it again, at least not as long as he’s alive.
    My children are both very much into Potter-related things. It’ll be an interesting conversation next time they ask for a toy wand or time-turner replica, and my partner and I will have to explain why can’t get that for them – but here’s some cool D&D (or other good fantasy?) stuff we can get instead.

  • Amanda Ingalls

    Thankfully there aren’t too many TV shows out there that wrongly label Witches as the bad guys, but the animated series Winx Club unfortunately fits that category. All of the so – called “Witches” are either Goth – looking with crazy colored hair, or they looks like science fiction movie rejects. Seriously, look it up under Google Images and see for yourself how ridiculous they look. Books are a different story, but while some make the Witches the good guys (bravo for them), you have to wonder whether or not Witchcraft itself is being properly portrayed as a legitimate religion. Just some food for thought.

  • randomperson

    I have an ethics question about this actually. Lately, I’ve been pondering and figuring out my own morality through contemplating my own responses to moral dilemmas. Of course, some moral dilemmas are poorly written, but there are two moral dilemmas that were brought up in my mind while reading this. Before I dive in, I’d like to say currently, I consider myself a Pagan cousin due to my spiritual views being vehemently rejected by some of the Pagan community to the point that I was thinking I’m not sure if I truly belong. So, currently, I consider myself a Pagan cousin, due to my views being a little too futuristic to fit quite well. That being said, I still share some of the beliefs of other Pagans and I still enjoy interacting with them, I just…don’t fit well enough in my own opinion. Anyway, so these are my two thoughts and I’d like to know different Pagan’s opinions on these thoughts.

    One is, if everyone in Paganism decides their own path and Pagans have no unified theology (which I think has positives and negatives, but it is what attracted me to it), how does any Pagan create a moral standard that applies to everyone? The reason for this thinking is, if there is no theological agreement, then morality will be all over the place in the wider Pagan community, so even if a Pagan does something, the wider Pagan community cannot really say that all Pagans disagree with it, only that their particular group does. It’s been something I’ve been puzzling over for sure. Granted having a wider morality among a religious group has its own issues, but, it’s something I’ve been pondering, because on an individual level it doesn’t matter, but on a societal level, I’m not sure how that would go. It would be hard to enforce certain morals if one were to ascribe to a less unified theology, at least, that’s what I think anyway.

    Second, I ponder both sides of the political situation personally, so I’m just being honest where I stand on things. On a chart with ten ticks to the left and right and ten ticks to the authoritarian and libertarian side, I am one tick to the left and one tick towards libertarian, so I’m about smack in the middle. Currently, I don’t participate in politics. It’s gotten too extreme for me and too divisive and I feel alienated by it, but I’ve never felt like a true American anyway. So, with that out of the way, on the left, my question is, how does one decide who to listen to, especially when two groups that are both minority groups are at each others throats? You have said to listen and believe those who are speaking, and while that is more clear in positions where one individual is clearly being unfairly treated by the other (although people vary on what they believe that means), it is less clear when both groups have valid complaints of being treated unfairly. That is something I have struggled with. I’ll give an example that’s something I made up from my childhood years. I grew up in Kenya for most of my formative years, so I’m going to use that country as a reference. Kenya has 40 plus tribes, and most of the time, they get along okay. Of course, they were colonized by the British as per most African countries, being colonized by one group or another, so that affects tribal relations to some degree. Anyway, in my scenario, a Kikuyu is accusing a Kamba of being prejudiced. The Kikuyu feels like the Kamba is being prejudiced towards them, because the Kamba is going around saying the Kikuyus are arrogant, but this Kikuyu knows many Kikuyus who are not arrogant and feels it is an unjust accusation. On the other hand, the Kikuyu is going around saying that the Kamba are lazy, when in fact this particular Kamba know that isn’t the case. These are minor accusations, but in this scenario, who would one side with? Granted, it is not a perfect scenario, but I’m just presenting it as a kind of example of what I am speaking of. Another case I could bring up is one a person that has Botswana ancestry told me of. So, according to this individual, the Botswana people actually welcomed the British presence in their country with open arms, because the Zulu population in South Africa was attacking them and stealing their land, so while the Zulus were victims of the British presence, the Botswana people felt freed of their oppression by the Zulu because of that same British presence. It’s like two different stories, both being victims of power and politics but having an entirely different experience of the same scenario.

    Anyway, those are my two questions, things I’ve been pondering and thinking deeply about, especially considering the current situation I’ve been in, I’ve realized, being a survivor of my own situation in many ways, I care very deeply for example of keeping children from abuse in all its forms, but my concern is when a child’s struggle is not taken seriously because they are dismissed because they don’t fit into the “victim” scenario most people have in their minds, but also when a society has no strict or clear morals with children’s issues or sees them as less than or argues about how much they deserve in terms of rights….it can create more harm than good. So, this is my underlying concern that spurred me to consider these issues and the problems inherent within them, especially where children are concerned.

  • MrFribbles

    I’m a newcomer to Paganism, so, take my opinion for what it’s worth-
    I think that, even in religious traditions that do have an objective standard to judge morality by, there’s still a wide range of moral applications. I’ll use the faith of my childhood/early adulthood, Christianity, as an example. We had the Bible. A fixed, mostly static text. But there’s still Christian groups out there that promote adult men marrying minor girls. That’s a more extreme example, of course, but the staggering number of denominations, each with their own variations on understanding a supposedly objective moral standard, demonstrates that whatever the solution is, finding a higher authority to appeal to ain’t it.

    I think the amorphous nature of Paganism may actually be a strength here. Because nobody can point to a chapter and verse to justify their harmful beliefs, the rest of us are welcome to look at them and say, “What you are doing is harmful, and we will have no part in it. You are not welcome as one of us any longer.”

  • randomperson

    Thank for your response! I really do appreciate you taking the time to respond to me. Your example of Christianity I can relate to very well. For me, I also grew up under that religion and understand the issues when one follows a book written a long time ago. My interpretation of what you said is that you view Paganism’s lack of appeal to higher authority as a strength and asset, rather than problematic, especially considering the alternative. Am I correct in my understanding? Engaging with the conversation, I then would like to ask, if you were to form a society based on what your personal interpretation of Paganism is, how would you go about it? Maybe I should start with levels. So, basically, how would you form a group? And going from there, how would you lead a society, what kind of foundations would you use? I’m just incredibly curious about what Pagans think, and how they form their morality. It is more about discussing morality and how different Pagans view it, rather than starting an argument for me. I’ve just been thinking about this a lot and want to hear from other perspectives.

  • MrFribbles

    I suppose that I don’t want a society formed around the beliefs I personally hold. I don’t think I, or any other single person, has enough of the answers to be the one source of guidance for an entire society. I think there needs to be input from people with a wide variety of beliefs, and that by everyone hearing and interacting with those ideas, a shared set of moral beliefs will emerge that most people can abide by.

    Now, on a smaller scale, if I were to create a local group of, say, hard polytheists (which is to say, polytheists who believe the gods are distinct persons, and not abstract powers or ideas), and it were, for whatever reason, left to me alone to decide the rules, I think a general principle of respecting others up until the point that their conduct harms others would go a long way. I would base this on my belief that the gods are virtuous and do not seek to harm others, except when the god’s divine justice demands it.

  • randomperson

    Fair enough. I do have some more questions for you.

    For the first paragraph, would you provide your input if a society was trying to form a basic set of morals to follow, or would you be more likely to stay silent? Would it depend on how they went about gathering opinions on the matter? What about if the majority wanted to make a set of morals that you were strongly against? What if it was just one aspect of it you were strongly against? How would you handle a situation like that?

    In terms of the second paragraph, as a hard polytheist, how do you approach experiences, beliefs and written text that contradict the belief that the gods are virtuous, or do you believe there is any? Do you believe all the gods are virtuous or just some? What about gods that are more mischievous in nature either by text or personal experience? How do you approach it? What is your approach to evil in the world? Where does it come from in your opinion?

    I’m also curious what you would categorize my beliefs as. So I believe the gods exist, all of them, but none of them are omniscient or omnipresent or all powerful. What I call them is higher minds. They’ve evolved to a higher state of being and they continue to evolve. Some are more creative and some are more destructive but we need both in the world. Above them is the universal mind which mimics consciousness but is not itself conscious. It’s kind of like a computer that was setup by an unknown entity or entities that don’t watch over what it/they created and will never be discovered. All things in the universe have spiritual energy, but only minds have consciousness. Mind I define as having a reaction to a change in your environment that involves choice. This would include plants but exclude rocks. Mid level minds can recognize themselves as a separate being from others. High level minds obtain a more and more godlike ability to create, destroy and manipulate their environment. There is this world layered by a mirror world called the other side. This other side interacts with ours and has different realms for the different paths of spirituality. When you die you can choose to reincarnate, for further learning and growth, merge yourself with the universal mind to where your data is no longer separate as a node/mind essentially, have yourself completely erased, or stay on the other side. There are also multiple dimensions and multiple universes, though it is impossible to cross into another universe physically, only spiritually. Souls in another universe when it dies get transferred to a new one if they so choose. Spiritual karma exists, but physical karma I don’t believe in so much. I know the universal mind exists because not only did I experience it, but it responded exactly how I expected. Anyway, what do you think?

  • randomperson

    Thanks so much for sharing your views! You have put a lot of thought into your beliefs, I feel like. Food for thought for sure.

    Wow, Pagan Panentheism…hmm…never thought of that. My beliefs are somewhat difficult to categorize, but that is pretty close, closer than a lot of people have gotten. I think the only change I would make is maybe Pagan Digital or Technological Panentheism. It’s the closest I can get. Thanks for the input!

  • Thanks for your input Falkenna! I do read a lot and try to expose myself to different perspectives from my own, but you are right, I need to keep doing that. Simplicity is easier than complexity for sure. My complexity is probably due to my voracious appetite for knowledge, combined with my background of living in multiple cultures etc. It is true that the concept of race is very simplistic. There are ethnicities, there are communities, there are families, and there are individuals, so it really isn’t a one size fits all. But, because I am also a judgmental type personality, I’m constantly fighting my own generalized comments. Lol! I try to approach things humbly for the most part, but it’s a work in progress. What I have learned the more I express myself, that I am very…weird, and that people have trouble relating to that weirdness.