Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Misconceptions about cultural appropriation

I have now written several articles on cultural appropriation. When people comment on articles on this topic, I have observed several recurring themes.

Cultural silos

Frequently, people assume that talk of cultural appropriation means that no-one can ever use an idea from another culture.  This would rule out situations of cultural fusion, where two cultures which are on an equal footing come together to create a new amalgam of ideas, music, cuisine, or ritual. It would also rule out cultural exchange, where two cultures on an equal footing acquire new ideas, practices, or rituals from each other. These situations are clearly not problematic, because the two cultures are on an equal footing. The key feature here is the equality of the cultures.

People also talk as if those who are trying to draw attention to the issue of cultural approppriation are behaving as though culture is a monolith or silo, where nothing can ever be transferred from one culture to another. Obviously, this is not the case, and offering examples of cultural fusion or cultural exchange between cultures which are on an equal footing is not an argument for dismissing claims of cultural appropriation.

What makes you part of a culture?

Some people claim that what makes you part of a culture is that you are genetically related to the people who produced that culture. On the basis of this claim, the idea of cultural appropriation has been distorted by people with a racist or alt-right agenda, who want to keep people of colour out of revived European religious traditions. We should strenuously resist the idea that culture is genetically trasnmitted, as it is legitimises racism.

Culture is transmitted through acculturation, via books, films, conversation, storytelling, dance, and traditional practices. People who immerse themselves in another culture can become part of it, and can legitimately take part in its practices and rituals, though if the culture is a living culture, then they should approach living representatives of that culture in order to become part of it.

Culture is specific to time and place

Another recurring theme is the idea that culture is universal and somehow open-source. This is derived from two particularly pernicious ideologies.

The first of these is colonialism, which has taken many forms over the centuries, and consists of the dominant or hegemonic culture assuming that it is superior to the conquered culture, and therefore has a right to the goods, services, resources, lands, and ideas of the conquered culture.

The second of these ideologies seems benign, but isn't. It is sometimes called the perennial philosophy, and sometimes called universalism - the idea that there is a universal essence of every idea or practice that can be extracted from it and re-embedded in another context. This is the idea behind Michael Harner's "core shamanism" - the idea that there is a universal shamanistic practice which can be extracted from Siberian shamanism, and re-clothed in the trappings of another culture, and thereby can become the shamanism of the new culture.

However, whilst ideas from one culture can be transferred to another if proper care is taken, quite often they are transferred with little appreciation or care for the original culture from which the idea came, or cherry-picked whilst ignoring other aspects of the source culture which are too 'difficult', and become distorted in the process of transfer. The transfer of ideas becomes problematic and culturally appropriative when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

Ignoring the power differential

Many people who struggle with the idea of cultural appropriation fail to see that it happens when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

What does it mean to say that one culture has more power than another? When a culture is seen as normative (in the current context white, European, heterosexual, male, and cisgender are the "norm" or unmarked default), it has more power than non-normative cultures.

Cultures acquire normative status by conquering other cultures. In the ancient world, the Graeco-Roman culture was the normative culture, against which other cultures were measured and found to be barbaric or exotic. In the modern world, the Western culture of Europe and America is the normative culture against which other cultures are seen as relatively exotic or even barbaric.





Sunday, 25 September 2016

Recommended reading - Pagan & Wiccan

 This is my list of recommended reading for beginners. Many other lists are available. If you don't like my list, make your own. I have tried to keep the list fairly short, so as not to overwhelm you with a great long shopping list.

My recommendation would be to read widely and deeply, noting what you agree with, what riles you, and what attracts you. You don't have to agree with everything you read. Rather you should engage with it, see how it affects you, think about any issues it raises for you.

I have always had trouble with books that have exercises in them, because I tend to think, "Oh yes I will do that exercise later" and I either skip over it and never come back to it, or put the book down and never finish it.

Pagan books

The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci, by Barry Patterson

I have often said to people that if they only ever read one book on Paganism, it should be this one. It is all about how to engage with the landscape you live in, and how to connect with the spirits of place. It offers practical suggestions for deepening your connection with nature.

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America by Margot Adler

A great, and classic, introduction to contemporary Paganism. Goes into the beliefs, practices and communities in some depth. Evocatively and accessibly written.

The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates

This is one of my favourite books of all time. It is an exploration of the world of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry from the point of view of a young Christian missionary who comes to respect the Anglo-Saxon sorcerer he has been sent to learn from. It was based on the author's PhD research into the Leechbook, an Anglo-Saxon herbal.

Books on Wicca

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft  by Ronald Hutton

A must-read for anyone who wants to know the history of Wicca, with some reflections on how and why why the Pagan revival happened. Ronald Hutton examines the historical conditions and cultural movements that gave rise to the Pagan revival and the birth of Wicca, and looks at more recent history as well.

Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas S. Clifton

The story of the Pagan revival in the United States. Very well-written and researched. The US equivalent of Triumph of the Moon.

Wicca: Magickal Beginnings by Sorita d'Este and David Rankine

A textual and historical analysis of the possible origins of the rituals and practices of this modern tradition of Pagan Witchcraft. A fascinating book that I found to be really interesting and to deepen my understanding of Wicca.

Wicca: the Old Religion in the New Millennium by Vivianne Crowley

An excellent introduction to Wicca, with an exploration of the dynamics of the rituals from a Jungian perspective. First published in 1989, with a revised edition in 1997, this book is still a classic. In a recent reflection on the book, Vivianne Crowley wrote:
When I wrote Wicca, I had been in Wicca for 15 years. What I had seen in that time was how Wicca had the potential to transform people. Many of the processes that I had seen occurring as people worked their way through the initiatory systems were those that manifest through the inner journey of growth that Carl Gustav Jung called ‘individuation’. By exposing our inner world to the Gods and to those who share the spiritual journey with us, we are transformed. This is not the matter of a few years, but a lifelong process, which initiatory Wicca at its best can nurture, support and foster. The purpose of such a journey is that of the Great Work – the transformation of self as a starting point for the transformation of humankind; for if individuals do not change, then societies cannot evolve. Our aim is to grow nearer the Gods, to move from our egocentric engagement with the world for our own ends, to a re-centering that detaches us from our own preoccupations and allows us the see the world from a wider, deeper, and longer-term perspective.

Other reading lists


A Queer Pagan Reading List

Here are a bunch of books for the LGBTQ Pagan reader. I have either read these and can recommend them, or I have read another book by the same author, and can therefore recommend the ones on this list.

Collection of some Contemporary Pagan & Male Nude Sculptures created by Malcolm Lidbury
Collection of some Contemporary Pagan & Male Nude Sculptures created by Malcolm Lidbury (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gay

Inclusive

Kink

Lesbian

LGBT

Polyamory

Queer

Transgender

Other people’s lists of recommended books

Online resources

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

"Good" people do bad things: statement on the Frosts

There is absolutely no excuse, ever, for advocating the molestation of children.

Even in the 1970s, when some people were apparently rather confused about the boundaries of what consent was, the majority view was that sex between children and adults was always wrong.

Therefore, there is no excuse for the publication of chapter 4 of the book by Gavin and Yvonne Frost which claimed to be about Wicca, which advocated for the sexual molestation of minors. If they had repudiated the chapter and apologised for its inclusion and tried to do something to make reparation for its consequences, perhaps there might be a reason to rehabilitate them, cautiously.

But they never did apologise or repudiate it or seek to make reparation for it. (They did say that it didn't apply to people under 18, but what they advocated is abusive even if it involves people over 18, and it was 40 years before they even did that, despite numerous people in the Pagan community strongly rejecting what they wrote.) So there is no reason to pretend it didn't happen, or try to claim that they did good things other than that. They may very well have done - bad people can also do good things - but unless and until they apologised for the publication of such an unethical ritual, it should neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

Many people have been put off of Wicca by reading that book, as they assumed it spoke for all of Wicca.

The Frosts were never part of either Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca, and their organisation is not recognised by any legitimate Gardnerian or Alexandrian, nor by most other witches and Wiccans.

Legitimate Wiccans do not and never have engaged in sexual activities with minors, and consider such actions extremely unethical.

The Frosts also advocated sexual initiations at every initiation. Legitimate Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans do not include sexual intercourse as part of the first or second degree initiations, and it is optional at third degree and may be replaced with a symbolic ritual act.

Inclusive Wicca is a tendency within Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, and we strongly condemn abuse and molestation in all its forms, and seek to firmly establish a consent culture in our covens.

In my personal opinion, sexual intercourse should not form part of the third degree unless it has been discussed a long time beforehand, and enthusiastic consent (which can be withdrawn at any time) has been established.

We also need to realise that "good people" and "nice people" do bad things. Being "nice" doesn't make someone immune from being an abuser, or a racist, or a transphobe, or a homophobe, or an exploiter of slave labour in the third world. Far too often, people deny that someone can have engaged in abusive behaviour, because they are "nice". But you only have to look at public figures who have been revealed to be serial abusers to realise that they too were previously considered "nice".

I am very disappointed that several self-styled "elders" of the Pagan community have continued to defend the Frosts and try to excuse or diminish what they did.

This is why we need the Pagan and Heathen Symposium Code of Conduct for all events. This is why we need to discuss consent culture and strive to create it in our Pagan communities. This is why "big name Pagans" need to speak out and condemn those who advocate for or commit abuse, and refuse to invite them to events, or attend events where they will be speaking.

Further reading