If you participate in contemporary Paganism, chances are, you might have also participated in respectability politics: I know that I have. I’ve endorsed the traditional party line on how to engage with the press (sharp suit, conservatively groomed, approved talking points), applauded efforts that made us more relatable to the Christian majority, and even volunteered for outreach “opportunities” I didn’t want to do for fear of who might fill the void left by my refusal. The underlying message being that if we do this work outsiders will, if not embrace us, then at least tolerate us, if we seem to be like them.
I am here to say that I was wrong in my self-perceived sensible moderateness.
[Scott Cunningham’s The Truth About Witchcraft Today (1987)] came out in the heat of the “Satanic” moral panics, and I suppose one can forgive our community for being afraid. Lives were being ruined, police were being trained by “occult experts” that our symbols might point to dastardly deeds, and a new, muscular, Evangelical Christianity was riding high, ready to push back on the “sins” of a previous era. An unspoken set of rules for how to behave, an ethos of respectability, was being formed in response.
- Dress modestly when you think you might encounter the press.
- Remind people that we are not Satanists, and that we don’t harm children.
- Subcultural markers like tattoos, “extreme” hairstyles, dramatic makeup, or facial piercings, are to be frowned on.
- Sex in our faiths and our communities is to be downplayed at all times, good or bad.
- Remind people that we are doctors, soldiers, lawyers, and members of other respected professions.
- Distance yourself publicly from more flamboyant members of the community. When confronted on their existence in the press, stress that they are the exception, not the rule, to how we look, act, and behave.
- Engage with local interfaith councils to change perceptions about our faiths.
- Refer to magic as “another form of prayer,” and stress a general theism, or a nature-loving pantheism, over a more “difficult” polytheism.
- “We love nature.”
- Quietly resist intersectionality within our own struggle. Maintain a false “apolitical” don’t-rock-the-boat facade in public.
Those were messages that I saw, heard, or felt were implied throughout my years coming of age within modern Paganism. These were never carved out commandments, but they don’t have to be. Once this tactic is adopted, it is the dominant culture that calls the shots on “proper” behavior. The problem with these kind of conservative ideologies is that one can never truly be conservative enough, so long as our core nature, and the dominant system’s norms, remain unchanged.
This was the first post I’d read on Gods & Radicals, and I found it endearing, and a promising start for that blog (and I thank the unnamed friend who’d reminded me of it). Though written by Jason Thomas Pitzl, one can only assume it was endorsed by Editor-in-Chief, Rhyd Wildermuth, as it was handpicked to be the inaugural essay of the blog, but as we now see, calling out and denouncing respectability politics is taking a back seat to the hit counts that people like John Halstead can bring to the publication.
The blog has now lost all integrity, as far as I’m concerned, in Rhyd’s dedication to playing nice with a clear Conservative who has said outright that “paganism” both can and should appeal to the status quo. One cannot play nice with whose who hold ideals contradictory to one’s own and truly maintain those ideals for long; Rhyd himself has said as much.