Respectability and the Convert Identity

First of all, I want to congratulate Bekah Evie Bel of Hearth Witch Down Under for her adept dismantling of John Halstead’s blog response to my comments —his own post basically translates to “I’m not trying to police people’s behaviour, but let me give you a textbook justification of respectability politics.”  Feel free to see for yourself, and then judge whether or not his rodomontade seems at all in line with the inagural Gods&Radicals essay by Jason Pitzl.

I also feel I should expand from Bel’s thoughts, as well as another FB friend’s, to springboard the rest of the post.

Halstead goes on at length about how we should respect ourselves to get respect, implying all over the place that folks like Phelan MoonSong seem to lack this self-respect that Halstead alone is the judge of.  I’ll have to disagree with that, and here’s why:

First off, it takes a lot of self-respect to maintain such a flambouyant appearance for the many years MoonSong has claimed.  Someone without much self-respect tends to care very little for their personal appearance, and MoonSong obviously cares a great deal for his own.  A person lacking in self-respect has a hard time asserting their rights – again, MoonSong has demonstrated that he is dedicated to asserting his rights.  Clearly, self-respect is something that MoonSong either possesses, or is very good at faking (though I doubt he’s faking it).

Furthermore, the idea that respect from others will be a given when one has sufficient self-respect is just preposterous.  Nothing in this life is a given, and it reeks of victim-blaming those who are routinely disrespected for nothing more than being true to himself.  That’s the kind of attitude that blames Matt Shepherd for being murdered (“if he’d just stayed in the closet!”) or the countless trans women on the annual Lists of Our Dead whose only crime was existing (“if only they didn’t just rub that lifestyle in everyone’s face!”)  The proper response isn’t to suggest that the status quo lacks respect for the pagan movement because of the weirdoes, but to challenge the status quo to be more tolerant of the weirdoes.  It is pure folly to believe that the oppressed have ever gotten the respect of their oppressors by mimickry.

Also note how absolutely no-one supporting Phelan MoonSong is saying that all pagans and polytheists must dress flamboyantly, unless that’s what one feels compelled to do to be true to oneself.  We’re not playing the No True Pagan game.  We’re not saying those pagans and polytheists teaching at universities in suits and ties and Fred Rogers sweaters are making us “look bad.”  In fact, we’re saying the opposite:  We’re saying to be true to oneself – if that means taking the call to modify one’s appearance as an act of dedication to one’s god/s, awesome, and if that means teaching Philosophy at a prestigious university, that’s also awesome.

Commenter kenofken made a comment on Bel’s post that I think touchesw on some important things in this latest pagan blogosphere debate, though:

Basically what John Halstead and the other respectability politicians want, what they feel entitled to, is to reorder the Pagan movement into affirming, Safe For Work, socially progressive, Moral Therapeutic Deism churches. They want us to be goddess-haunted versions of the United Church of Christ or Presbyterian Church. They don’t want real-life Pagans. They want the sanitized Disney version. They don’t want to be labeled as the blue noses and advocates of conformism they are, so they couch their crusade in terms of “It’s time to get serious and act like adults.”

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and also…

it seems to me that the most vociferous and dismissive criticism of Moonsong seems to come from non-theistic Pagans, if not outright secular humanists. They have no experience of the gods nor even acknowledge their existence as substantive beings. Of course it’s very easy for them to dismiss the idea that a deity would command a man to wear goat horns on his head 24/7, or that any sane or serious man would heed such a call if it came. Those of us who identify as “hard polytheist” do not find Moonsong’s assertions so hard to believe. We know that gods and goddesses interact with people in highly individual ways. Moonsong’s relationship to Pan or his ministry may indeed not be typical, but neither is it beyond the pale.

Those of us who dedicate ourselves fully to a god, or are chosen by one are not infrequently commanded to things FAR more arduous or inconvenient or silly than wearing goat horns. If you value your relationship with that god or goddess, and trust them, you do it. The fact that that deity is not known to routinely command that thing from his or her followers has no bearing on the legitimacy of that calling. Only the one follower knows whether it’s real or not, and even that can take some hard discernment. The rest of that god’s followers and Pagandom generally is free to reject, accept or ignore the situation.

It’s worth noting that this is in no way unique to Pagan religion. Every prophet and most saints in the Christian tradition were individually called to do things which were bizarre and uniquely bizarre. In the 4th Century, a Catholic monk named Simeon decided regular monastic life was too soft for him. He ended up in Syria, where he climbed a 20 foot pillar of rock, built a one-meter square platform and stayed up there praying and doing his thing for 40 years until he croaked. I was raised Catholic and I was a pretty good theology student, and I can tell you that nowhere in the New Testament or Canon Law or anywhere else in Catholic tradition are followers commanded nor even encouraged to sit on top of a rock for four decades. By your measure, Simeon must have been nothing more than an attention-hungry fruitcake. And some thought he was, including his original religious order. The church evidently saw something deeper in it as they made him a saint…

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Now, this topic also reminds me of something The Dionysian Artist pointed out on Facebook:  It is common for pagans to make some attempts to make even the slightest modification to their appearances upon conversion.  This is not a phenomenon unique to pagan religions – it’s been noted amongst all manner of religious conversion that the converts often (note: not universally) attempt to one-up those who were raised in the religion.

Think about it – whether it’s something as simple as wearing a triquetra or pentagram pendant, a subtle tattoo easily concealed, or just being more mindful of what one eats and wears, or even taking up yoga.  It’s fairly common for pagans to mark outselves in all manner of ways.  It’s almost impossible to throw a rock in any direction at a pagan gathering without hitting someone wearing an ankh or pentagram, or Thor’s hammer, or Celtic knot on their person (in some form).  Considering those who undertake in ordeal rituals, glue-on goat horns is actually kind of tame, even if he wears them full-time, and the scars from ritual suspension are often easily concealed by the average t-shirt, but the amount of ordealists who blog about their own, even under their legal names, makes it hard for those in-the-know to think that goat horns are all that strange.

To mark myself as a spouse of Eros, I’ve tattooed His name in Greek letters across my right knuckles and have made an effort to wear a nose chain frequently (though not daily).  As the first teacher of Erotic Hedonism, I’ve tattooed a Luna moth (Nys and psyche) sitting atop a purple thread (the Moirai) wound about a an arrow with heard-shaped head (Eros) on my left forearm, and for Apollon, I have ravens on my shoulder (though this also expands on an old “Nevermore” tattoo I’ve had since I was 22).  As an Hedonist devotee to Adonis (Who is said to have laid as a woman with Apollon) and Eros Diphuēs, I’ve been forbidden to cut my hair, and compelled to transvestism, including keeping my nails as long as I can manage.  These all are at risk to respectability – tattoos visible outside what’ve covered by the average t-shirt are still given pause, even on men, and especially on the hands.  The effeminate and even high femme appearance puts a further divide between myself and other trans men – even in jeans and a polo (during my brief “I’m not a Goth anymore” phase), something still struck a  of trans guys as incredibly femme about me, which pissed them off, and certainly met me with several disparaging comments from questioning my gender identity to even accusations of how being a femme guy, “if” I manage to transition to male (gee, it’s almost like they expected me to be gatekept – joke’s on them, I’m having my hysterectomy, next month), I’d just make the rest of them look like girls who want a dick, and not like men.

My Erotic Hedonism tattoo is subtle, and most people just think it’s pretty and, since it’s a luna moth, that it’s just a pretty goth tattoo.  The Eros tattoo hasn’t gotten much comment in the local community, but the local meet-up (now on hiatus) had one of those elusive African American Wiccans, so knuckle tattoos are obviously not what everyone is finding so remarkable.  The transvestism juxtaposed with a FTM history is more contentious in the trans community than the local pagan community.  Still, though, I certainly look weird, and am used to others using my unconventional appearance to question my “seriousness,” as an “adult.”

Devotional polytheists and pagans are far more likely to take our mark further than a pendant or subtle generic-pagan-symbol tattoo.  Whether Phelan MoonSong identifies with the devotional movement or not, he’s certainly made himself a visible representation of those in the devotional movement within paganism who have been compelled by our gods to, let’s be frank, look weird.

To him, though, it’s not “too weird,” it’s a fair and justified display of reverence to Pan.  Why that is “too weird” for some people, but my tattoos and transvestism barely get a mention seems a completely arbitrary reflection of the overculture – tattoos have become more-acceptable, and cross-dressing isn’t something I clearly engage in daily, so why bother saying anything about it, right?  Thing is, twenty years ago, that was not the case, and those who see little issue with my own appearance, but object to the publicity Phelan MoonSong has received would certainly have, in the mid-1990s, be having the same objections to my own hypothetical publicity:  A cross-dressing goth with tattoos on his hands?  That makes “us” look bad!  Just so silly, he’s doing it for attention!

Thing is, though, literally every way we visibly “mark” ourselves to show religious reverence – even something as simple as a necklace – is done so knowing it’ll almost certainly get us attention for it.  When those “discrete, concealable” pentagram charms wriggle out of our shirts, other people notice, even if we aren’t asked.  Same with the Thor’s hammers (which, in many circles, don’t necessarily signify Heathenry, but White Supremacy), the Tree of Life, and even Triquetra knots.  When we dare to say what is “too silly” for the pagan religious movement, not only are we suggesting that “paganism” is some unified religion that it is not, we’re setting up a precedent that just about anything is going to be “too much” to fit in with the status quo.  That’s the trap of respectability politics:  Ultimately, nothing we do is conservative enough to fit in, until we abandon our religions and start going to church.

No-one has the right to tell another person what self-respect looks like.  Visible tattoos are becoming normalised not by removing those with them from view, but by saturation.  Most employers no longer bat an eye at blue hair, because it’s been gradually normalised over the last thirty years.  Both of these examples have been disparaged by critics as somehow signs of “no self-respect,” and now are increasingly part of everyday life in the West; they became that way not by kow-towing to the status quo, but by challenging it to tolerate these things.

It greatly disappoints me that people who should know better are obstinately giving platform to someone who endorses and defends respectability politics, essentially further normalising it in their allegedly anti-Capitalist movement.

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2 thoughts on “Respectability and the Convert Identity

  1. One of the things I have never been able to understand is how people think they can comment on other peoples level of self respect or lack-thereof. The phrase states quite clearly it is about the self, not about others. Self respect is something that cannot possibly be determined by societal standards (except insofar as how we internalise societal standards). One persons self respect is going to be completely different to another persons, it’s not just a maybe here, it’s a definitely – because we are all different, even when we try to hide those differences. So how anyone can think they have the right to judge someone elses level of self respect is completely beyond me.
    Ugh, it drives me crazy. One of my pet hates for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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