The Ink Well: Exploring the Depths of Communication

An author and editor looks at how we use language to communicate with other Pagans and those outside our community.

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Wiccanate Privilege: What Now?

There's been a good deal of conversation online about the term "Wiccanate privilege" the past few days, and I think it illustrates the importance of choosing our words carefully when communicating important issues - especially those that others might find sensitive or take personally.

I have to admit the phrase rubbed me the wrong way to some degree. Whenever this happens, I ask myself why, and my attempt to answer that question usually starts with establishing definitions. When I looked up "Wiccanate" in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, it told me, "The word you're looking for isn't in the dictionary" and advised me to try another spelling (the top three suggestions were "wagonette," "white and" and, disconcertingly, "witch hunt"). It came as no surprise when the word failed to show up, as it seemed like one of those terms coined for the sake of convenience or because nothing else quite seemed to fit.

Next, I looked around online and found references to it. Among the most helpful definitions was one I found at a blog called Finnchuill's Mast, which described it as "referring to practices either specifically Wiccan, or of traditions like Feri and Reclaiming that share many reasonably similar practices like circle casting and working with four elements." My first reaction is that the term could be seen as artificial and offensive (I know of at least one person who described it as such). What if someone were to label your tradition "Paganesque" or "Reconstructionistic"? You might not take too kindly to that. Shorthand and jargon can be convenient, but it also can come off as flippant, dismissive and/or exclusionary - the last because only certain people will know what it means.

The Problem with "Privilege"

The second part of the phrase, "privilege," presents a different sort of challenge - one of connotation. It was prominent in a panel discussion at PantheaCon titled "Pagans and Privilege," as well as in an event in the hospitality suite (I personally attended the former but not the latter).

I found the "Pagans and Privilege" discussion to be a positive experience. It was conducted with a high degree of respect toward all present and with the goal of advancing understanding about the many facets of the diverse Pagan community. At one point in the discussion, it was mentioned that people who are part of a privileged group should not feel defensive or guilty (I'm paraphrasing) for being part of such a group but should come to an awareness of what that privilege means and its implications. That context was important, but the need for such a qualification may illustrate a difficulty with using the word "privilege" in the discussion.

Some people may become defensive when the word is used because it can carry negative connotations. Merriam-Webster's first definition of the word is "a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others." Another definition reads, "the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society." In my mind, the word conjures up images of blue bloods who look down their noses at others and snooty elitists who haven't the slightest clue what life in different economic classes or cultural groups is like. I'm not sure whether the word conjures up similar images in your mind; perhaps it doesn't. But if it does, it shows that the use of the word - especially when the context of the PantheaCon panel is lacking - can create certain challenges. It can, to be blunt, come across as negative.

Explanations and Defensiveness

There's a simple rule of thumb in communication that bears mentioning here: If you have explain too much, you probably didn't get your point across well in the first place. Words such as "Wiccanate" and, in the present discussion, "privilege" may fall into this category. That may be one reason so much space has been devoted to them online during the past couple of weeks. We're all trying to explain ourselves, and there has been no shortage of misunderstandings and umbrage taken in the process. Just Google "Wiccanate privilege" and you'll see what I mean: As of this writing, I get 1,420 articles.

Explanations aren't a bad thing if they create constructive dialogue and opportunities to learn about one another. They become problematic, however, when we feel compelled to provide them out of defensiveness. Those in the minority should not feel obligated to defend their practices or identity simply because fewer people share them. By the same token, those in the majority shouldn't feel defensive simply because their perspective is more common.

The word "privilege" tends focus awareness inward, on the self, and that's not what is needed most in these discussions. Such an inward focus leads to questions such as "Am I prejudiced?" and "Am I unwelcoming?" If, instead of privilege, we were to speak of honoring and welcoming others, we would be extending the focus outward instead. We would be asking questions like, "What can I learn about your life and ways?" and "How can I better understand your perspective?"

Face-to-face vs. Online

Part of the challenge extends beyond language, to the context of our communication. It's easier to speak forcefully (and sometimes rudely or dismissively) to others online than it is in person. We can far more easily circle the wagons and tune out those who may disagree with us on the Internet than we can in open forum at PantheaCon or over coffee between workshops, where we must deal with diverse individuals in person and are challenged to actually look them in the eye.

As Don Frew put it, "On the Internet we argue with an argument; not a person. It is important to keep the human element involved." (Frew has been involved in the discussion both online at at PantheaCon.)

Diplomatic efforts conducted face-to-face between nations often yield results, but agreements often collapse when the principals return to their respective home bases, where prejudices are reinforced and hostility is often magnified by those who may not have attended the summit and who prefer to perpetuate misunderstandings out of fear, ignorance or defensiveness.

The challenge then, for those on all sides (and there are many sides), is to maintain an atmosphere of open dialogue and a desire to learn more about others without seeking to impose one's views upon them. Sometimes, this isn't pleasant or comfortable. We may have to learn about others' pain or the injustices they've been forced to endure. But such knowledge can be necessary to understanding their perspective and appreciating what they have to offer.

So, What is "Wiccanate Privilege?"

From what I can gather, Wiccanate privilege is meant to describe the idea that Wicca-related or -inspired spiritual expressions are often viewed as the default, or that they have come to dominate the Pagan community. Rituals that incorporate sexual duality (God and Goddess), the sanctity of the circle, or calling the directions may have become almost standard in some quarters.

None of this personally offends me. I'm a nontheistic Pagan, but I can appreciate and enjoy observing and participating in rituals that welcome gods and goddesses. I've attended a Greek Orthodox wedding, evangelical Christian services and midnight Mass at a Catholic church on Christmas Eve, along with several Wiccan and Wiccan-influenced rituals, among various other ceremonial events. I go into each experience knowing that I am entering a particular group's sacred space and with the intent of honoring its traditions, not challenging them. I am there as an invited guest. One of the suites at PantheaCon required visitors to remove their shoes before entering. This was not a burden, but a simple request for respect.

At the "Pagans and Privilege" panel, moderator T. Thorn Coyle opened with a prayer that began, "Holy Mother, in whom we live, move, and have our being, from you all things emerge and unto you all things return ..." I was not offended at the fact she invoked her own spiritual tradition; on the contrary, I felt honored that she was sharing it with us. In a subsequent blog, she reflected that the prayer may have alienated some in attendance. She spoke of omitting something she considered saying: "I would like to start us with a prayer from my tradition and invite you all to meditate or pray to whomever you feel called." 

Taking Offense vs. Gaining Awareness

Yes, it would have been better had she said that. This panel discussion included attendees from a variety of paths and was not hosted by any single group, so there was no specific guiding tradition. Indeed, diversity was a central theme for the event, and a sense of welcoming and inclusiveness was important in setting the tone for the discussion. The delivery and spirit of T. Thorn Coyle's opening prayer were entirely consistent with this tone. I never once considered taking offense at it, even though, since I am a nontheist, no prayer she uttered would have been consistent with my personal beliefs.

To me, this prayer was not an example of "Wiccanate privilege," but rather a human attempt to welcome other humans to an important discussion. I accepted it entirely in that spirit. It wasn't at all similar to a government meeting during which "the name of Jesus" is invoked on the assumption that "everyone" shares a certain belief. No such assumption was present, as was clear by the tone of the prayer's delivery: one of reverence and respect, not of haughty rhetoric thinly disguised as petition. And there was no implied governmental sanction of the prayer, either.

In the end, any effort at inclusion will fall short of perfection; we are, after all, fallible humans, and perfection is an elusive, perhaps even meaningless concept. In light of this, how helpful is it to place unrealistic expectations on one another, then point fingers at those who fail to meet them?

What can, and should be expected is that we exercise an awareness that not everyone is like us, even though some cultural or spiritual expressions feel natural to us and others seem unfamiliar. Not all Pagans are Wiccans. Or Polytheists. Or Dianics. Or Reconstructionists. Or Pantheists. Or (fill in the blank). I don't personally think we need a new label such as Wiccanate privilege to become aware of that. Perhaps, indeed, we need to move beyond such labels and treat one another as human beings worthy of respect and understanding, regardless of our path.

 

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Stifyn Emrys is an editor and author of eight books. He has worked as a columnist, blogger and educator. He has written both fiction and non-fiction works, including "Identity Break," "Feathercap," "Requiem for a Phantom God" and "The Gospel of the Phoenix."

Comments

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    Thanks, Stifyn. I appreciate your perspective.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    Great article Stifyn.

    One point. You wrote "Not all Pagans are Wiccans. Or Polytheists. Or Dianics. Or Reconstructionists. Or Pantheists. Or (fill in the blank). I don't personally think we need a new label such as Wiccanate privilege to become aware of that."

    I would have agreed with you, if I had not attended the Wiccanate privilege discussion myself and heard several intelligent well known Pagans with decades of experience under their belts fail to appreciate how so-called "generic" Pagan language and rituals alienate and exclude many people who identify as Pagan. I do think we need the word to call attention to this.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    "... how so-called "generic" Pagan language and rituals alienate and exclude many people who identify as Pagan"

    (I should have added ...)

    ... while simultaneously privileging others.

    As you said above, this is not something to feel guilty about, but rather something to be aware of.

    And I am speaking as one of the privileged.

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    John, I wish I had known about this discussion. Unfortunately, this was our first PantheaCon, and we were still getting the hang of navigating it. We weren't aware of how active the upstairs suites were until about halfway through.

    I think the problem may lie in the assumption that something is gold standard when it isn't for everyone. That said, there's a fine line between sensitivity on the one hand and trying to please all of the people all of the time on the other. No one is going to be happy with everything you do. I think there's a danger that too much criticism will cause people to withdraw into self-conscious defensiveness, whereas continuing blindly with the status quo will alienate people who aren't being acknowledged. It's a very fine line, and one that's difficult to navigate, because feelings are easily hurt on both sides. That's why I think it's important to recognize that members of both the majority and minority have feelings - both equally valid and worthy of consideration.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    I find it interesting how easily so many of us have fallen into the language of "our tradition" -- when in fact most of our "ways" are reinvented with a lot of added creativity. Many of us have read Ron Hutton's deconstruction of "Wiccan tradition" which I find quite convincing--which doesn't mean that the practices Gardner spun together have no value. And though I would say my standpoint is Goddess feminism and is influenced by ancient Crete, there is no question of a direct transmission from the past.

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    I think a knowledge of history is extremely important, but contemporary experience is not necessarily dependent upon it. Both, in my view, are worth pursuing and work best in harmony with each other.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    The problem is that "privilege" has become a pejorative term used by some people to to disparage, belittle or insult those whom they see as "privileged." All that does is to create disharmony and hard feelings.

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    That's my concern, as well.

  • April S
    April S Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    I believe - and behave - in a strictly live-and-let-live way regarding such matters. I try not to let differences affect me. The more we try to respect each other and label each other less, the better. Nobody defines me. They may call me whatever they like, but their labels only stick if I accept them. I'm a witch and a pagan, based on my definitions of those terms. If anyone has a problem with that, it is theirs alone, not mine.

  • Nova
    Nova Thursday, 06 March 2014

    It just proves that just because a shortened term doesn't exist, for what you're trying to explain doesn't necessarily means there has to be one invented. If you're gong to invent or develop a term it's best to choose your words wisely. Simply by knowing the full definition of the word for one and expect just because you used it such a way, doesn't mean everyone who actually knows the widely know common definition of the word is going to just to say. Ah I get it! To he honest the term Wiccan-esque is more defined and easier to understand. However, how someone's path is centered or one decides to perceive it, is it really yours or ours business? How they view, practice their believes are that seriously offensive to you? To be frank does it even have to be labeled as such? Next Pagan Pride day just celebrate it the way you want it or participate in everyone else ritual or celebration. The fact remains, no matter how bitter the truth sounds, that Wicca was the first eye opener and probably a gateway to many other paths and religions. Whether you like it or not you know the core basis of how a Wiccan ritual is done. It doesn't have to be explained to everyone like it's some new or odd thing. Almost everyone knows it, yes it's a bit generic but it's simply this main fact. It's something everyone is familiar with so everyone should be able to participate in it. Right? The fact remains if someone had not decided that this needed to be labeled we probably wouldn't be having this discussion or maybe if they simply labeled it better. You can label me all you want in your mind doesn't mean I have to like it or accept it. Nothing is a privilege it's just simply known more, in time everything will be seen and others will be enlightened. Maybe next time I would say you know what, pray to whoever or whatever you want...silently.

    “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
    ~ Not Buddha (I still like the quote anyways)

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Friday, 07 March 2014

    I'm glad you brought up Pagan Pride Day, because it's of the most common scenarios I have heard about where Wiccanate privilege is exercised. In a common scenario non-Wiccanate Pagans make a proposal for the main ritual at Pagan Pride Day. They are told that their ritual is too unfamiliar, too confusing, too tradition-specific, too uncomfortable for cowans, etc. etc. And in lieu of that, a Wiccanate ritual is used. This is justified by saying that the Wiccanate ritual is generic, easy to understand, and is what everyone is used to. So the Wiccanate ritual is privileged as normative and this is perpetuated by excluding non-Wiccanate ritual forms.

    You wrote: "It's something everyone is familiar with so everyone should be able to participate in it. Right?"

    Wrong. Just because the Wiccanate ritual format is familiar is no reason to privilege it in a setting where minority voices are struggling to be heard.

    You wrote: "The fact remains if someone had not decided that this needed to be labeled we probably wouldn't be having this discussion ..."

    Exactly. Words have power. They enable us to see social structures and imbalances of power that were previously invisible.

    You wrote: "Nothing is a privilege it's just simply known more ..."

    Some things are a privilege. And being more well-known does create privilege.

  • Sable Aradia
    Sable Aradia Sunday, 23 March 2014

    Perhaps you're right in general, or perhaps this is your experience of your local Pagan Pride Day. I have been the Local Coordinator in my small area for many years, and each year I pleaded with the community to host a ritual that was NOT Wiccan for the main ritual to show our diversity. I am pleased to say that for the past three years we have finally become diverse enough that we succeeded; last year was Voodoo, the year before was Incan Shamanism and the year before that was OBOD Druidry. I have high hopes that this year will be Asatru, though it's no longer my call. Not all of us Wiccan types want to be the only show in town; really we don't. :)

  • Nova
    Nova Friday, 07 March 2014

    I agree that the minority word does need to be heard and I understand that when someone gets offended or a bit tired of one thing they come off sounding well, either offended, whiny, or sarcastic. Yes you have every reason to be, if it wasn't for those uproars everyone else's opinion will still be in the dark. However is there a real way to solve this issue? No, not immediately at least even if you decide not to do the so called "Wiccanate Privilege" way and do it another way you're going to leave one group out no matter what. You would either have to devote time for every group to have their time in the spotlight and even so, some people are just going to be clueless or just simply not willing to participate. You could possibly convene some kind moot and decide to create something that involves a bit of everyones input of what is acceptable or not. However, you're right, no one has the right to make anyone adhere to someone else's beliefs or rituals. Though either way you're not going to please everyone, someone will always be offended, unhappy, etc and in the process, making other groups become more singled out instead. Things are not going to change overnight, some people are not going to like the process and still complain, other might be more accepting. Though I think before we label something perhaps we should be more considerate or careful to the term. No one is going to like the word Privilege right behind their belief or path.

  • Nova
    Nova Friday, 07 March 2014

    I agree that the minority word does need to be heard and I understand that when someone gets offended or a bit tired of one thing they come off sounding well, either offended, whiny, or sarcastic. Yes you have every reason to be, if it wasn't for those uproars everyone else's opinion will still be in the dark. However is there a real way to solve this issue? No, not immediately at least even if you decide not to do the so called "Wiccanate Privilege" way and do it another way you're going to leave one group out no matter what. You would either have to devote time for every group to have their time in the spotlight and even so, some people are just going to be clueless or just simply not willing to participate. You could possibly convene some kind moot and decide to create something that involves a bit of everyones input of what is acceptable or not. However, you're right, no one has the right to make anyone adhere to someone else's beliefs or rituals. Though either way you're not going to please everyone, someone will always be offended, unhappy, etc and in the process, making other groups become more singled out instead. Things are not going to change overnight, some people are not going to like the process and still complain, other might be more accepting. Though I think before we label something perhaps we should be more considerate or careful to the term. No one is going to like the word Privilege right behind their belief or path.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Saturday, 08 March 2014

    Rather than trying to create a universal Pagan ritual for pan-Pagan events like Pagan Pride Day, how about we celebrate our diversity and feature different traditions. Have a Wiccanate ritual, but also have a devotional deity-centered ritual, etc. Stop trying to make everyone "happy" in one single ritual. Paganism is all about pluralism -- let's show it!

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Saturday, 08 March 2014

    That seems like a very sensible idea to me.

  • Sable Aradia
    Sable Aradia Sunday, 23 March 2014

    I agree! But our community just isn't big enough for this to be realistic. However, as stated above, I'm sure happy to take turns! And if someone wants me to play a role to fill in a gap, I'm happy to help if I can.

  • Nova
    Nova Friday, 07 March 2014

    Woops somehow I doubled post they really need to consider some edit options.

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