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To Speak and To Keep Silent

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

There's a cycle in the Pagan blogosphere that needs to be interrupted. This or that public figure of Paganism stumbles, mildly or majorly, anything from making an offensive statement to doing something seriously unethical and even illegal. More than half the time, I think to myself "Who is this person, and why should I care?" But one by one, many take it upon themselves to step up and denounce or defend to demonstrate their upholding of ethics, Real Paganism(tm) or Loyalty and Respect for Our Elders (tm) Then we get upset about which "sides" our favorite bloggers, authors, festival presenters have taken, or not taken and there's another wave of backlash. I admit to taking part in this, but this last couple times I hesitated. What impact does my speaking or writing on this have? Is this person accountable to me? Do they follow the same value system as me? Do they represent my tradition or organization? Can I have a face to face conversation with them? 

I often put more thought into my writing than my speech. I try to talk quickly to get in all the words I want to and end up sounder more foolish as a result. The Druidic virtue of eloquence is certainly one I need to work on! I know my Wiccan compatriots have a saying about "Speak ye little, listen much" and the title of this blog post refers to the Witches' Pyramid, To Know, To Will, and To Keep Silent. I guess To Speak falls under To Will- it's not my pyramid, so y'all might have to explain it to me.

As Thanksgiving approached, I saw more and more from my activist friends and organizations about how to talk about racial justice, American Indian genocide and other light-hearted topics at the dinner table with your relatives. While it all seemed very noble and well-intended, I thought "You don't know my relatives, you don't know why or how I celebrate Thanksgiving and what it means to me and my family. You don't have to deal with the consequences of opening more than a can of pumpkin puree at Thanksgiving."

I thought about how sometimes Pagans seem to think that we are all sitting at the same virtual Thanksgiving table, deciding whether to speak up or keep silent towards the same elders, teenagers and people in between. Nope. I'm not at the Bay Area Reclaiming Thanksgiving table. Or the Massachusetts Theodish Heathen Yule table. Or the British OBOD Druid Martinmas table. I can't tell you what food is traditional to serve, what is a proper conversation topic, the table manners, the ritual etiquette, and how much deference or egalitarian spirit you display towards elders, if you even have a concept of elderhood. 

If the Northern Dawn Covenant of the Goddess folks put on a well-done ritual that I attend, I'll tell them, "Well done! This is specifically what I liked about it". If I know someone pretty well in one of my communities, someone who may actually listen, and they say uncool things about Muslims, trans people, Latinos or what have you, I'll talk to them about it privately and explain why this was offensive and not OK in our community spaces, and try to understand where they got those attitudes and if and how they might be willing to change them. Even if they aren't interested in changing attitudes, they may at least change their behavior. If it's someone I don't know very well, a dirty look, raised eyebrow or talking to a mutual friend if possible about their behavior would be more effective. While this doesn't always work, I have often found that firmly but politely confronting offensive behavior and comments (using I statements) will have better results than going above the person's head to an authority. Especially with Pagans, we all know how much Pagans love authority! 

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Mariah Sheehy is an ADF Druid/Heathen and has a B.A. in political science from Augsburg College. She serves on the board of the Bisexual Organizing Project and lives in the Twin Cities (Paganistan) in an all-autistic adult household. She enjoys biking, camping, crafting and grappling with the Irish language.


  • John Reder
    John Reder Thursday, 03 December 2015

    Mariah is addressing confrontations that are directly hostile, such as most of the political discourse that appears on the internet. What I find much more disturbing is the confrontations that are more passive-aggressive. Those which come out of the self righteous smugness of the spiritually superior. Pagans can become very upset when confronted by Bible quoting evangelicals, but we often employ the same tactics and have a much wider variety of text to quote from. But that is the bane of religion, isn't it? Though we all want to claim OUR chosen religion is about bringing everyone together, we always seem to be too quick to let others know they have not been as chosen as we are.

  • Lizzy Hood
    Lizzy Hood Thursday, 03 December 2015

    I agree with your approach, especially the "I statements" method. That said, I would like to see more voices raise up, not in judgement of errant elders, but in support of the marginalized in our community. I do think there is value in not letting bigoted remarks just hang in the air. If a trans person is researching Paganism or whatnot on the Internet, I don't want them to see a community demurely change or avoid the subject publicly, and - unbeknownst to them - politely save the truth telling for private conversations. I want them to see a community trying to do better, challenging itself, and growing through honest debate, and full of people who want to hold circles and festivals and whathaveyou with and for our trans siblings. Piling on those who err with self-righteous condemnation isn't the answer, but once the bigotry hits the public sphere, be it social media or a public festival, the time for polite private chats is over. We mustn't let the desire for a reasonable response become the apparent absence of one.

  • John Reder
    John Reder Thursday, 03 December 2015

    The main problem Lizzy is the matter of "elders" in the Pagan communities. In almost every community (or coven) one is subservient to the dogma and dictates of some priest or priestess who sets the standards and practices of that community. It is not about bigotry but hegemony and that intern marginalizes that community from any universalist concept.

  • Mariah Sheehy
    Mariah Sheehy Thursday, 03 December 2015

    I agree we need to call people out for bigoted comments and behavior. Since I don't know any of the people involved in this particular incident, however I decided to stay out of it. Others who do know them have responded accordingly. I do recognize the concept of elders, but I view it as up to particular traditions and local communities to define and recognize. I think more of the Pagan diaspora skews towards egalitarianism rather than hierarchy, especially given the sheer proportion of solitaries, with the biggest de facto social dynamic being cliquishness.

  • John Reder
    John Reder Thursday, 03 December 2015

    Maybe "cliquishness" is a word that is grossly underused as though seemingly an undramatic little word it does cut to the heart of the matter. It just struck me that I remember from my history lessons hoe the framers of The US Constitution wanted to have a government without political parties and that idea didn't last 10 years before splintering off into groups and fighting for leadership of those groups. Maybe "cliquishness" is part of the human condition.

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