Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political
By Ginger Drekisdottir
A common refrain I hear in many Pagan spaces, both online and off, is “this is a non-political space”. In light of the recent toing and froing around this issue in the Pagan blogosphere, this has been on my mind again.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Paganism is religion, and politics is politics. Paganism should be about bringing people together in honour of our gods and spirits, while politics just divides people and distracts from the reason why we get together as Pagans in the first place.
But, and this is a big “but”, there is a problem with declaring any space, including Pagan ones, as being “non-political”, and that problem is that there are some issues in our society on which it is impossible to be non-political. I’m not talking about the party politics of Labour vs Tory, Democrat vs Republican etc, but if you think that this is all that “politics” is then that is a very privileged position, which does not reflect the day-to- day lives of many people, including many Pagans.
Let me explain. There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are not only oppressed through the very structures which make up our society, but there are also people who actively try to keep us oppressed, bigots who actively try to keep us down at best and wipe us out of existence at worst.
For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.
You might have heard the phrase “the personal is political”, well, for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.
Our daily fight for existence carries on inside the circle just as much as it does outside of it. And for those of you lucky enough who don’t have to fight daily for your right to exist, I’m sorry to tell you that there is no “non-political” neutral position on these issues. There is a saying which goes “all that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”. Now aside from the noticeable sexism in this quote (see how politics gets in everywhere?), this makes a very good point. Claiming a neutral position in the face of injustice only ends up reinforcing the status-quo and therefore reinforcing these oppressions. When you are in charge of a space, whether this is a circle, a Pagan Pride parade, or a blog, this can express itself in many ways, some of which might not be obvious at first glance: Who are you inviting to your event? Remember those bigots I mentioned earlier who want to keep people oppressed or worse? Well if you have them at your event then their very presence makes it unsafe to attend for the groups they oppress. If there is an active transphobe in your circle, then their presence makes that circle unsafe for trans people to attend, regardless of the opinions or wishes of the organiser, and so trans people won’t attend. Not out of protest, but out of a need to survive.
Who attends your event goes beyond the safety of oppressed people, it can also greatly affect how the wider public view Pagans and Paganism. When anti-fascists point out the risks of the far-right to Paganism, we are criticised for making associations between Nazi’s and Paganism, but if you have Neo-Nazis accepted at your “non-political” Pagan Pride parade, that will definitely create the association in the general public’s mind between Paganism and Neo-Nazis. This is dangerous for all Pagans. And if you scoff and think “well of course we wouldn’t want Neo-Nazis on our Pagan Pride parade” then you are already bringing politics into Paganism, the very thing anti-fascist Pagans are criticised for doing. Beyond issues around attendance, does your ritual recognise and include same-gender couples? Then that’s political. Does your ritual not include recognition of same-gender couples, maybe only using a God-and- Goddess structure? Then this is just as political. Western society has spent years if not centuries saying that same-gender relationships are lesser than man-woman relationships, it has erased those relationships while oppressing the people in them. Unfortunately your ritual cannot be separated out from this cultural context, and by not including same-gender relationships alongside man-woman relationships, you are excluding by omission, contributing to and continuing this history of erasure. This is true regardless of the opinions or even the sexualities of the organisers.
Have you gone to extra lengths to make sure trans women are safe using the toilets at your event? In light of the current campaign against us being able to, this is a political act. Do you not know or you haven’t tried to ensure that trans women are safe using your toilets? This is just as political. Regardless of your opinion on Laverne Cox, if we cannot do something as simple as peeing, then how are we going to be able to engage in the rest of your event? Trans women have far higher rates of UTIs and bladder cancer than equivalent cis women due to us retaining urine too long due to not being able to use toilets. It’s hard to think of a more personal issue which has been politicised by oppression than trying to use the bathroom. Similarly, do you have gender-neutral toilets? Political. Do you not have gender-neutral toilets? Just as political. If non-binary people also cannot pee at your event without risking personal upset at best and violence at worst for using the wrong toilet, then they also won’t be able to engage in your event, making this decision just as political.
If you have icons of your deities on the altar at your public ritual then what do they look like? Have you chosen a diverse range of ethnicities and body types to represent? Political. Are they all white, thin and appear to be able bodied? Just as political. If the appearance of the very deities you have gathered to worship end up reflecting the exact same body types and appearances which are placed at the top of the pyramid by our society, then what message does that send to people whose bodies don’t and never will look like that? If you are told every day, in every advert you see, that your body is wrong and these bodies are right, then you turn up to a ritual in the evening and you only see those exact same bodies being held up as being the gods, how might that make you feel about your body and your relationship to the gods?
This sort of politics goes even beyond the events themselves to the behind the scenes. Who is doing the work of organising the circle? Who has the time and energy to put into doing this? Can everyone who wants to get involved in the organisation? If not, why not? Who is doing the small but essential bits around the edge which makes sure everything runs smoothly? Who gets the credit for the event? Who is doing the emotional labour, soothing arguments and comforting people when they get stressed out?
Unfortunately the answers to these questions have a tendency to follow existing social structures, and these structures are oppressive. One of the (many) really nasty aspects of oppression is how insidious it is, and how much we all reinforce oppressions on a day-to- day basis without realising it or meaning to, and this even includes oppressions against ourselves. So if women end up organising the food and childcare aspects of your event, while the men plan the main activities of the ritual and receive all the credit, then this doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. But it does show you just how politics and these political issues permeate every aspect of our lives and everything we do.
Finally, I find this whole argument about a “non-political” Paganism to miss a very important point: being Pagan is ALREADY being political. In the UK we have an official state religion, which is Christianity; in the rest of the Anglophone West, Christianity is the dominant religion if not the official one. By stepping outside of this dominant social paradigm, all Pagans are being political. Even if we do so under calls for secularism being accepted, that is still a political stance. As Yvonne Aburrow points out in this excellent piece, all religions are in fact fundamentally political in nature, because they want to cause change, both in society and in people. As I write this, there is currently an online funding campaign for an anthology of radical feminist essays called “Female Erasure”. This is being led by Ruth Barrett, an American Dianic priestess, and is purely an ideological attack on the transgender community, our right to exist, and those who support us. As Susan Harper so wonderfully said over on Witches & Pagans:
“This is not a matter of disagreement over personal spiritual practice. This is not a difference of opinion. This is not a question of different views of how the world works and is. This is violence. It is hate speech.”
Criticisms of this, including criticisms coming from other Pagans, have been met with threats of doxxing (where people’s person information including home addresses are released publicly onto the internet). This as a practice is highly dangerous to those targeted, and is being done, at least in part, in the name of the Goddess Movement and Goddess Spirituality. If you don’t stand up and publicly say “not in my name” then you are tacitly endorsing it, as this hate speech is being done in your name. Standing up for other Pagans, especially some of the most marginalised of our community, is a vital act for people to do. It is also a deeply political one. You might not have asked to be a part of this fight, but other people are making you a part of it by attacking incredibly vulnerable people, at least partly, in your name. This is what I mean when I said that there is no neutral position on these issue, even just trying to opt out of attacks made in your name is a political act. If you don’t want to confront some of the oppressions and privileges which I have discussed here, then that’s up to you; but don’t claim refusing to confront them isn’t just as political as trying to challenge them. And if you do want to challenge them, then you can do so all the stronger by embracing the political nature of that struggle.
Ginger Drekisdottir is a Heathen and follower of Frey and Freya. She is a trans lesbian living in London and active in feminist and queer liberation politics. She is interested in the overlap between liberation and environmental justice, and spends her free time climbing and taking photos.