Gods in disguise

Every time an advance is made in people actually respecting and accommodating others’ bodily autonomy, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, or other difference, you are sure to hear the cry “it’s political correctness gone mad!”. A similar cry, of “Alphabet Soup!”, goes up whenever a new letter is added to the LGBT+ acronym.

What you are hearing is the sound of the privileged complaining about a loss of privilege (otherwise known as ‘playing the game of life on a lower difficulty setting than other people‘, or ‘getting away with stuff that minority groups would not get away with’, e.g. Ryan Lochte, Brock Turner, and many other similar cases).

Examples of advances in respect for others include the word cisgender being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, having gender-neutral toilets, labelling food for allergens, providing food for people with special requirements (halal, vegan, vegetarian, coeliac, etc), providing electricity for disabled people to recharge their wheelchairs, implementing consent policies at Pagan events… the list goes on. You name it, someone will probably have exclaimed “it’s political correctness gone mad!” (or something very similar) in response to every social advance that has ever been made, right back to that dangerously radical innovation of giving the vote to women, or perhaps even further back than that.

Where does this insidious phrase come from? Its history is quite convoluted, but it has often been used as a pejorative term, and was fairly obscure (and a left-wing in-joke) until it was taken up by conservatives who were opposed to progressive educational policies. After George Bush Snr used it at a commencement ceremony at the University of Michigan in 1991, its use became widespread among conservatives to refer to anything they regarded as an “imposition of liberal orthodoxy”. It use rapidly spread to the UK, where it is used every time someone wants to do something inclusive and someone else perceives that their privilege will be eroded by being more inclusive.

One example of privilege is that non-disabled Pagans don’t have to worry about wheelchair access to venues, and expect public Pagan events to be low-cost or free, so when event organisers book a venue, they are constrained by these expectations to look for lower-cost venues, which often don’t have wheelchair access. When it is suggested that all public Pagan events should be wheelchair-accessible, even if it costs more, you are sure to hear cries of “it’s political correctness gone mad” – despite the fact that accessibility is actually a legal requirement for public events.

Similarly, inclusive Wicca advocates an expanded understanding of concepts like polarity, and a few tweaks to Wiccan rituals, to accommodate a more up-to-date concept of gender and sexuality. To hear the howls of protest from some quarters, you would have thought that inclusive Wiccans had advocated abolishing the whole of Wiccan liturgy, or something. (Meanwhile, many people outside Wicca are baffled that we are still having a conversation about this in the early 21st century.)

As Neil Gaiman wrote, however:

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”

(Yet another reason to love Neil Gaiman.) He goes on to suggest that people should try replacing the phrase “politically correct” wherever we can with “treating other people with respect”. And now, thanks to a New Zealander called Byron Clark, there’s actually a Google Chrome extension that does exactly that.

The latest version of “it’s political correctness gone mad” has emerged from some sections of polytheism: the accusation of “putting politics before gods”. It is particularly insidious because it implies that those of us who care about respecting the rights of our fellow humans (and of other animals) are somehow impious.

The central tenet of my religion is “only connect”: connect with other beings, respect their autonomy, honour their dreams and aspirations, and recognise the divinity within them.

I believe that divinity is immanent in everything; every being has the seeds of godhood within them. Some choose to trample on the seed, others choose to nurture it towards growth – but divinity is everywhere, however dimly reflected.

If I deny the divinity immanent in my fellow beings, then I am also denying the divinity of gods, who are expressions of the same divinity.

Therefore, in my world, treating other people with respect is honouring the gods. The ancient stories of gods and angels visiting humans disguised as mortals are metaphors to express this idea. You never know whether the stranger to whom you showed hospitality and respect was a god in disguise – so you may as well behave as if everyone you meet is a god in disguise. Because actually, they are.


Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. Her most recent book is “All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca”. She has also written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.



12 thoughts on “Gods in disguise

  1. I’m also glad that “political correctness” comes up more in terms of inclusiveness, hospitality, respect and common decency. To remove “political” might make out that this isn’t still as political as it is corporeal or mythic or emotional or traditional, but I wonder that the “correctness” bit, when applying to interacting with people, could be a product of a hegemonic sort of monoculture?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I never use the phrase “politically correct” – as I said its recent history has been one of being used by right wingers to dismiss left wingers’ concerns about basic politeness to marginalised groups.

      The Wikipedia article on it has a detailed account of its evolution and use.

      But the point that I was trying to make is that left wingers have never really used it, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think


  2. This is a pet peeve, so sorry for the rant. One of the concepts used a lot in liberal pagan thought that I struggle with is privilege. Dictionary meaning is a benefit enjoyed only by a person or persons beyond the advantages of most. In this definition, privilege cannot be something that the majority have. There are disadvantaged people. There are privileged people. Most of us are in the middle – we are neither. We are not less privileged when we respect and accommodate others’ bodily autonomy, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, or other difference. We are merely acknowledging that certain differences should not make one disadvantaged and trying to extend a hand up.

    Now I understand how you are using it – to contrast with disadvantaged, but it still is a bit of a turnoff. I may not be in a wheelchair, but I’m not in a Leer Jet either. I am not privileged because I’m not handicapped. Why? Because I’m not enjoying a status beyond the advantages of most. Most being the key word here. The majority of us are neither privileged or disadvantaged, so when this son of a factory worker, the first in his family to graduate from college who has made a decent life for himself is called privileged, it is a bit of a turn-off. and I have to consciously fight the resistance that turn-off causes. I wish we could find a better word to describe those of us who are not disadvantaged, yet are not privileged either.


    1. A friend of mine a few years ago made the brilliant comment that the word “privilege” in this context is used to refer to two totally different things, which are:

      things that everyone ought to be able to have, which only some people have (a partial list: basic physical safety; decent treatment from agents of the government; access to decent food and safe water; recognition of important life relationships; respect for name and other identifiers; ability to attend social gatherings)


      things that nobody ought to be able to have, which some people have anyway (a partial list: ability to get away with crimes; ability to coerce labour; ability to buy out of consequences in general)

      He commented that a lot of stuff that people called “privilege” was stuff he thought of as the baseline for how human beings out to treat each other, which he got by default as a white guy and was angry other people did not get.

      I think it would be fantastic if people-in-general could find working terminology that would catch on to distinguish between the stuff that’s “I can go down the street without being hassled, find a bathroom I can safely use, sustain myself reasonably, have people willing to respect my relationship with my partner(s)” and the stuff that’s “because of my various statuses in my culture, if I commit a crime people would be falling over themselves to try to excuse my action, it is a faux pas to comment upon my social behaviour, and I am able to destroy the life of any ordinary person who comes to my attention given the excuse”. (And of course it’s a spectrum, which is probably why people use ‘privilege’ to refer to both of these ends of the spectrum, but I think it does become qualitatively different in there somewhere between ‘can get away with murder’ and ‘can get people to call one by one’s actual name’.)

      Anyway, in brief, I’d like to see some discussion of basic decency problems vs. nobody should have this power problems. And I think doing so would probably help terminology issues around “privilege” a fair amount.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I generally agree with your post, though there is a difference between “things that everyone ought to be able to have, which only some people have” and things that everyone ought to be able to have, which some people do not have.” It is using privilege for the latter that I have difficulties with.

        If we talk about things that nobody ought to be able to have, which some people have anyway, that is a privilege for certain. There are examples that I really dislike, like when Congress forces something on us but excludes themselves.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for this excellent comment, Kiya. You and Coriy between you have covered what I would have said about privilege, so thank you very much.

        And yes, I agree, we do need terminology to distinguish between actual rights and getting away with stuff that other people wouldn’t get away with.


      3. And there’s the problem of figuring out how to analyse some of those privileges (word chosen deliberately in this case) that aren’t directly “oh, of course white football quarterbacks with posh college scholarships get away with rape” sorts of things, like:

        I think nobody should have the power to compel other people to work for starvation wages.

        However, unlike a crime someone is getting away with, that is not wholly caused by people who only offer jobs at starvation wages; if people were free to choose, those jobs would go unfilled. However, since the surrounding society doesn’t compel a living wage, or provide support for those who do not work, people have to take those jobs to have a chance at survival. If the society were functional for all people then the power to compel people to donate their labour like that would evaporate.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Regarding Congress, I’ve occasionally pondered the potential applicability of a Constitutional Amendment or something that forbade Congress from getting benefits that are not available to the average US citizen.

      I mean, that health care plan is pretty good.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. I completely agree with what Coriy and Kiya have written, so nothing to add here really. I agree that privilege is not the best word for the concept, because it often confuses people.

      Some of the things that are described as a privilege are actually rights (like the right to due process, the right to life, etc) and some of them are getting away with stuff that others would not get away with.


  3. I think what is being referenced here is a common mistake that when it comes to discussions of privilege, you’re thinking as a binary. That is, you have privilege or you don’t. Privilege is relative, rather than absolute because of intersectionality. For example, the most privileged position in the U.S. today is to be a conventionally handsome, athletic, white, straight, cisgendered male without disabilities and you have a legacy Ivy League education thanks to generations of wealthy ancestors. The further you are from this by any degree, the lesser your privileged status. Of course some things cut your status down faster than others: the more melanin in your skin, the less your total wealth is, the more visible any disabilities you have, the faster your status plunges.

    On a side note: the alphabet stew (or soup) is, in fact, very long and awkward and showcases some privilege.
    The short form, LGBT (originally GLBT) leaves out a lot of cultural and relational nuance. Adding Q, I, and A helps as does a plus sign, as in LGBTQIA+, but it’s still inadequate. To cut to the end, LGBPTTIQQAAAMD2SH++ doesn’t role off the tongue easily (I know, I get to say it on the radio about once a month), but saying out loud Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Pansexual, Transgender, Transexual (yes, it’s still used, get over it), Intersex, Queer (which some find highly problematic), Questioning, Asexual, Agender , Aromantic (some use a 4th A for Androgynous, or another G for Gynandrous, btw), Monosexual (two meanings for this one), Demisexual, 2-Spirited (only correctly used if you’re one of several Native American Tribes, and yes you can substitute YOUR cultures designation here), H+ for HIV+ and another plus sign to add on more. And yes, it’s being politically correct because you’re trying hard to show all of the ally relationships for people with a sexual or gender minority status. The United Nations solved the problem of the Alphabet Stew/Soup years ago by adopting a much shorter acronym, SOGI. SOGI stands for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. It does included Heterosexual, Heteronormative and Cisgender people, of course but one word solves THAT issues. Just say / write SOGI Minority(ies).

    This is only the second time I’ve written this out, usually it’s a mini-lecture / rant to people who just don’t think outside their privilege.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. SOGI is good, though it sounds too much like “soggy”. I also like GSD – gender and sexual diversity. Just waiting for a suitable term to catch on!

      Thank you for your excellent comment, as you & Kiya between you have covered what I would have said about privilege.


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