Recently, there have been a number of articles posted on the subject of “respectability politics”. A quick summation of the subject at hand is that respectability politics entails a minority population purposely subverting their own culture to try to elicit a positive reaction or positive perception from the dominant cultural group. It’s a well documented in sociological circles, but not well known outside of those circles, or the circles of minority populations. Now, one of the ongoing issues I’ve had in the post-secondary world is that I don’t always see things from the same perspective as my peers or fellow students, and in this case, it happened again. While understanding the arguments presented, I also stumbled onto a much less examined issue in modern Pagan practice. The question “Who are we?”, and “What are we becoming?”
What I identified is a growing rift inside the Pagan community that not too many people are wanting to address or examine. Paganism, particularly in North America, has serious roots in the counter-culture and New Age subcultures that emerged in the 1960’s to 1980’s. While not applicable to all people or practices, it’s not a stretch to see the influences. In my observations, there were already minor rifts between North American and European based Pagans at this point, but they weren’t nearly as bad as what was about to occur.
In the 1990’s, things started to change. Suddenly, Paganism was introduced en mass into the mainstream as a viable, if not acceptable, religious practice. The seminal events I would pinpoint in this sudden introduction was the mostly positive witchcraft practiced by the character “Willow” in the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and the 1996 movie “The Craft”. The latter was an immediate hit on opening weekend, and became sleeper hit as time went on. However, both of these media events did something that hadn’t really happened previously for popular media portraying witches. They portrayed them being “ordinary people” (in so far as ordinary goes in TV and film). The mainstream met Pagan practices (in their various, diluted and skewed media forms) and the mainstream liked it. They weren’t all counter culture “punks” or “goths” or New Age “hippies”, they lead “normal(ish)” lives and had “normal” problems. And this happened at the dawn of the internet, which allowed for faster information dissemination than previously. Suddenly, Paganism (and Wicca in particular) were pulled out of the fringe and towards the mainstream. More “mainstream” people were being attracted to Paganism as an alternative to Christianity or vague Christian beliefs. The trend that started twenty years ago has not slowed down either, “mainstream” membership in Pagan communities continues to grow.
So what is this rift I was on about earlier? It’s the growing divide between Pagans who have come in from the “mainstream” (the dominant culture) who reject or refuse the trappings of the “old guard” of Paganism in North America. Many new Pagans aren’t into counter-culture, New Age, or radicalism. And where this intersects with respectability politics, it’s extra contentious. For many mainstream Pagans, “respectability politics” aren’t a thing, it’s just how they dress and act on a day to day basis. For pagans from or part of the counter-culture and New Age rooted side of the equation, it has been seen as an affront and as a subversion of “their” culture.
So my question is, “Who are we, and what are we becoming?” With each passing year, more “mainstream” people join Pagan faiths across the western world. The Pagan community, famous for its claims of welcoming plurality and diversity, is suddenly having to actually deal with real plurality and diversity. The results have been messy, and I’ve observed some fairly vitriolic attacks from both sides. Soon though, as Pagan beliefs continue their penetration into the mainstream of western culture, we as Pagans are going to have to have some serious discussions on the directions we’re evolving into, and who we are as individuals and as a group. Hopefully this post will help start that conversation early so the issue doesn’t reach a critical mass before people are willing to look at it.