The battle for Pagan civil rights begins at home.
“We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.” — Benjamin Franklin
I took a call yesterday from a subscriber that got me thinking about the media, Pagan civil rights, and, eventually, Pagan self-respect.
My caller began by telling me how angry she was about the ridicule being heaped on Witches (and, by reference, on Paganism in general) in connection with the campaign of Christine O’Donnell.
O’Donnell — for those of you who turned off your media feeds during the mid-term campaign this fall and, honestly, who could blame you — was the Tea Party darling and Senate candidate from Delaware who “outed” herself as having “dabbled in witchcraft” as a teen.This admission didn’t work out so well; her first major TV ad focused on disavowing her past by declaring, “I am not a witch. I’m not anything you’ve heard ... I’m you.”
Both establishment media and the blogosphere didn’t let up on the Witch jokes for the remainder of the campaign. Some were mildly amusing (Saturday Night Live’s “I am not a witch” parody ad) while others were notably rude. First place in the latter category has to go to Keith Olberman’s bizarre October 5th Countdown segment featuring a green-skinned, cross-dressing comedian as a “genuine witch” who claimed to “have a broomstick up my a--.” In general, O’Donnell’s “witchy” past was treated as clear evidence that she’s a member of the lunatic fringe. (She lost, big time, on Election Day.)
My caller hammered on for a good ten minutes about how Paganism is the Rodney Dangerfield (“I can’t get no respect!”) of modern religions. “Why can’t they understand that we are a legitimate path?” she asked plaintively. Gently nudging her onto a topic that I thought might be less emotionally loaded, I noted that her subscription was in need of renewal, and maybe she’d like to do that over the phone?
“Does the magazine still come in a plain white wrapper?” she queried tremulously. I reassured her that all our magazines are sent in innocuous, fully-sealed envelopes, but she continued to stress how frightened she was that someone might discover her secret identity. “I guess I’ll have to go back to buying it from the store in the next town over, even though I can’t really afford the gas to drive there,” she concluded as she rang off. “It’s too bad, but I don’t want anything bad to happen to me.”
I was floored.
It wasn’t her anxiety about being “outed” as a Pagan that surprised me but the seeming contradiction between the two parts of our conversation. “How,” I fulminated to Alan (my copublisher and husband), “can anyone expect the media to take us seriously when we act like such, such sitting ducks?!” When I finally wound down long enough to take a breath, he inserted sensibly, “It all comes down to fear, my dear — the more fear rules us, the less likely we are to stand up for our rights.”
Of course, he was completely right: fear causes paralysis. That’s bigotry’s not-so-secret weapon — divide and conquer. Want to take over a social group, especially in a time of anxiety? Pick a little-understood minority, isolate them, and when they are most vulnerable, attack. Follow up by encouraging others to join in and don’t forget to demonize the victims. Sadly, such primal bullies prey on deeply-rooted parts of the human psyche.
In his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence, Pulitzer-Prize nominee Daniel Goleman coined the term “Amygdala Hijacking” to describe an emotional response which is out of measure with the actual threat. As Goleman explains it, the brain processes stimuli by directing sensory information to the neocortex (the “thinking brain”), which then routes the signal to the amygdala (the “emotional brain”) for the proper reaction. Perceived threats, however, can bypass the neocortex and trigger our most primitive responses. Goleman comments, “Emotions make us pay attention and give us an immediate plan … Do I eat it, or does it eat me?”1
Today’s issues, however, are more subtle than facing down a sabre-toothed tiger; as a result, our instinctual emotional responses are rarely effective. For example, in the face of the mockery, veiled threats, and systematic devaluation that we Pagans endure every year from Samhain through Yuletide, our instinctive reaction is to retreat into solitary hermitage until around Beltane. But while this “strategic retreat” may be soothing (and who doesn’t want curl up with a good book until spring?) it doesn’t serve us well as a community of faith.
It’s a simple fact that no civil rights campaign — and never forget that the right to practice our faith without persecution is a fundamental human right — was ever won without struggle. And in that difficult and essential undertaking neither the most dedicated Pagan leaders (like those featured throughout this issue) nor the most powerful magic can hope to succeed without the efforts of each and every one of us, the foot soldiers in the battle for Pagan civil rights.
You see, the thing that most effectively fights bigotry — kills it dead, really — is building personal connections. We humans are a clannish species, we divide up into our little cliques and don’t give a good gol-darn about offending those “outsiders” — but if we become friends, neighbors, even family with a member of that “other” group, well, that’s a different thing altogether. However, it is very difficult, if not downright impossible for us to create these most essential connections on behalf of our faith whilst we are hiding in our wardrobes.
Yes, Broom Closet denizens, I’m talking to you.
I’m not saying that everyone reading this should run right out and put up a billboard with their photo that says, “My name is [your name here] and I’m a Witch. I’m not anything you’ve heard. I’m you.” (Although it’s a tempting image, don’t you think?) Instead, what I’m suggesting is much more simple: by Imbolc/Brigid/Groundhog Day “come out” (as Pagan, Heathen, Wiccan, or whatever you call your path) to just one other person. Pick anyone — a fellow volunteer at a local charity; your postal carrier, hair-dresser, or dog-walker — it doesn’t really matter who. Don’t preach, teach, or screech; just drop your tidbit into the conversation as if you were talking about being a fan of a college football team or a popular sitcom. Be drama-free, and let it go. If your colleague, friend, or fellow transit-rider wants to know more, they’ll ask. Otherwise, you’ve dropped your stone in the pond; let the Universe guide where the ripples go.
I know just how scary this is, believe me; I have my Broom Closet moments almost every day when someone asks me what I do for a living.
“I publish magazines,” is my chirpy reply.
“What kind of magazines?” comes the inevitable follow-up.
And that’s the moment when I have to decide just how intimate I want to be with my loan officer, postal clerk, or auto repair person. Mostly I take a deep breath, and say, “I publish three magazines — they are called SageWoman, Witches & Pagans, and Crone.” Sometimes that stops the questions dead, and other times it sparks an entirely new conversation — but in any case, in one simple sentence I’ve put a new face into one person’s mind, a face that they’ll flash on the next time they hear those hot-button words “Witch” and “Pagan.” My face.
Every one of us has a broom in our closet somewhere; but together we can take just one more brave step towards the Light.
ANNE NEWKIRK NIVEN.
Find out more in Witches&Pagans #22 - The Community Issue