All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.

For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Bringing it All Together, Part VI: a better way to address exploitation, theft, and lack of respect

This is the final installment on why neither Pagans nor anyone else do themselves or humanity any favors by discussing inter-cultural issues in terms of ‘cultural appropriation.’ In earlier sections I demonstrated this view is deeply incoherent. I then offered a more ecological view of culture as consisting of humans and memes as a far better perspective, one in deep harmony with Pagan insights about a living world. 

But what of the actual problems that attract well-meaning people to thinking in terms of cultural appropriation?  I close by returning to these issues.

Soon I will integrate all these small essays into a larger one of interest to Pagans and others who want a more inclusive argument in one space. It will appear on my webpage, and I will announce it here at Witches and Pagans as well.

The real issue: power

What appeals to many people about the cultural appropriations model is its seeming sensitivity to the crimes committed against militarily weaker peoples by various Western nations, particularly by the United States. Once a people is subjugated, it is usually looked down upon by their conquerors.  They and their customs are treated as inferior and best suppressed, or maintained as colorful curiosities for entertaining the more powerful. These are serious problems facing indigenous peoples and descendants of slaves today.

There are two separate dimensions to understanding these issues today. The first is the growing ease of travel and communication allowing people even from the most far removed cultures to communicate and get to know one another. This is a massive increase in a many millennia-long process that has enabled us all to benefit from discoveries made by other peoples.

The second issue is power. Abusing power has led to genocide, terror, robbery, destruction of families, and totalitarian efforts to destroy a people’s language, religion, and sense of themselves as a people. Sadly, the record of this country is no better and often much worse than that of many other peoples.

BUT, and this ‘but’ is important, virtually every culture that has enjoyed a significant power advantage has abused that power and oppressed its neighbors. Abusing power is not a European trait or a White trait, or even a Christian trait, it is a human trait.  The Lakota abused their power when they were top dog in their region. So did the Japanese, Aztecs, Incas, Iroquois, Zulu, Mongols, and Chinese. 

The solution is not to fight over who is entitled to what cultural values, nor to obsess over the related concept of 'privilege,' (Due to the absurdities spread by those obsessing over 'Wiccanate privilege' a while back, I sunk it in a three part piece on Patheos: Part I ,  Part II  , and Part III)but rather to address the inequalities of power that lead to these abuses. 

Abuses of power can best be addressed in the language of rights and respect, not appropriation. Human rights are universal values that, however inconsistently, our Founders claimed should apply to all.  Rather than carving humanity up into ever smaller tribes, recognizing the universality of rights welcomes all on a common ground of peaceful relations.  The cynics will say this was never achieved, and they are correct, but to the degree it was achieved, here and elsewhere, the results have been good, and the best moments in our history have been when Americans sought to make them apply even better. The cynics are mentally lazy and morally obtuse.

These universal values provide a framework that, when honored, limits the damage differences among us can generate while maximizing safe spaces for cooperation.  In this respect they are like the rules of a game that prevent it from degenerating into a brawl among competing players. Thinking in terms of rights provides a foundation on which genuine conservatives, genuine liberals, and genuine progressives can find common framework, within which to argue and struggle for the superiority of our views. When that common ground of agreed upon rules is eliminated, differences degenerate into civil war, as we are witnessing around us today.

Ironically, they are also the chief protection for whoever is weakest. I am defending genuine liberalism, the belief that individuals are the fundamental moral unit in society, from which all its other dimensions get their value. As Ortega y Gasset  wrote in 1932, during the years of growing fascism in the last century,

Liberalism—it is well to recall this today—is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet. It announces the determination to share existence with the enemy; more than that, with an enemy which is weak. It was incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so anti-natural.

Rights and respect                                                   

Both the rights we all have as human beings and the rights we have as members of a society are important.  In the first case are rights applying equally to everyone, such as the right to speak freely and enter into voluntary cooperation with whomever we wish. In the second case, these rights should apply equally to everyone as a member of a common community, such as, for Americans, the right to trial by a jury of peers or the right to Medicare.

It is at this level that many of the issues so inadequately addressed by ‘cultural appropriation’ can be addressed.  If a practice, such as a song, can be connected to ownership by specific individuals or membership groups, it can be trademarked or copyrighted.  Others cannot use it without their permission, and there is legal enforcement available. 

But once they enter the public realm and become memes, ideas cannot be owned. It they are copyrighted their owners can continue to seek to enforce them, but they almost immediately begin transforming and at some point the copyright becomes useless.  The creator can copyright a song, but not the new approach to music that song embodies.  At most the original sources if those memes can offer a seal of approval for those using them in their name, or bring charges against them for fraud. 

There us another dimension here, one I believe is deeper than rights: that of respect.   Respect is vitally important and difficult to define in the abstract.  At its best respect must flow both ways.  In a human context, respect is a relationship recognizing intrinsic value in another. In practice this means that if something matters to individual A, that carries weight for all who respect that person. It may or may not be enough to determine what I do, but it is not nothing. It means I will not treat religious and cultural symbols of great importance to someone disrespectfully in their presence - without good cause.  That people within a culture value something is not what gives it value worthy of respect, it is its impact on rights, both universal and membership.  Suttee and cliterectomies are not worthy of respectful treatment even if some people believe they are religiously required, and even if believers have been oppressed, because they violate individual rights.

Combined with a focus on eliminating the abuse of power, this ethical approach, focused on individuals and their actions, gives us all we need to address the legitimate complaints people have about how a cultures values are most appropriately treated by others.  


Last modified on
Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


Additional information