Mean pagans on the internet and the power of words

Words are not bullets

Today, by one of those meandering, time-wasting paths that I seem to go off on periodically, I came across a post on someone’s blog about a dust-up in certain circles of paganism. The poster referenced people saying mean things about someone whose ideas they didn’t like, namely, that a shotgun should be put to the individual’s temple and/or they should be sexually assaulted by a horse. In the comments, people were sad about this meanness and said we should respect each other in our discussions, although a couple of folks took time out to remark about how they wanted to punch someone’s lights out and then buy them a beer, because that’s what guys do where they’re from. It’s a class thing, ya know, that rootless cosmopolitans (like myself) just do not understand. Anyway, all this meanness is about someone who has been writing a lot of kook stuff about her relationship to her god. This individual is either a troll or mentally ill, IMO, but then, I do not really care what she has to say about anything. I try not to interact with kook stuff. Garbage in, garbage out.

The point is that people were upset that folks were saying the violent stuff they were saying about the source of the kook spew. They were arguing that this kind of language is peculiar to some types of pagans.

No, it isn’t. Some examples:

A little while ago I was blithely participating in a thread on FB where someone said some misinformed things about how food stamps are used and who uses them. This was not a heated discussion, as far as I could see. I said, “Actually, that’s not quite true” and gave some information about how food stamps are used and by whom, statistically. The individual’s response was to say he was going to come to my house in Elmira and kill me. I didn’t say he was full of shit or make fun of him. No, I just disagreed in a very polite way. And his response was to post in a public forum that he would come to my house in Elmira and kill me.

Around the same time, an ignorant individual got on FB under the usual bogus name and asserted her “copyright” of the word “sabbatica.” I informed her that she was wrong about what copyright meant and that after checking, I noticed she did not in fact hold a trademark on the word “sabbatica” in any context, so she shouldn’t go threatening people who used it. What was her response? “DEATH TO YOU!!!!!!”  I did a screenshot because I wanted to make an embroidery sampler out of it later to show to my grandkids when I told them about my great adventures. I am sure she and her “order” sicced their scary demons on me later, because I had to put a Roach Motel in the cabinet under the sink. She did in fact go to great lengths to have FB delete any thread in which the word “sabbatica” was used. Because you know, that’s how she could show her great magical power and how badass her demons are. Now remember why she said she wanted me dead–because I informed her she was wrong about the meaning of the word “copyright.”

And just to make it three, because that’s a magic number, and take it off the internet, because IMO, this speech violence is not in fact about paganism or the internet at all, around the same time as these two incidents, I read a quote by an actor who said that some British journalist should be assassinated. The journalist had not ever written anything about the actor pro or con. They had never met or exchanged words, much less had they punched each other’s lights out and then bought each other a beer. This actor just wanted this guy dead because he thought the journalist was not reactionary enough in his politics. I guess he simply could not stop reading what this journalist wrote about the world and he indulged himself in his outrage to the point where he said in public that the man should be killed.

So what’s my point? Violent speech is not new, and it’s not confined to any particular pagan perspectives or even to the internet. It doesn’t have anything to do with the anonymity of the internet or its facelessness. Obviously, people are pretty much fine with saying violent things even when they are famous.

I am all for the power of words. I often incorporate words into my magical practice, creating talismans and whatnot that use them. Words have great power in my preferred mythologies: in Judaism, the deity created the universe with words, and Hermes, my other fave, gave us language. So I am totally in agreement with the idea that words have power, and I even agree that violent speech such as “DEATH TO YOU!!!!!” can lower the level of discourse to the point where no real interaction is possible. I have certainly noticed how violent words have increased in frequency in public discourse in, say, the last ten years. But you know, I remember people on Usenet in the 1990s making murderous threats over whether cats should be kept in the house or not. And heck, let’s go farther back and off the internet again; I remember Reagan, our preznit, who actually controlled a vast military and thus had the power to turn violent talk into reality, making a “joke” at a press conference about how the bombing of the Soviets was going to begin in a few minutes. And the Soviets had not even said he didn’t know what “copyright” meant.

One group of people involved with the tempest around the individual writing kook shit and her bullshit-talking critics has decided that they are going to observe a month of silence–IOW, not post on their blogs–in order to hopefully cool things off and/or show their disapproval of violent speech re kookism in paganism. In the words of M.M. Bakhtin, of whom I am a great fan, silence is a response. But in this instance, I do not believe it is an appropriate response. It’s certainly an expression of disapproval, but it does not build a better discourse.

Maybe instead of silence, people could actually just do what they want other people to do. If you don’t like violent speech, and generally I don’t think it’s a good idea–it doesn’t exactly encourage the free exchange of ideas–then don’t use it. Further, instead of attacking the person, kook or no, attack the person’s kook ideas. I think this is one of the most important things I learned from being an academic. If you don’t like what someone has said, you may feel free to rip what they’ve said to shreds, providing evidence that it’s completely wrong and even pernicious or whatever. There is nothing rude about disagreement. But you don’t demand the person be shot or fucked by a horse or get his lights punched out. Not because it’s actually going to happen, but because talking like that, like I said, makes it hard to discuss anything with any seriousness or commitment. You don’t attack the person at all. You attack their ideas.

I see nothing at all wrong with using a sharp tongue to rip up an idea. I have been criticized for this, characterized as mean, negative, rude, combative, overly polemical, even an asshole. It’s true that sometimes I have referred to certain people in public as buffoons or loons or kooks. What can I say? It’s a dictionary-sizing thing that prole type men who resort to fists would not understand.

People who do resort to fists or shotguns or turning up at my house to make good their internet yammering will be met with arrest and imprisonment. Because that is why the gods made cops. If you are not adult enough to control your behavior, the authorities will control it for you. Period. But notice: Words are not shotguns and not fists. They are acts but they are not physical acts. For all their power, they do not send people to the hospital or the morgue. When violence occurs, it is the result of actions–real physical actions or real physical responses, sometimes including words, but just as often not. One of the reasons why we have language, IMO, is so we can use it INSTEAD of fists. No one’s eye has ever been put out by a word.

Along the same lines, let’s not mix up the virtual world with the physical world. They are not the same. Someone said he was going to come to Elmira and kill me because hd didn’t like that I disagreed with him about food stamps on the internet. Did he actually come? Did he kill me? No. Would he have? He didn’t even have the guts to use his real name on Facebook, for crying out loud.

Some people in the tempest around the kook stuff have said that the reason the language is so violent is because the individual is a woman. Although I would agree that the thing about the horse clearly arises out of the fact that the spewer is a woman, I do not think that the violent language is caused by misogyny. This violent talk is rife throughout our culture, as I think my examples have shown. And violent talk is different from real, actual violence. Although violent talk can make violent acts seem more permissible, if we emphasize the power of words too much, we negate the real power of economic and political oppression. You cannot invade another country with words.

This leads me to a side point that has not been made in regards to this particular situation. Just as violent talk makes reasoned interaction difficult, kook discourse can be really destructive of reasoned interaction, especially if it keeps coming up in various forums, which I’m sure it does. That destructiveness would cause resentment, especially if people keep running into it over and over, which they do. The destructive power of kook ideas is being underestimated in this particular discussion. I think it accounts for some of the anger which manifests in violent talk. That doesn’t justify it, but it does go some way to explain it. And I think it’s important to remember that talk does not have to be violent to shut down reasoned discourse. It can be just kook spew.

Violent speech is surely nasty and makes productive communication difficult and makes a world that can be hard and cruel just a little harder and meaner. So it’s not a good thing, not something to be lauded. But it’s not an assault rifle either.

14 comments to Mean pagans on the internet and the power of words

  • It is unfortunate that the internet – while brilliant in its inception – has become a breeding ground for vile people to spit their ideas and opinions at any person who is unlucky enough to be in their path. Violent people who love to have their own platforms for hate speech seem to be quite prevalent these days, it’s a major reason why I don’t get too involved on the net.

    I honestly don’t think taking a month off from blogging is going to make a point to anyone other than those who follow the blog. I know of the post you speak of, and the protest is lost on me. Don’t give it much thought, and don’t care actually. Not blogging won’t get the message across and it just makes those who might be new to your blog think you are a little kooky. But hey – more power to them if they think this is what they need to do.

    The problem with Paganism in some areas is that it has become rife with religious thought – not necessarily a bad thing until it becomes people arguing about who is right and who is wrong and forgetting that for most people, the reason we became Pagan (or witch or shaman etc) is because it offered us a freedom to practice how we wanted without dogmatic rules and ideas – this seems to have been lost somewhere along the way and now we find others in the Pagan world espousing their world view as correct and everyone else as wrong if they don’t believe the same.

    It’s a real shame.

    • Alchemist in Charge

      I certainly agree with you that one of the reasons why I was drawn to magic and to the old gods is precisely because such things are on the edge and by that fact tend to be transgressive in their nature, to reject orthodoxy. I guess that’s why it’s all the more surprising when I do run across orthodoxy in magic or paganism. I also agree that people apparently do feel a special permission to spew offensive shit when they are using a fake name on the internet, but OTOH, people will do it in person too.

  • As someone loosely following the conflagration, I was very surprised to see that the “kook stuff” was controversial at all. I don’t agree with individual in question on many topics, but the fundamental claims seem perfectly in line with traditional sources, other traditions like the ATR’s, and my own experiences.

    When I see major publishers selling what I consider really kooky stuff, I can’t imagine what in they argue you would say “can be really destructive of reasoned interaction”.

    • Alchemist in Charge

      I guess when I hear that someone is working with a fairly traditional god and says that god is married to her, she is the god’s slave, the god wants her to wear a dog collar, the god wants her to whip herself, well, that sounds like bullshit and kook stuff to me. Personally, if someone says their god wants them to wear a dog collar, fine, whatever. Maybe it’s the god of fetish bars. But if I were trying to have a reasonable conversation about working with this god as it is more or less traditionally envisioned and someone kept bringing up dog collars, I would lose my patience. I would not say anything about guns or horses; I would probably just withdraw. But if it kept coming up in various venues? I would get pissed. Still not to the point of talking guns or horses, but pissed all the same. I have experienced this kind of kook discourse with people who insist that there is marijuana in the anointing oil in the Hebrew Bible, that Ezekiel saw a flying saucer, that the Kabbalah was written in Atlantis, etc. I have seen that kind of thing come up over and over in what would have been up to that point a reasonable interaction and have seen it totally derail the conversation to the point where now, if anyone even just mentions marijuana in the anointing oil, I pretty much automatically discount anything they have to say. I would not be recommending a shotgun to the head or that they be fucked by a horse. That’s just crazy. But I can certainly understand the fed-up impatience with that kind of thing.

      • “I guess when I hear that someone is working with a fairly traditional god and says that god is married to her, she is the god’s slave, [..] , the god wants her to whip herself”

        These *are* all practices we find in traditional pagan sources, we also find parallel practices in the ATRs and medieval grimoire tradition. Just as an example, in Greece, Rome and Egypt, individuals were able to sell themselves to temples as slaves to their God. The Spartans replaced human sacrifice with self-flagellation, and using it as a devotional practice continues today even within the Roman Catholic Church. I am 100% certain we can find historical attestations of much more extreme practices done in devotion to Odin, as I have read about them and just don’t have the inclination to go back and find sources.

        Spirit marriage, again pointed to in literature of antiquity, grimoire tradition (Comte de Gabalis, sibylline/Tannhauser works) and so mainstream in the ATR’s that even the NYT has covered it ( Also, nuns are traditionally considered brides of Christ.

        The collaring thing, I have been unable to find one reference the individual has made herself. I found lots of comments using it in a dismissive, antagonistic comments manner.

        Your alternate examples are more or less exactly the kind of kook I was talking about. I just don’t what criteria lumps them and well attested, cross-cultural spirit phenomena together.

        • Alchemist in Charge

          “These *are* all practices we find in traditional pagan sources”

          For this particular god? Because from what I can see, that is one of the main bones of contention. My understanding, for instance, is that this individual INVENTED the term “godatheow” for “god-slavery,” a concept she herself created. IOW, this practice is so alien to the worship of this god in his cultural context that there was no word for it; it had to be invented a couple years ago. So we cannot pretend this is a regular part of the worship of Odin.

          “we also find parallel practices in the ATRs and medieval grimoire tradition.”

          But what difference does that make? ATRs and grimoires are not being discussed here. Those are different practices from different times and places that are part of very different paths with fundamental philosophical and cultural differences from each other and from this particular thing or this god. Saying that if I do not have dinner on the table on time and the house clean, I am in trouble with Odin sounds like someone pulled this particular truth out of their own preferences and desires. That is fine. Everyone is allowed to worship their god any old way they want. But then would you go to a place where people are trying to take a historical approach to working with this god and start talking about this stuff you evolved from your own consciousness, as Wilde would put it so charitably? It would be obnoxious to do that. It would be bringing kook discourse to the discussion. It would be selfish and self-dramatizing, and people would get good and sick of it.

          If we had temples where it was the established practice to sell oneself as a slave to a god, great, go for it. But we don’t. What we DO have when it comes to slavery is BDSM. So when I hear about someone who is as far as I can see impressing their religious practice with BDSM stuff, BDSM trappings, BDSM talk, then I have to conclude that they are into BDSM. BDSM is a separate issue from the worship of this god. It is not intrinsic in the worship of that god but grafted onto the worship of that god by this individual right here and right now. It has no historical or cultural basis. It is like saying that since I enjoy making pickles, I will now state categorically that Hermes has demanded I make pickles, spend money on pickle jars, and buy a lot of vinegar. I can consecrate my pickling to Hermes, and I am sure that in ancient Greece people who worshipped Hermes also liked to make and eat pickles, but could I make any argument whatsoever that pickling is a traditional part of worship of Hermes? Absolutely not. If people were taking a historical perspective in their worship of Hermes and I went in there yammering about pickle jars, I would fully expect to be treated like a kook. Because I would be acting like one. Not to mention it would be damned selfish of me.

          Lots of people in different places and in different cultures have used self-flagellation and for that matter, whipping of others, as part of a spiritual practice. That does not say anything about Odin. It is like saying I have a table in a Dostoevsky story and a table in a Tolstoy story and it’s the same table. It’s not. They are two separate tables that have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. It’s an ahistorical approach to say that they are the same, and I can see why people would be irritated with statements along the lines that whipping has always been a part of spirituality all over the world and for all times.

          Likewise, when for instance Christian mystics (or some Jewish ones) flagellate themselves, it is NOT because God told them to, and it is especially not because God told them to do so personally, in contrast to everyone else around them, who is free to be late putting dinner on the table or to have a dirty house. It is because they have chosen a particular spiritual practice within their religion that is codified, includes whipping in certain circumstances, and is a way of denigrating the flesh in the case of the former and punishing themselves for sin in the case of the latter. There is nowhere that God or Jesus demands that people whip themselves to honor them.

          I read this individual’s blog some time ago, might have been as long as two years ago, when someone I know brought it up in their blog. I only read it that once and never read it again or involved myself in the discussion, because to me, it was distasteful. I thought it read like someone who wanted to practice BDSM and was saying it was part of her practice of worship with Odin because she did not have the guts to just be into BDSM. It felt hugely dishonest to me. Also, the god getting pissed about the dinner on the table and house clean sounded like “let me create an abusive husband, because I don’t have one IRL.” It made me feel sick to my stomach. It really did. It felt degenerate. “I will play at being abused.” I have a sense that some of the really fierce reaction here is to that. It is really intensely creepy. And yeah, I know all about how creepy is so hip and happening nowadays and everyone is decorating everything with skulls and working with death deities (or saying so). But there is nothing deeply spiritual about abusive husbands or about being beaten.

          The other two individuals involved in this I must admit I have even less respect for, because of doing things like putting their slave-master god contract up online so everyone could see it and admire how cutting edge and cool they are. The self-absorption it demonstrated left me breathless, reminding me of yuppies who post the menus of all their meals for the general edification of the public. And now you can even go and pay a fee to be beaten for Odin in a farmish atmosphere. For goodness sake.

          What do you think? Do you think 20 years from now this individual or the other two characters in this business are still going to be doing this, or do you think they will have moved on to the next “edgy” thing? The next “revelation”? The next bit of “personal gnosis” and “dangerousness”?

          In 13 years of running a witchcraft shop on and 40 years of being involved with magic, I have heard every single stupid yarn I think it is possible for people to come up with with regards to self-aggrandizing, self-flattering, big-headed bullshit and buffoonery, mythology pulled out of their behinds and called divinely inspired. I have gotten to the point where I have very little respect for stuff people call personal gnosis when they have no knowledge of history or just decide it doesn’t suit their wishes and so they’re just going to do what they want and say it’s authentic and real. To me, it’s like babies playing in their diapers. I’m sure the baby finds it very enjoyable, but most adults find it offensive. When they start putting this stuff forward in public, they open themselves to being told they are full of shit.

          Like I said, the threatening stuff to me is nutz. That’s not good for anyone. But if you put ideas out there, you can expect people to engage them, and that includes them being allowed to rip your ideas to shreds. That’s not disrespect.

          • Alchemist in Charge

            As for the dog collar, she is wearing one in a recent youtube video. I’m not giving it any link juice. “Silence” works both ways.

          • I think we are coming at this from very different emphasis on the individual’s primary themes. All of the issues you have brought up here feel tangential to the vision of a revived polytheist tradition.

            I believe your objections to my points do not really address them in the context of them being kooky, especially to the point that they are actively harmful to conversation.

            Perhaps you know of some vast corpus of primary sources that give us a much better idea of the indigenous religious practices of the Germanic peoples, but as far as I am aware, they were a primarily pre-literate culture. To my knowledge, we have next to nothing describing their various cults from their own perspective, with a little from the Romans and most coming from Christian redactions. Assuming this until corrected, when you claim

            “IOW, this practice is so alien to the worship of this god in his cultural context that there was no word for it; it had to be invented a couple years ago. So we cannot pretend this is a regular part of the worship of Odin”

            I just don’t see any justification for it.

            As for the rest, they point to differences in approach that I think are very important to be elucidated. Many of us take the position that religious practices that appear near universally across human cultures probably also developed within or were adopted by every other culture. In a developing revival that has had its sources decimated, the question is not whether a technique or practice belongs in the tradition, but how it can be appropriately adapted.

            Regarding Odin’s character, I’m not involved in BDSM at all, but when the individual speaks of Odin, it’s an Odin I recognize from my encounters.

  • “The other two individuals involved in this I must admit I have even less respect for, because of doing things like putting their slave-master god contract up online so everyone could see it and admire how cutting edge and cool they are.”

    50 Shades much?

    I flippin hate that book, now it worms it’s way into Paganism and we all want to be spanked, beat on and abused by the Gods? Really?

    • The timeline you describe is confused. The Rune Gild was publishing about integrating BDSM into Odinism in the mid-eighties.

      I don’t know of the individuals Alchemist in Charge refers to, but none of this is sui generis.

  • Alchemist in Charge

    Cole, your previous comment was an attempt to show that this individual’s vision of god as an abusive husband was not kooky because beatings and spiritual magic are widespread means of spiritual communion with the gods in various times and places, and that is what I responded to, not how kook discourse is disruptive. I addressed both how other occasions of the use of whipping in spirituality occur in very rigorously defined situations and don’t occur because a god tells an individual “I’m pissed because the house is a mess; you deserve a beating, so do it.” IMO, my best illustration of why the abusive god/husband is not characteristic of Odin worship is the fact that the individual who created it had to create a word to define it. The word did not exist because the practice did not exist. That’s just plain linguistics. Words are called into being because of need. If there is no need for them, they don’t exist. They die when the phenomenon they define dies. So we can’t say anything about the abusive god/husband being the norm or even having ever occurred in Odin worship, because the word for it had to be invented a couple of years ago.

    The fact that you are taking a transhistorical approach to spiritual practice is where a lot of the misunderstanding on your part in terms of the kookiness of this view is coming from. We cannot ever take a transhistorical view of culture, of which spiritual practice is a part. Our very language couches our experience, and language is rooted in time and place. Go read some Middle English if you don’t believe me. We can also see by looking at, for instance, religion, that it fundamentally changes with place and time. I can offer Judaism as an excellent example. At one time it occurred in the middle of a great tension between the sacrificial cult as practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem vs. the practices of the local hilltop temples. After the First Exile, a huge influx of Babylonian stuff occurred, such that even the temple calender was switched from a solar base to a Babylonian lunar base. Once the Temple was re-established in Jerusalem, there then began to arise not only local temples but local synagogues, houses of study which replaced the sacrificial cult with study and prayer services–and thereby seriously undercut the power of the hereditary priesthood, which people had come to see as leeches. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and Jerusalem, the sacrificial cult was destroyed and has never since been reinstituted. Religious practice has since changed and changed, and spiritual experience has changed with it. I can look at examples of prayers crafted during the Middle Ages and read the fear and debasement in them compared to prayers written while the Temple still stood or after the Enlightenment. How do you think those changes in time and place have affected the spiritual experience of Jews? It has been HUGE.

    Or we can just point to Protestantism and Catholicism, where one of the predominant, historically and culturally based differences is that in Protestantism you do not need a priest to intercede for you with God, but in Catholicism you do. That changes the spiritual experiences of the practitioners of those spiritual paths.

    I think this kind of reliance on the idea that everything in human experience, regardless of time and place, is really all the same is a direct outgrowth on the reliance in occulture on bad scholars like Eliade and Waite, and outside of it on Jung. These people are one tiny sliver of an approach to understanding human experience. They are in the minority, and like I said, their scholarship is dicey at best. I also think it arises out of a simple lack of awareness of human history on the everyday level. For instance, during the Enlightenment and the height of Neoclassicism, Europeans were not impressed by big waterfalls and rugged mountains. They saw them as almost offensive in the disorder and tumult they symbolized. It took the rise of Romanticist thinking to make waterfalls and rugged mountains inspiring for Europeans instead of offensive.

    I could give hundreds more examples of how our moment in history defines what we can experience and how we experience it. But from what I can see, the real issue here is having a sense of history and rejecting the very idea of history. There is no way to get beyond that.

    You close by saying that this individual’s vision of this god is recognizable to you. Well, it is NOT recognizable to a lot of other people, whose experience is just as valid as yours. They see it as kook crap.

    • Well, we agree on the pernicious effects of Eliade and Waite, and outside of it on Jung on occulture. I agree with all of your historical analysis, though I never said that human experience was continuous across time and cultures.

      The rest I continue to find confusing, and we don’t seem to effectively speak to the others investments. Thank you for tolerating the conversation.

      • Alchemist in Charge

        At least we have found some common ground and were able to have a discussion without involving guns or horses. I would be happy to read any material you would recommend that pertains to your views.

  • This may seem far afield from the subject matter and I’m only peripherally aware of the events, but I think the meanness factor boils down to personality issues with the people seemingly at cause with the negativity. To me, Paganism is about balance. When a person gets wacky, it can fragment them in important ways; in the extreme, it becomes like a split in the subconscious or fragmentation of the personality, e.g., psychotics. But all in all, these skirmishes erupt from time to time in the Pagan world and it always seems to me a blowing off of steam and waste of time and energy. I’m always surprised how personally people take these things and blow them up further. I just ignore it and chug along and in a year or two it’ll be something else or some other flare-up. Just personality fireworks. I really love reading Pagan blogs and getting into the meat and potatoes of deity and ritual work, it’s so fascinating and multi-faceted.

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