Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why I Will Not Do The Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge has finally (unfortunately) made it to my social circles, with relatives and coworkers challenging each other.  Of course, there are varying reactions to this, with lots of people over-zealously keeping tabs on their friends' and families' involvement and others writing scathing hate pieces about how much they think the Ice Bucket Challenge sucks.

I'll be honest: I don't actually buy a great number of the reasons people have for hating it, although many of these pieces have really great points within them.  For instance, I admittedly roll my eyes when people talk about the challenge as wasting water; although technically accurate, the Ice Bucket Challenge alone will never even make a dent in water consumption that's even remotely comparable to, for instance, bottled water companies.  And the challenge very well may be a massive distraction (especially when you consider the number of politicians out there making Ice Bucket videos who repeatedly vote to cut ALS research), but the hate leveled at it really doesn't help.

Still, it's just a matter of time before somebody--despite likely knowing I have already committed to rejecting any challenge that does come my way--is going to challenge me.  Really a "no" should more than suffice, but as I know that people don't think this way I would like to explain what about the way this is set up really bugs me.  In many ways, it has to do with the way online awareness campaigns are run in general.

You probably will find it familiar if you use Facebook, especially if the friends you keep on the site are of a wide, indiscriminate variety like mine can feel like sometimes.  Among my relatives, a favorite is those fucking Jesus posts about how "90% won't post this but I'm not afraid to stand up for my belief in God" shame posts.  These make me extremely uncomfortable.  They exist as a group shaming tactic and do very little to help any sort of real cause.

Now, the Ice Bucket Challenge isn't exactly the same, and it has helped contribute to a lot of money being donated for ALS.  To call it "do-nothing activism" is unfair.  The problem with it is that it relies on the invasiveness of a non-consensual ultimatum to force conformity through shame.  To simplify, you're socially forcing somebody to play a game they might not be willing to play.

In this regard it's similar to practical jokes.  Practical jokes are wonderful... when you consent to playing the game and the joker has a good sense of boundaries and common courtesy.  And as somebody who has worked at multiple summer camps--where pranks are a regular occurrence--I have witnessed some huge lapses in judgment in which somebody was embarrassed to the point of tears, had property physically destroyed, or was tricked into doing something against their religious or ethical beliefs, all in the name of temporary humor.

But that doesn't have anything to do with the Ice Bucket Challenge, right?  I mean, the choice is between donate money to a worthy cause or do something silly on camera.  No biggie!

The thing is, we don't know if it's a biggie or not.  Personally, there are plenty of organizations out there that are widely considered to be excellent, worthy causes that I don't want to support (or in the past was uninterested in supporting).  And my refusal to support these has led to some subtle but very painful instances of public shame.  Practically every year I've had somebody argue with me over my refusal to support the Salvation Army, lots of campaigns center around supporting deeply problematic organizations like Autism Speaks, and when I was still an animal rights activist there were multiple times when I was practically forced to contribute time or money to organizations that fund animal testing, especially in events like team fundraising competitions in my college dorms.

That said, for me the real problem is this forced ultimatum in which people are being "challenged" to support something they may or may not actually support, whether through "awareness" or through monetary aid they might not have the actual means to generate.

And no, I'm not going to go troll all your Ice Bucket videos.  I even helped somebody film one (because he wanted to and I happened to be there).  What I won't contribute to, though, is the culture of public shaming surrounding this kind of campaign.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pagan Values Part 1: Did The Internet Kill Pagan Environmentalism?

This is first of what I assume will be at least  two (if I'm not lazy) essays relating to some stuff that was written on the subject of Pagan values.  The first--this one--is about environmental concerns.  The second will be about nudity at Pagan events.  They're both connected and will likely reference each other.

I'll be honest: I haven't really kept up with that much of what's going on in the Pagan community right now, but I did happen to catch an article on Patheos by Peg Aloi entitled "Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed? Yes, Yes, A Resounding Yes."  I should mention that I agree... with the premise in the title.  But upon reading it, I have to question the entire point of what Aloi is saying, and I'd like to explain why.  Oh, and for this essay, when I say "Paganism" I am talking about the part of the movement Aloi seems to talk about, which is the earth-based, for lack of a better word "Wiccanate" form of Paganism prevalent in the United States.  Based on some of Aloi's comments I believe this is really what the article is about.

This is what I got out of the article (and of course, I may be misrepresenting so you are welcome to read it via the link I gave above):
  • Paganism in the United States started out as a bastion of liberal values, devoted to feminism, environmentalism, the sexual revolution, and civil rights.
  • The Internet came along.
  • Shortly after, we were suddenly able to get everything we need from the Internet, including supplies and information.
  • Now nobody reads books anymore, nobody plays in dirt anymore, nobody goes to community rituals anymore, and therefore environmentalism is failing.
I reiterate, I do agree that Pagan environmentalism--and all of our politics--are in an incredibly sorry state.  I didn't come to this conclusion based on things I read from other people online, though.  I gained that perspective almost entirely from my interactions with Pagans I met or did work with offline.  But I'll get into that a bit, later.

Here's where this article falls short:  It makes the assumption that Pagans were at one point excruciatingly enlightened about the environment, and then we lost it as soon as we started connecting online.  But I don't agree that either of these things are true.  I would argue that:
  • The political environment people are reminiscing about probably wasn't as unique as people think it was.
  • The political environment today is imperfect, but it has to do with a hell of a lot more than the Internet or even individual Pagan behaviors.
  • Many of the things Aloi is talking about as being signs of environmental downfall really don't have anything to do with being environmentally friendly.
First, let's talk about this mythical understanding of the Paganism of the '60s and '70s.  The way some of these people talk, Pagans during this time were the shining star of progressivism, a safe space for all minorities and a leader in per-member environmental improvement.  And you know what?  The environmental progress made during these times was (and continues to be) pretty damn important.  Pagans during this time were involved, but let's be fair: Environmentalism or at least the appearance of environmentalism was fashionable at the time.  Paganism back then was pretty much defined as earth-centered.  So it makes sense that people who defined themselves with regard to their relationship to the Earth would actively participate in co-existing environmental movements.  Pagans before this time were not typically that gung-ho about this subject.

Paganism has changed a lot since then, with the practical definition of "Pagan" widening to include a lot of people who do not self-define as earth-based-worshipers.  This is, by the way, one sliver of the "problem."  That widening of the definition is a good thing.  It means more "oomph" in numbers!  But it also means there are more self-defined Pagans out there who are not just indifferent to environmental concerns, but actively opposed to them.

But again, that's a sliver.  It's absolutely true that Pagans have been failing environmentally.  Aloi's argument, though, seems to rest on the idea that the Internet is stifling learning, preventing people from going outside, and encouraging buying Pagan products.  There are a lot of things that really need to be said about this, though:
  1. The Internet hasn't stifled learning among Pagans, just as it hasn't stifled learning among the general population.  In many ways it's actually enhanced it.  Pagans today have the opportunity to understand more about our own history than ever before (back in the '60s and '70s and even the '80s Pagans regularly truly believed they were descendents of an unbroken Witch Cult, that people killed during the European Witch Trials were literally Witches, and lots of other incredibly false stuff).  The Internet gave us the ability to say "Wait a minute, this thing people have been taking as undeniable fact from a book published back in 1979 isn't entirely accurate."  It's given resources to Pagans who don't have the money or the appropriate home environment to buy or borrow actual books.  As somebody who did not touch an actual Pagan book until he was a Pagan for at least five years, and who subsequently has read dozens of them, I can tell you that books are overrated.  That's going to be a statement that'll probably bite me in the ass at some point, and they're certainly beneficial, but there's nothing about being a Pagan that requires actually handling a book.
  2. Playing in dirt does not make you an environmentalist.  Eco-friendliness is distinct from outdoorsiness.  We have this romantic conception of environmentalism as inherently being a deep, hands-on experience shared by people who regularly go out into the woods and commune with nature.  Aloi talks about literally going out and hugging trees.  And hey, I'm not dissing tree-hugging, but aside from any spiritual healing you may believe in (which is great but outside of the scope of this essay), its main purpose is to motivate people to care.  I assure you, though, that people can care about the environment without hugging or even touching a tree.  People can care about the environment while spending all day on a computer.  People can care about the environment while doing all their rituals indoors.  Which reminds me...
  3. The Internet has facilitated a great deal of accessibility for Pagans in remote areas or who have disabilities.  I have a deep love of in-person Pagan events, and I try to go to them regularly, but I didn't for years because of debilitating social anxiety and lack of appropriate transportation.  And it's important that I mention this, because not enough people are: In-person Pagan events are often extremely inaccessible.  People pump incense and smudge everywhere without thinking about allergies or asthma, people often pick locations for public rituals based on prettiness without regard for whether or not someone can get a wheelchair in there, food served during cakes and ale is picked without regard for food allergies, diets, or ethical preferences (My very first public ritual we all had our eyes closed as we reached into a basket that they didn't disclose the contents of: Eggs.  I was a vegan.).  The Internet is largely responsible for giving people an outlet who can't handle these issues, and has helped spread awareness of them.
  4. That all said, when Aloi says that Pagans "despite feeling more connected, are actually more fragmented than ever," she's ignoring a few problems with her reasoning.  First, the Pagan community is massive compared to how it was in the '60s and '70s.  Covens and groups were smaller, rarer, and more insular.  Remote Pagans were often solitaries and had to stick it out alone and didn't have the web to fall back on for camaraderie.  Next, the widening of the Pagan umbrella means that people who would not have identified as Pagans--or been identified as Pagans by other Pagans--are getting more recognition.
What I want to focus on, though, is something I feel Aloi gets right:  The Internet has increased the level of consumerism among Pagans, turning us into a market, and that has probably contributed a lot.  And I speak as somebody who is somewhat addicted to Pagan trinkets.  I have divination tools and spell ingredients and ritual weapons I practically never use.  People try to fill a hole left by shallow spirituality with pretty things, which both distracts from the deep environmental respect Pagans typically try to have and contributes to waste.

That's a function of overall capitalism, though.  It's not unique to the Pagan community in any way, shape, or form.  We live in a culture of buying things and then throwing them away, we live in an era of planned obsolescence and cheap goods that keep us having to go back and constantly replace things we've broken.  We live in an era of uncertainty and off-balance understandings of the interplay between health, money, and the environment.  We live in a time when corporations pay millions of dollars to convince you that something environmentally devastating is actually environmentally friendly, and average people often don't have the resources to understand the difference.

Most of these problems are not unique to Pagans.  We have absorbed them the same way everyone else has absorbed them.  It's frustrating that people continue to separate Pagan psychology from that of the rest of humanity.

It's not inherently due to not going outside enough or not hugging enough trees, and it's also not actually new.  I'll give you an example.  I went to Pagan Spirit Gathering last year.  And the environmental situation?  Fucking deplorable.  People were chucking perfectly good camping equipment in the dumpsters just to avoid packing it.  People were leaving trash on the ground.  The recycling and regular trash were so intermingled they couldn't separate them.  This year I heard of people who neglected to refill fire pits, leaving more trash, leaving more perfectly good stuff to be shipped away. This is a weeklong, entirely outdoor gathering.  Yes, people have cellphones now. 

I remember thinking of Woodstock when we got the announcement of how much trash was around.  This is iconic of the countercultural movement, the same movement we associate with environmentalism.  People at Woodstock didn't have Facebook.  But it was still pretty indistinguishable from a landfill after the festivities were complete:

The point is, the reason Pagans fail so hard at environmentalism these days is because practically everybody fails hard at environmentalism.  We aren't given proper knowledge or resources and we're barraged with advertising meant to encourage us to buy the plastic bottle with 20% less plastic rather than the refillable bottle or to ignore the massive, pressing problems in our habits--and corporate habits--while we focus on little things like avoiding aerosol cans or occasionally buying a few things organic.

Can Pagans do better?  Absolutely.  And we have the cultural mentality--the desire to do good for the planet--to want to do better.  But it really is unfair to point the blame squarely on narcissistic use of technology or lack of time spend outdoors.  There's far more to it than that.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

On the Crafting of Trans-Antagonistic Identities... and More

In my language policy (which I should probably look at because I haven't looked at it in a while) I mentioned I make a point to yield to self-identity in the vast majority of cases, even in such cases where a group is widely ridiculed or criticized.

The main exception is this: I don't accept identities that are specifically crafted to antagonize another group, something that is unfortunately incredibly common when it comes to transphobic cisgender people.  For instance, the phrase "women born women" is not a term I am willing to use in a non-critical context, because it was specifically coined by cis women being directly antagonistic to trans women (and usually accompanied by ludicrously offensive labels for trans women, like "men made women on operating tables," an actual phrase used by actual assholes).  I will not accept the phrase "autogynephile," even among trans women who identify with that term, because it was specifically constructed to demean and deny trans women's identities.  This is not something that's arguable to me.  The little comfort that the use of these labels in a positive manner grants to the cis people who created them is not in any way comparable to the environment the use of these words creates for trans people, especially trans women.

But right now there's a discussion going on on the Tumblr/Twitter rollercoaster that refers to a different set of claimed identities.  These are a bit more complicated, and I'd like to talk about them.

These are identities like "transabled," "transethnic," "transfat," "transspecies," "transracial," and a few assorted others.  These are distinct from identities people craft that are either meant to be cis-supremacist alternatives to the word "cis" or offensive terms referring to trans people.  They aren't actually related to transgenderism at all, and refer instead to people who wish to transition some marker other than gender (race, body type, etc.) or who in some way feel they sufficiently meet some other qualification that makes them "actually" a member of a different marker.

These are more complicated because there are two groups of people who maintain these claimed identities:
  1. People who actually feel that way, usually members of thriving therian, otherkin, and/or BIID communities.
  2. People who don't really feel that way, but who claim they do as an analogy to transgenderism in an attempt to make transgenderism look ridiculous.
The reason I'm writing this is largely because many of my friends and comrades are assuming that every instance of somebody using this sort of terminology is necessarily in the second category.  This is tempting, especially if the bulk of your engagement with these communities has been through members who make fucking ignorant statements about transgender people having privilege over them or constant hackneyed comparisons between transgender people and their own struggle or some other Gods-awful tripe.  I think, though, that we do need to recognize that we can point out the expansive differences between these groups and trans people without automatically invalidating all of their experiences.

For instance, there is a group of people out there known for wishing that they had some sort of disability, the classic example being people who have a functioning limb that they desperately wish was not there (this is not the only example; they're known for wanting "healthy" limbs amputated, but there are members of this community that merely wish these limbs were non-functional, among others).  This is known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder, or BIID.  And these people are very soundly ridiculed by a lot of people in social justice communities, as "wannabes" by the disabled community and appropriators by the trans community.

Some of them use the term "transabled," terminology that really bugs a lot of us for a variety of reasons.  "Transabled" discourse has a lot of problematic undertones, largely related to the implications that the people with these disabilities necessarily have different brains than abled people and that ability is fundamentally, inherently just about identity (identity has a lot to do with it, certainly, but that's something that develops due to common experience, it's not innate).

Here's the problem, though:  People with BIID are going through a very real, very painful struggle.  There aren't that many studies on it, but the one I am aware of suggested that somewhere in their development, their brains did not properly recognize some part of them.  So it works, it feels normal sensation, and they're usually able to move it at will, but it will always feel like an alien intruder in their body, causing a massive amount of stress and anxiety for them.  Since the vast majority of doctors will refuse what they would argue is a serious medical need of theirs, some resort to destroying a limb beyond repair to force a doctor to finally do it.  Is elective amputation the right solution?  We won't actually know until people start taking this condition seriously and cease acting like it's an attention play.

It's important to recognize that people with BIID are not necessarily in that community because they want the glamour and camaraderie of being a member of the disabled community.  Although such people likely exist, they exist in every community.

So we really need to do better at understanding what issues like this really mean without automatically acting like it's oppressive appropriation.  After all, there are plenty of people who willfully make ignorant arguments about trans women as if they are just men who want to appropriate womanhood.  This argument, of course, makes no sense: Within patriarchy, there is little to no benefit to transitioning male-to-female outside of individual trans women's comfort with themselves and their bodies, and that's not even to mention that there are at least some studies supporting the idea that transgenderism has a biological source.  We need to use these same forms of discretion before immediately discounting any identity.

That doesn't mean all identities are legitimate.  One of the reasons this is so frustrating is cases of so-called "transracialism," "transethnicity," "transfatness," and some cases of "transability" and so forth are deliberately constructed to be trans-antagonistic.  They're straw identities, meant as offensive analogies of trans people in an effort to "prove" how ridiculous our lives allegedly are.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way these straw accounts talk about and interact with trans people.  The way they function, you'd think trans people were their direct oppressors, blocking them from transition for selfish trans-y reasons.  This is, in fact, likely the source of otherkin spreading this kind of dipshittery.  It's hard to tell if people are serious or not sometimes.  But as a general rule, I don't seriously believe that a persona crafted by a person ostensibly claiming the desire to transition something other than gender while constantly acting like transgender people are their one true nemesis legitimately feel that way.  They're likely plants meant to make trans people look bad.

But what if they are serious?  Members of the therian and otherkin communities aren't necessarily appropriating from an oppressed group (animals don't have the self-concept to give a fuck if somebody identifies as one of them, and otherkin typically identify as mythological or fictional characters).  People with BIID as well as transgender people very likely have a strong need to transition to relieve legitimate anxiety.  So-called "transethnic" and "transracial" people (I have like no experience with "transfat" whatsoever) are participating in a harmful power structure with no realistic biological or psychological motivation that isn't terribly shallow.  Just look at Les Atkins, the man who decided to "live as a Native American."  He has no clear understanding of Native beliefs and practices at all (or he wouldn't dare wear a war bonnet), having gained most of his initial interest from Spaghetti Westerns.  He's not, as far as I can tell, a transphobic plant like so many of the Tumblr accounts, but is instead an example of somebody who probably legitimately thinks he feels this way.  Atkins' extreme ridiculousness doesn't actually reflect on trans people, but transphobes use characters like him as if they are analogous.

That's what we need to look out for.  It's both insensitive and harmful to automatically assume that a person's pain isn't real, but we definitely can use some discretion.