Thursday, October 27, 2016

Psychic is Not Science and Your Gut is (Probably) a Bigot

A couple months ago (this is one of those essays I'm transferring from elsewhere, FYI) I went to a local Pagan/New Age event, including a couple of workshops that left me feeling more than a little sad about the community.  One of those involved somebody completely disconnected from the Earth (I may transfer that story over too at some point), but the other is a little more insidious.  It had two main points that I take issue with.  The first--and the title subject of the workshop--is the notion that psychic power is scientific.  The second is the idea that your gut feeling is always right.

Let's talk about that psychic science thing first.  I strongly believe that magickal concepts do not have to be justified with science.  Science is important.  Science has saved thousands of lives and will continue to do so.  Science has piqued and assuaged curiosities about subjects that that a couple hundred years ago were solidly demonized.  But we as a species lived for thousands of years without knowing a lot of the things we know now.  Our magickal backgrounds, the roots of knowledge about psychic phenomena, our traditional medicines, these things developed entirely outside our current view of science, and all attempts at creating parallels between them wind up being so absurdly unscientific that it's best we just acknowledge that they will always be irrevocably different.  And that's OK.

In this presenter's case, the way she tried arguing that psychic "is science" was by explaining that the human body (and all matter, for that matter) is mostly empty space between atoms, and that at our most basic we run by electricity.  These are true, but there is also no evidence that these are connected in any way to psychic activity, and there wasn't even a real attempt to explain why these two things were actually connected.  They were merely justifications made by the presenter to try fitting a square peg into a round hole and justify fruit loopy beliefs about intuition.  The worst part is that she doesn't have to do this.  We have nothing to gain by using bad understandings of science to try converting skeptics.  First off, why are skeptics even an audience of yours?  And second, if you really want to convert skeptical minds, use that energy to convert global climate change deniers or fracking apologists or some other genuine expression of Very Bad Science that is going to get people poisoned and/or killed.  If your aim is to teach a group of people--who, being attendees at a Psychic and Pagan Fair, are already likely to be receptive to what you're saying--how to trust your gut, you can do that without pretending it's science.

This is, unfortunately, the more minor of the two problems.  And it's a shame, because there are some great concepts here, largely when it comes to the way we teach our kids.  The presenter's main argument is that by teaching kids to always avoid strangers, we are taking away their ability to trust their gut feelings about people, manufacturing an inappropriate level of distrust, and all manner of unfortunate side effects.  This is not a terrible idea, all things considered.  Most kids who are abused are not abused by strangers.

But let's talk about this whole gut feeling thing, because there's just a winding labyrinth of issues with it.  The reality is that when people trust their gut, they often don't take into account that due to their socio-cultural training their "gut" is telling them some pretty monstrous things.

There are examples of this for every aspect of oppression.  From very young ages we are subjected to a barrage of stereotypes that wind up assimilating into our perceptions of the world so firmly that they seem like natural impressions.  These are our gut feelings.  Gut feelings have meant black women get fewer painkillers, gays and lesbians are viewed as poor parents, atheists are viewed as less moral, transgender people are viewed as being threatening in restrooms, women are viewed as incompetent on the job, Middle Eastern people are viewed as terrorists, police are always justified in using force, and much much more.  These are all things that are statistically untrue, and yet people who learn the statistics still have those "gut feelings."  And even after being educated, these feelings don't just automatically just go away, having been bested by Cold Hard Logic.

A month or so after I went to the workshop I--as I often do--went to a movie in the middle of the morning.  It was Finding Dory, and although I'd hoped I was going there at slow time, I didn't factor in that it was summer, kids were out of school, and morning movies on a Tuesday are dirt cheap, so there were lots of kids there.  As seats are assigned in this theater, a family came in to find they were next to me, and their kid--he had to be like six or seven--was terrified of me and refused to sit next to me.  I have no interest in engaging with kids at all let alone in a negative manner, so the fear was unfounded, but there are a lot of reasons a kid might be terrified of a harmless adult.  I like to think I have a kind of hippie Jesusy look about me, but to a kid I could easily be mistaken for a big biker guy.  He may have read part of my gender expression that his parents didn't and was confused to the point of fear.  He might have a scary (or worse, abusive) relative who resembles me.  It may not have anything to do with my appearance at all, maybe he just has serious social anxiety and would have behaved like that around anybody.  Whatever the case, this kid did not trust me.  I set off all of his gut's red flags.

On the other side of the spectrum?  Lots of kids are harmed by people they trust, because they have no reason--and no gut feelings--that suggest to them that they should feel be safe around these people.  And the idea that they're just ignoring their natural gut feelings is absurd, gaslighting, victim blaming crap.  There's a reason that most child abuse is carried out by relatives and close family friends.

Does this mean that your gut feelings are bad?  Although I believe it depends on the particular feelings, the answer is generally "no."  You should always note your gut feelings, and if you're really in a bad place and cannot feel comfortable around somebody you shouldn't force it.  But you should also be critical of these gut feelings, especially when all evidence tells you that they're wrong, and especially when you find the people who set off the bad vibes detectors in your belly all look similar, and wouldn't-you-know-it all happen to be in the same marginalized group.  There's no guarantee these are messages from the divine.  Sometimes they're just bigotry.