The first step to building a better world — a culture of respect, a culture of consent, a culture of strong, empowered people and awesome relationships — is respecting each other’s agency.
Individualism gets its horn tooted a lot, and it’s held up as a veritable god, the central figure of the North American cult of Bootstraps. But there’s some disconnect here — whereas many people are quick to shout to the heavens about everyone being an island, they never got any help, why should you, they’re not so quick to shout to the heavens about respecting the agency of individuals.
If you get assaulted, it’s also your fault — it’s not the fault of the other individuals who didn’t respect your agency, your boundaries, who didn’t seek your consent. You’re expected to fend off all these attackers with a single glance from your world-weary eye, one blow from your sharpened tongue.
Related to that, if people define you wrong — if they disrespect the definitions and labels you have chosen for yourself — that’s also your fault. Why do you fit so well into the definitions we’ve built up in our heads, we ask, if you didn’t want to be defined that way? If you don’t wish to be called something, stop acting / looking /thinking / being like how we perceive / define that thing.
We get this message in childhood — “If you don’t want to be called a wild cat / disobedient child / crazy person, stop acting like one” — and it continues into adulthood, where we take it, internalize it, and use it as a weapon against others.
The paternalistic belief that we can define other people for them. The refusal to accept that they reject those definitions, those labels; the refusal to respect their agency as they choose their own markers.
Recently Star Foster relinquished the term pagan. She’d blogged within pagandom, as a pagan, for several years, but she’s finally realized that word no longer fits her. She can no longer consider herself pagan.
Where she and I may disagree on several things (and agree on others), including her definition of the word pagan, what I find most disturbing in wake of this announcement is the reaction from many pagans.
It’s the same sort of reaction genderqueer folk get when they relinquish “man” or “woman” in favor of “both, neither, either/or, something else entirely, non-binary at any rate”. The reaction I get, when I assert I’m not a woman: “But you look like a woman. You were born a woman. You bleed like a woman, right?”
Woman may be a word whose definition is as hard to pin down as pagan‘s — there’s no core experience that unites all women, just as there is no core experience that unites all pagans. And there are many people who we may think should ID as woman or pagan, but who — for whatever reason — don’t.
That’s their choice and their right. That is them asserting their personal agency, defining their boundaries, telling you that no, you do not have their consent to label them woman or pagan or whatever other label you think they should adopt.
So far as I’m concerned, the only definition of pagan (or woman, for that matter) that should ever hold any sway is “self-identifies as”. They are such broad concepts there is no way to narrow them down. Perhaps if, early on in the NeoPagan movement, there had been conversation of what exactly pagan meant — perhaps if we had nailed down a distinct definition — this conversation would not be happening. You’d be pagan or you wouldn’t be.
But we didn’t, and now the term has a life of its own. People adopt it when we think they shouldn’t, and people who we think should adopt it refuse it, saying “No. That’s not me.”
Relinquishing the word pagan is Star Foster’s right, and regardless what you or I or anyone else thinks pagan should mean or might mean, we need to accept that. We need to respect her agency, her boundaries, we need to accept her announcement for what it is: revoking her consent to us to label her as pagan. We no longer have her consent to label her as such; continuing to do so breaches that, shows her we have little to no regard for her as a person or her personal agency, and certainly do not care to respect her boundaries.
If we can’t show that kind of respect or regard to a blogger we don’t know from Eve, how do we expect ourselves to show it to our loved ones? Our neighbors? The cashier at the grocery store we frequent?
Respecting peoples’ agency isn’t optional if we want to build a culture of consent, of love, of respect. It is the first necessary step to that culture. We need to start learning how to walk that road now if we want to start laying the foundation for that new culture, that new world that tells us yes, you are worthy.
So for today, put aside your hard-held-onto definitions. Take a deep breath. And practice being okay with people relinquishing or claiming labels that are as nebulous as pagan, or woman, or man. This is not the first time this has happened, and it’s far from the last. People are not going to suddenly align themselves to our inner thoughts, saying yes, no, your definition is much better and I’ll follow it from now on.
That means we need to start altering our thinking.