Personal Boundaries and Social Norms on the Witches’ Voice

My latest essay has been published on the Witches’ Voice this weekend. Titled “Personal Boundaries and Social Norms,” it addressed problems that I have observed relating to establishing and the ignoring of social norms and personal boundaries in the pagan community.

It’s something that we’ve all noticed. A disproportionate number of pagans seem to be, well, socially awkward. Many a pagan – and not only the younger ones – seems to have a bit of a problem with social skills, particularly with personal boundaries. This awkwardness can make pagan networking a little tricky sometimes, not to mention interactions at pagan festivals. It can also make the awkward among us seem that much more unusual to those outside of the pagan community that only have pop culture and media stereotypes as the basis for their expectations.

Sure, some people have problems adapting to social norms. I’ve heard allegations that a higher number of pagans have Asperger’s Syndrome than non-pagans (although I haven’t verified this at all) . Paganism also has a reputation for being more open and accepting to unusual people, which can easily make it seem more inviting to people who are less socially aware. Sometimes, however, social awkwardness is tolerated unduly from individuals who should (or do) know better – the famed pagan tolerance could keep some from correcting socially inappropriate behavior. In a worst-case scenario, that tolerance may be taken advantage of by people who are simply too rude or self-absorbed to be bothered with respecting other people’s boundaries.

You can read the whole thing on the Witches’ Voice. Once I’ve gotten and responded to some e-mail feedback, I’ll also post that here. The essay will appear here in its entirety in a month. Let me know what you think!

I’d also like to welcome visitors from the Witches’ Voice who are new to my work and invite them to check out the rest of the site. Comments and feedback are greatly encouraged!

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4 responses to “Personal Boundaries and Social Norms on the Witches’ Voice

  1. Many of your critiques of neoPagan culture are cogent, but I think sometimes you’re forgetting two very important factors:
    Firstly, the movement is, depending on how you count, no more than 50-75 years old (how long /was/ Gardner doing his thing before publishing? how much of the Romantic and Occult movements that inspired him do we get to count as our own?). A realistic assessment of the neo-Pagan movement as a distinct, large scale event can’t be traced back more than 40-50 years.

    Secondly, there are a fair number of us (no longer the majority, but we were once) who are actually trying to build a separate society and see “legitimacy” in the eyes of the mainline culture as a potential tool toward that end, but not an end in and of itself. Making that new society will take generations, and a great deal of trial and error. (Of course, we – the ones who want a separate society – are the ones who should be working twice as hard to keep the idiots and predators out.)

    And, because you mention it in passing in your post: while there are some within that movement that don’t think it’s a fair categorization (some heathens and reconstructionists), I think that “neo-Pagan” is at least as fair and descriptive as, say, “Abrahamic”.

    • To address the first point, I’m not quite sure what you’re even getting at. Can a critique of the social norms of a religious/political movement not be valid if the movement is “only” 50-75 years old? I’ve done academic analyses of communities with a much shorter life span. I’m also not compiling a long-term study of the evolution of norms in the pagan sub-culture — I’m commenting on the fact that in my personal observation of the pagan community social norms and personal boundaries are often ignored or observed in a piecemeal and unpredictable fashion.

      I’m not sure where you’re getting at on the second point either. As you seem to suggest in your own comment, those who seek to develop their own society will still need to develop and maintain some kind of social norms, even if they differ from those of mainstream society. Much of my essay was addressing the fact that many mainstream norms are ignored, but some very good social codes and behaviors exist in mainstream society, and perhaps should not be discarded just because they exist in mainstream society. My issue is the fact that there does not seem to be any effort to delineate any “pagan” social norms, and many pagans routinely make assumptions that they can interact with people in certain ways that would normally be considered inappropriate. The vast majority of pagans are socialized according to Western cultural norms, and some expectation for that should be considered before assuming that certain behaviors are okay around other people. A related concern is the fact that some people actively seek out the pagan community just so that they can take advantage of the lack of social norms.

      As for a pagan separatist movement, any society that such a movement forms will still have to interact with the larger culture, and at least have an understanding of its norms. It’s not really a matter of “legitimacy” as such, but simply a fact that some common ground is necessary for basic interactions. And this is a related concern — some pagans who are used to lessened social restrictions may have a difficult time interacting with people outside of the pagan community. But my real issue is that of boundaries within the movement — there are often assumptions that because people are pagan, that they are open to certain behaviors and activities and hold certain beliefs. Those assumptions are not always valid, and the wide-reaching nature of the overarching pagan community complicates that. We are contemplating a “community” that has no real definition other than the fact that the participants self-identify as “pagan.” Given the vast difference of pagan religions, I’m not sure how a coherent alternative social order can be developed.

  2. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve been largely solitary, though recently I’ve felt a sort of push to seek out local pagan community. Even from mere online interaction, however, I can see that I have numerous differences from the pagan community at large. This may perhaps be a good thing, because my different point of view may add something to the community, but being a sufferer of social anxiety, I also fear the judgement that may come from some of my viewpoints and behaviors.

    I’ve perceived some negativity toward anyone that perpetuates any negative stereotypes, for example. I do tend to wear a lot of black, but that is due to my involvement in various music-related subcultures and my personality. I would wear what I wear whether I was atheist or even Christian. I don’t see why I should have to change my personality and clothing preferences merely because I feel drawn to a certain religion.

    Additionally, I tend to be politically conservative with the exception of three political issues. Lastly, like you, I am very monogamous, and I have perceived a good deal of polyamory within the pagan community. I don’t care if other people are happier practicing polyamory, mind you. I just can’t participate in it myself, and it isn’t some kind of remnant of my childhood Catholic brainwashing. I’m honestly just plain happier in a monogamous relationship.

    Even the Christians have issues with finding coherence in community, however. I suppose they just have the advantage of superior numbers, and with a larger percentage of people involved in Christian churches, it is more likely for individuals to be able to find compatible communities.

    • The polyamory issue is one that I hope to address in further detail later. I’m glad that it works for so many people in the pagan community, but it doesn’t work for me, and I’m bothered by the fact so many I’ve encountered that assume I won’t mind if they take my mate for a romp. I’ve also apparently offended people with the fact that I am, in fact, straight.

      I’m also preparing to address the issue of politics in paganism, in part because of the extreme diversity present in pagan religions, but also because I see the identity of “pagan” as more of a political than a religious one.

      One thing I’ve also noticed is that certain gods seem to be more acceptable than others. If you worship Hecate or Brigid you’re fine, everyone loves Diana, and you can even get Hermes in there. But mention you pay homage to Mars or Hades, and you’ll probably get some odd looks. I suspect there’s an unspoken tension about strong gender roles and gods that represent heavy masculinity, especially if they’re war gods. (Unless you’re Asatru — they seem to be expected to be warlike.) Perhaps another essay topic?

      I will say that pagans are by in large much more tolerant of difference and non-judging of social deviation and awkwardness. Perhaps I should have made a point to mention that as a positive aspect in my essay — pagans are usually a very accepting bunch.

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