Tag Archives: difference

Stand out from the crowd

Standing out from the crowd is on Molly Scott Cato’s list of things to do to resist fascism. I think this is a particularly interesting one for Pagans. For a person who feels afraid, blending in and not drawing attention is a very natural approach to take. To make yourself visible can feel, in hostile environments, like making yourself into a target. However, if we all try to protect ourselves by conforming, what we get is an even narrower range of safe ways of being, ever more pressure to conform and ever more vulnerability for the people who can’t.

Fascism doesn’t like diversity. It doesn’t like there being many different faiths and philosophies, and ways of living and being. Diversity makes people harder to control. It’s worth noting that tyranny generally doesn’t like diversity – you only have to think of the clothing restrictions in Maoist China. Tyranny loves uniforms.

By undertaking to stand out, a person upholds visible diversity. It is an expression of freedom and choice, and if you have enough privilege to be reasonably safe doing that, it is a way of helping everyone else. Visible expressions of diversity, and visible expressions of creativity and alternate ways of thinking help empower other people to live on their own terms and not try to blend safely into the background.

The pressure to conform isn’t something we necessarily experience in a conscious way. We can absorb a feeling that we need to fit in from our surroundings, media, and environment, without ever having deliberately decided to go that way. This is why the decision to be visible and different is an important one. Everyone who manifests their own creativity, individuality, and different ways of being in the world helps reduce that pressure on the people around them to conform. Everyone who offers an alternative helps stop the people around them from feeling there is only one right way of being.

Fascism is a cheerless sort of project. There’s no joy in it, no colour or delight. Tyranny of all forms pushes people towards being drab, conformist, unimaginative, and inexpressive. To be colourful, flamboyant, original, and inspired is to be working against tyranny.


Cherish Diversity

One of the ways Molly Scott Cato identifies to resist fascism, is by cherishing diversity. Within the Pagan community, how we do and don’t do this is rather interesting. We like diversity in so far as it applies to us – as a minority community, our safety depends on an inclusive majority that embraces difference. Many of us are old enough to remember what it was like before EU laws gave us some legal protection.

On the whole we’re pretty good at diversity within Paganism as well. We’re good at accepting the idea of polytheists and animists, we’re doing better with our atheists too. We cope just fine with people following pantheons other than our own, or following paths other than our own. Put a God and Goddess honouring traditional Witch in a room with an animist Druid and a polytheist Heathen, and an ancestor honouring Shaman, and the odds are all will be well.

We are at our least good with diversity when the differences are at their smallest. It’s people who identify as being on the same path or honouring the same deity who are most likely to get into arguments about the right way of doing things and who is really real. It is at this point precisely that we find diversity threatening. This kind of diversity suggests that our personal gnosis about a deity might not be absolute truth, or the only truth. Our vision may not be for everyone. We are validated when other people back this stuff up, but if someone else has been chosen by the same God and told something different, we struggle to embrace that. It inclines us to try and invalidate each other, or prove that our way is better.

Key to cherishing diversity, is to understand why we, and other people find diversity threatening. The problems come when you need the validation of everyone else to feel ok with your thing. With straight people who need to make everyone straight it’s easy to wonder if fear of personal queer feelings may be the root issue here. With monotheists who want to make everyone follow their religion, it is clear that their religion has no room for the idea of other Gods. We are no different. We argue most with those closest to our beliefs because we also need validation and reassurance.

It’s not irrational. When you are the only person who believes something, or experiences something in a particular way, you may feel mad. Everyone else may decide you are mad. Solitary belief can be dangerous. Belief shared with others feels safer. We all want to feel safe and none of us want to feel mad. Owning that fear, it becomes easier to look at personal discomfort with diversity. We are afraid of being isolated and socially shunned. We can deal with that by trying to make everyone more like us, or we can deal with it by undertaking to accept each other regardless of difference. The first option is impossible and can only create tension, resentment and conflict. The second option is perfectly doable if we can square up to our own fears.


End of an era

Today is the last day of primary school. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was buying his first uniform items and sewing in the name tags. Now he’s a remarkably grown up young fellow, poised to turn into a teenager sometime soon. I remember my own reluctance to give up childhood, soon replaced by a desperate desire to be properly grown up.

The boy has had an unusual sort of childhood, not least thanks to having spent 2 years living on a narrowboat. He’s experienced challenge and betrayal, and learned to negotiate some complex relationships with adults. There were times spent in places where he was an unhappy misfit, unwilling to compromise himself to fit in. And then, the joy of being in a place where his difference is embraced and nurtured. A school where teachers take pride in him, rather than wanting him to change. Accepted and supported he’s become more confident and relaxed, still very much the boy he always was, but now fearless about sharing it. Those deep, philosophical thoughts that he used only to share with me, he can now offer to his peers when the opportunity arises in class. He trusts them not to mock him, he trusts the adults around him to respect him, and to honour his choices and preferences. It’s made a world of difference, resulting in a far happier and far less anxious sort of boy.

I hope, when he’s older, that the last few years will colour his memories of childhood. He’s forgotten much of his early life, which may be as well. I hope he remembers sunny days on the towpath, with his cat. Garden rampages with local friends. Bowling and castles, epic train journeys, piloting the narrowboat and feeding the ducklings. The Wild Fowl and Wetland Trust has given him a glorious range of experiences and opportunities, and a very keen sense of what he wants to be as an adult. He’s handled salamanders, dismantled owl pellets, seen rare wild birds, and learned to tell one kind of duck from another.

In the last few years, the boy has become very tolerant of difference and diversity, conscious that he never knows what other people might have to deal with, or what secrets they might carry. He’s intolerant of bullying and cruelty, a firm believer in equality, and someone who wants fairness but also has a sense of how sadly short of it we are. He’s learned to be a fighter, a crusader, brave, bold and willing to take a stance for justice, be that around badger culls, the Canal & River Trust, or the environmental impact of cars. He stops to get caterpillars, and beetles out of the road, when it’s safe to do so.

And so we come to the end of primary school. The amazing year group he’s been part of will go to four different schools, inevitably losing touch to a degree. They are wild, courageous and extraordinary kids, and it has been a joy to get to know them a bit, and share in their triumphs. They give me hope. We’ve made a lot of friends here, some of whom we should be able to keep. And of course we will be back in the winter, to see the swans.

The end of an era also means the beginning of something new. We know the shape of it a bit, but the details remain mysterious, only to be discovered through living them. We stayed here, and lived on the boat so that the boy could stay in school. I have no doubt that was the right choice. It’s been a challenging way of life, but it has given us so much. We’ve been through some things, recovered from some things, and now it is time to gather up what we learned, and move forward. I have a few more reflective thoughts to work through over the coming days, and there is chaos to come.


Radical inclusivity

There’s a sign up about playground rules at my son’s school. There are all the things you might expect about when to stop, and line up. It also says something to the effect of ‘include in your games any children who are on their own.’ The implications are huge.

When I went through school, the general assumption was that a loner had no one but themselves to blame. If other kids wouldn’t play with you, it was because you were weird and antisocial, and that was fine. Either you learned to fit in, or you stayed out. Children who were crippled by poor confidence, who had not been well socialised prior to school, who didn’t follow the ‘in things’ easily, became exiles. The exiled child readily becomes a scapegoat and a victim, and again when I was a child, picking on the one fat kid, the one weirdo, was considered perfectly normal and no one did anything to stop it. For the record, that would indeed have been me – vegetarian before it was trendy, living without a television, wearing second hand clothes, and with some physical problems that meant I couldn’t run and had little confidence. Oh, and I was, definitively, a weirdo.

My son is, and has always been a bit of an oddball, and has always taken pride in being different. He doesn’t want to look like everyone else, he’s televisionless and does not spend all his spare time playing computer games. Nor does he play football. With his interests in philosophy, green issues and steampunk, he’s not on the same wavelength as his peers. But he’s not any kind of social exile in the way that I was. One of the reasons for this, is that school cultures have evidently changed. There is more onus on the majority to take in and accept the minority. Teaching philosophies around self esteem talk a lot about recognising and celebrating difference. When you get down to it, every child is different. Each one has a unique set of experiences, feelings, needs and intentions.

A system where those outside the boundaries of ‘normal’ are fair targets for bullying or just exclusion, enforces conformity. Those who are ‘in’ are under a lot of pressure to stay in, to be as much like everyone else as possible. That in turn helps to reinforce the boundaries. Those rigid lines between in and out encourage fear and mistrust. Anything different from us is not ok, we should resent it, is the message this conveys. And that attitude plays itself out across the world stage in terrifying and destructive ways.

If you start children with the idea that including people is good and excluding people is not, there is a radical scope for widespread change inherent in that. If you encourage children to accept difference and diversity, you enable them to explore their own natures and not to feel threatened by anything that might make them different. It’s often said that the most aggressive gay-bashers are closet homosexuals afraid of their own natures. Where acceptance is the norm, you just aren’t going to get that kind of fear.

When I was a child, fitting in was the business of the individual, and exiling weirdos was the prerogative of the majority. If that changed, if it became the responsibility of the majority to include, to reach out, to try and understand, to respect the differences, so much would change. And perhaps all it takes to achieve that, is a message on the playground to encourage four year olds not to leave anyone out.