Before I begin talking about what might be a difficult topic for me, I hope it goes without saying that this post is not in any way intended as an attack on others’ ideas; it is more an analysis of why I disagree with them, and what thoughts they have inspired as a result.
Oh – and it is long…
With that established… I have a confession to make: I really dislike the word “tribe.” It makes me wince each time I read it. And I read it a lot in pagan circles.
Tribalism is founded on “othering,” on an opposition of “us” and “them.” While I have no doubt that the notion of the tribe in modern paganism is mostly focused on the “us” – on the desire to belong to a group of like-minded people – there is always a corollary.
Most of us will have experienced the sharp end of othering: we live in a society where our religious or spiritual beliefs are generally ignored, often ridiculed and sometimes vilified. And the desire to reach out and connect with like-minded people is a very natural and healthy thing – that is part of the point of keeping this blog, after all. Ideas are best developed in discussion with people who understand their context, and sometimes we all need a little reassurance that we are not the only ones of our kind out there in the big, wide world. But when I read people talking about “finding their tribe” in paganism, it is often accompanied by the kind of othering that sets off my warning bells.
This othering, in my experience, has sometimes taken the form of an imagined projection of the “other” by whom the writer or speaker feels, implicitly, rejected; the fact that this “other” is imagined means that no dialogue can ever be established. And then there is the use of dismissive terms, playful or otherwise, for “others” – muggles, playgans, mundanes. People who are not like us. People who are less serious than us, less valid, less important.* People who wouldn’t understand. Who are these people? I would hazard a guess that they are, in most cases, our neighbours, our colleagues, our fellow students; our peers. In other words, our community. The people we encounter every day who may or may not agree with our world view (because, let’s face it, how many of us have actually asked them?).
What kind of tribe would we be building, if the main criterion was for all of its members to be just like us?
Between the ages of 6 and 14, I was physically attacked by the kids at school and in my neighbourhood, on an almost daily basis, purely because of a perceived difference. This experience is probably at the root of my mistrust of tribalism: far from making me wish for a community of people who were just like me, it convinced me of the vital need for us to learn to appreciate difference in others. I am a strong believer in the fact that you don’t have to agree with someone to get along with them, and that we have as much to learn from people who see the world differently from us as we do from people who share our ideas. It is not easy to sustain an honourable dialogue with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, but… well, I am a druid; to me, engaging in honourable dialogue is part of what it means to walk my path, regardless of how easy or difficult it is. Sometimes, the dialogue will reach a point that makes walking away the most constructive thing to do – but that doesn’t let me off the hook from trying.
People are always a little suspicious of difference, at first. It’s an entirely natural response. It’s also entirely natural for curiosity and trust to allow the barriers of suspicion to be broken down, with a little interaction: we are social animals, even flighty misanthropes like me. In my experience, pagans often talk of seeing themselves as different, with an implicit assumption that the less-different-than-them others should assume responsibility for accepting them as they are. But it works both ways. If you see yourself as different from someone, then you see that someone as different from you. You also need to accept them as they are.
I know I am lucky: I live in a notoriously friendly part of the world, where it is easy enough to get on with my neighbours (though I do wish the guy downstairs would smoke something a bit less pungent…), and my colleagues are pretty decent. About a year ago, I had something of an epiphany: these people already think I am a bit strange, and they like me anyway. I don’t need to be afraid of expressing my strangeness, because the relationships I have established within my community allow for it. I censor myself because I have internalised some kind of idea that it is not ok to be who I am – but that is emphatically not the fault of any of my differently-minded peers, who don’t particularly mind how different I am, just so long as I am able to share a cup of tea and a chat with them (naturally, that chat will probably not be about the role of the bard in inspiring connection with the sacred landscape, but there is a time and a place for everything).
Of course, some people will never accept difference – in which case, I think it is fair enough to decide not to waste any more time and effort on establishing a relationship with them. But on a purely human-to-human level, I have been consistently and pleasantly surprised, since overcoming those harrowing early experiences from my schooldays. I have learned as much about my local landscape – its old stories, hidden natural springs and secrets – from my atheist/agnostic/Catholic/Unitarian/Quaker/Islamic neighbours as I have from my local pagan group. I would never expect these neighbours to take part in the rituals honouring the landscape which they (unwittingly?) inspire, but I am grateful to them all the same, and the fact that we can all share this love for our local landscape in our own different ways is a wonderful thing.
This is why, instead of searching for a tribe to which I can belong, I try to focus on community. Not everyone in the community can be – or wants to be – a druid, but if we are prepared to work on establishing relationships with them, I bet there are plenty of communities who would welcome a druid in their midst.
p.s. the rise of virtual communities and online interactions adds a whole other dimension to this problem, which I have barely touched, but this post is long enough already and I have some cakes to bake…
*(I get equally frustrated with the use of the word “sheeple” in political discourse. It roughly translates as: people who have opinions which I consider to be more mainstream, and therefore less valid, than mine.)