Why the Pantheacon Gender Controversy Persists
For the second year running, some attendees at Pantheacon have become involved in protests, sit-ins, and a whole lot of blog posts about gender issues.
I am not going to weigh in on Z Budapest, etc. I was not there. But I was reading a post on Religion Bulletin the other day titled “Yogis and the Politics of Offense,” by Matt Sheedy, that suggested a reason for the size and persistence of this particular Pantheacon kerfuffle.
Reading past the yogis and the “Shit Yogis Say” parody video, I came to this paragraph:
When groups are new and not well defined, and where the boundaries of their self-understanding are generally recognized to be unstable, the work of critique becomes that much easier since it focuses the conversation on tangible matters that can be discussed and debated. As many scholars are aware, this instability and contingency is true of all religious formations, yet it remains an uphill battle to speak of older traditions in the same way—unless of course one’s goal is to cause offense in the first place.
Contemporary Paganism in all its forms is “not well defined.” Our boundaries are not merely porous, they are vaporous. You could do a “Shit Pagans Say” video — and maybe someone has — but a lot of Pagans probably would say that it just critiques the fluff bunnies or something, that none of “that stuff” is really central to their spiritual practice.
On the other hand, the author writes,
Whenever the social practices of a group are presented as the essence of that group as a social whole, there is a risk of causing offense. For something to be considered “offensive” in a categorical sense, however, it must involve more than hurt feelings on the part of an individual. There must be some notion of a “social whole” in the first place and, what is more, those things that are being lampooned must be considered central to the self-understanding of the group in question.
Sheedy argues that another video, “Shit Girls Say,” is indeed offensive because it addresses a social whole, whereas “Shit Yogis Say” does not.
If “girls” constitute a social whole, then certainly “women” do as well. There is a general assumption of what constitutes “women.” Some people insist that self-identified transwomen, for example, can also be included. But there is a boundary, and the argument is about who is inside it and who is not. There is something worth struggling over — as long as Paganism(s) valorize women-only ritual and female religious leadership.
UPDATE, Feb. 28: Gus diZerega writes the most reasonable blog post on this whole issue from a Pagan-politics standpoint that I have seen.
To summarize, the protest against Z’s genetic-women only ritual was political. Its advocates were making a statement about how they believe the entire Pagan community should act: not simply not to condemn, not simply to accept other ways, but to modify their ways so as to include a group that wanted such affirmation even while they were free to practice in their own way within a largely accepting environment. Sometimes this is necessary to do, as with a hypothetical case of having the community ban a group practicing ritual child abuse. But most of the time this is not necessary.