By Mike Newman (used w/permission; click on the image to see more of his hysterical CS movie posters at Cool Material)

This post has been challenging to write because, at my core, I do not believe in censorship. When push comes to shove, I will defend your legal right to perform whatever you want on camera (provided you aren’t lying or physically harming somebody) and distribute it however you see fit.

However, believing someone has the right to do something and thinking it’s a good idea are not the same thing.

Public paganism has been a contentious issue since it went underground a thousand years ago. Some, like the Gardnerian Wiccans, love the mystery cult aspects of our faith. Some, like reconstructionist me, would love to return to the public practice our ancestors had 1000 years ago. I am, at heart, a be true to yourself and shine a light on the darkness kind of gal.

(Again with the big) However as a group struggling for recognition and equal legal and social rights in a frequently hostile society, we have got to think about public image. Right or wrong, the actions of any Pagan individual or group that gets public attention affects public opinion of all of us. And right now, the public is finally considering whether or not to accept us. We’re starting to make inroads (like Arlington cemetery allowing its first pentacle), but as the outcome of California’s Five Faiths ruling so clearly pointed out, we’ve still got a long way to go. This is the time when we most need good PR, because our public fate is being judged, and, as recent celebrity trials have pointed out, only the arrogant or the foolish head to the courtroom dressed to offend with tacky messages painted on their nails.

We pagans have a lot of friendly people with great ethics and kick ass wardrobes. It’s time to haul them out and put them on display.

What Brought This On? Well…

A commenter on one of my earlier posts pointed out the latest pagan publicity scandal – this time involving media magnet Charlie Sheen. For those unfamiliar, one of the many things he has called himself lately is a “Vatican assassin warlock.” I have no idea what that means, either… but GG and I would love to hear your suggestions in the comments. Anyway, a group in Salem, led by the ironically named Christian Day, took offense at him disparaging the good name of warlocks everywhere. (Maybe they don’t realize that somebody beat him to the chase? The most commonly accepted etymology for “warlock” is that it comes from an Old English word meaning “oath-breaker,” which is why most pagans I know don’t use it.*)

I appreciate their defense of paganism in theory; however, in practicality it’s not a smart move. To start with, I am unsure why they took offense at Sheen’s words (as, like many things he’s said lately, they make no sense).** Plus, even if what he said had been offensive, no one is taking any words coming out of Sheen’s mouth seriously right now. Just letting this one go (like the Vatican and, from what I can tell, all assassins across the globe chose to do) really would’ve been the smart choice. But this is, unfortunately, not where the story ends.

They decided to cast a spell to help Charlie Sheen heal his mental damage and to “bind him” from doing harm to practitioners of the craft of the wise (or something like that). This was nice of them, and, in my opinion, not where this story goes wrong. Instead of getting pissy and hexing Sheen or something traditionally bad witch-y, they tried to help him get better. Very positive of them. I applaud this action as genuine and kind.

However, they also invited a news crew to film the ritual. And proceeded to cast their spell in Halloween-vampire outfits, with an enormous bejeweled dagger for an athame, and with skulls – human skulls – on the table.

Pagans of the world (heck, people of the world in general), when you want to record and share something, please ask yourself this question:

What will Fox News do with this?

And then ask yourself a second time if you really want to record it.

I’m not trying to say that we should hide in fear of being misrepresented or misinterpreted. But…

Let’s be clear here, Fox News (and other media sources) will not focus on the fact that you’re trying to help someone. They will string together the most awkward sounding parts of your ceremony, focus their cameras on the person wearing the most bizarre outfit, and give the viewership a closeup of your skulls.

And I don’t know about you, but my pagan practice does not involve skulls and a big ass gothic-knife or dressing like Lucy Westerna post getting toothy with Drac.

But now a bunch of people think it does. Because they saw it! On the news!

And it frustrates the hell out of me because I don’t want people to be inauthentic or untrue to themselves. I do want a world where people are public about who they are without being ashamed or fearing public backlash. But when something this outside the norm goes live in homes across America, it takes the public image of all of us who wear the name “Pagan” a huge step backwards.

People will not be impressed by our differences until they are comfortable with our similarities

I have no research to back that claim up, but I do have a lifetime (34 years as of today!) of that phrase never failing me. Humans are social animals. We want to divide people up into “like me” and “not like me.” Then, after we are comfortable with our divisions, we will appreciate the differences of the people in the “like me” category as unique and creative, and will deride the differences of the “not like me” category as bizarre and proof that we were right to exclude them as a pack of weirdos.

If we want legal rights and equal social status (and I do), then we need to connect with other people instead of driving them away. And that means we need to lead with what we have in common, not with displays which support our most unpopular stereotypes.

I can see people shaking their heads and saying, “But we shouldn’t cater to wrong-headedness! People should be as wacky as they want and loved for it!” And maybe they should, but… I think we’ve proved through centuries of human behavior that it is instinctual to fear what we don’t understand, what we can’t associate with. Like a cat playing with a cricket, instinct isn’t a question of right or wrong, good or evil. Instinct just is. And we’ll get a whole hell of a lot further faster if we work with it instead of railing against it.

I’m not saying don’t invite a news crews to your event or video tape it for YouTube. But please remember, as a now public event, we’re all being judged by what the public sees. Please, do Paganism a good turn and be ambassadors for connecting with others. What you do in public matters – matters very much indeed.

GG and I believe in paganism. We believe pagans should be valued members of society, not hiding who we are for fear of social awkwardness (or ostracization). We want the rest of the world to see what hard-working, authentic, beautiful people we pagans really are.

Because unlike Charlie Sheen we, my friends, are winning folk with Adonis DNA. Let’s get some PR that shows it.

* However, there is some dispute over the etymology, and apparently some magical practitioners are trying to reclaim what they believe is the true origin of the word.

** Over-sensitivity and defensiveness are not minor issues, in my view. It makes thinking people wonder why we’re so unsure of ourselves and bullying types sense an easy kill. Calm self-confidence that only takes offense in serious situations goes a long way towards acceptance in our society.