Shamanism Part 2: Is Cultural “Neutrality” Possible?

June 3, 2015 at 8:06 pm 2 comments

One of my questions for thought and discussion in my last post was-

“Is a culturally neutral shamanism- or any spiritual practice possible? Why or why not?”

Most of my questions don’t really have “right or wrong” answers, because they are designed to make you think, question your assumptions and work on developing your spiritual path. I admit this one however, was a bit of a “trick question” intended to test what assumptions you might have of cultural neutrality.

From a social science standpoint it’s impossible to be “culturally neutral” or truly “generic”. I often see American Pagans attempting to do this, especially within a particular region- this is “generically North American Indian” or “generically Asian”. The results are often very watered down, ineffective and often offensive and mis-representative of hundreds of distinct ethnic and regional cultures, all in one ritual or book! The pan-Indian ritual will be Disney’s Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves,  and the pan-Asian ritual in the next room ends up looking like a cheap hippie version of this Katy Perry music video.

Basically, to be “culturally neutral/generic” you need to stop being human. Humans, are by definition social animals and need each other for our physical survival and mental sanity. Culture is by definition, shared and co-created over a long period of time. If you are still thinking “But I don’t have a culture!” I suggest you read this article- Body Ritual among the Nacirema and that might help you to view things differently!

I know some of my co-religionists were wondering about my choice to include shamanism in my Approaching Paganism series. Most of them would simply state “shamanism is practiced in some Central Asian cultures, and if you’re from outside of that context, you just shouldn’t use the word”. I understand and empathize with that position, but the fact is I am explaining modern Neo-Paganism in its many varieties as it is, rather than as I would like it to be. I might have an easier time influencing people who are totally new to Paganism(s) and shamanism in any form, but by simply accusing people of cultural appropriation, I’d be shutting down any potential conversations with Western/non-indigenous people who have been following a neo-shamanic path for years. Being an American who gets politically and socially classed as “white”, I have a lot of opportunities to challenge racism and cultural insensitivity from people with similar backgrounds. But I have to find the best way to use those opportunities to calmly invite people to learn more and challenge their assumptions and sense of entitlement, rather than just shutting down conversations by playing “I’m a Better Ally Than You!” trump cards. And I realize, that I in turn always have more to learn about these issues myself!

It also seems a bit hypocritical to me to judge people too harshly about this, since after all I call myself a Druid. A lot of people in broader Neo-Pagan-dom would consider that “fair game” simply because it’s of European origin, but it’s more complicated than that. There are living Celtic cultures, and while they don’t have a continuous unbroken tradition of druids, they still have opinions about people who call themselves “Druids” particularly when they come from English or Anglo-American cultural backgrounds and think they are entitled to grab anything pretty and shiny with knotwork or tartan patterns and call it “Celtic” without bothering to learn anything more about distinctions between Celtic cultures, languages and their histories of suppression and erasure.

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Entry filed under: Approaching Paganism. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

European Paganism Late May/Early June Personal Update

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