Pagan is a slur?

I’ve been surprised lately to see more than one piece of right-wing propaganda using “pagan” (sic) as a slur. I think when people use it as a negative, that’s a clear sign that they think something else – maybe Christianity? – is the positive force that ought to be shaping our culture.

In both instances where I encountered it, “pagan” was being linked with QUILTBAG people: Gay activists seek “paganization” of society and homosexuality as part of a “pagan” plot. (By the way, if there’s a massive Pagan plot going on, I think I might have noticed. We can barely get organized enough to run a Pagan Pride Day. There are purely practical reasons no one should be afraid that we’re going to take over the country.)

Both of these speakers seem to be making some kind of connection between Paganism and QUILTBAG relationships. While I will be the first to say proudly that Paganism is, on the whole, one of the religious traditions most welcoming and affirming of QUILTBAG individuals, I don’t think that’s what these guys have in mind.

I think they’re trying to make some kind of allusion to the idea that Greek and Roman cultures allowed or encouraged certain kinds of behavior that might be vaguely similar to QUILTBAG relationships. Since Greece and Rome were (mostly) “pagan,” I think this is supposed to be a dog-whistle calling up images of wine-soaked orgies and pedophilia and so on.

There’s two things that are problematic about this. The first is, as I noted, that if “pagan” is bad, then the speakers are implicitly suggesting that there is something else that is good. Since I don’t think these guys are terribly aware of the Neo-Pagan movement (although they might be using this language because it’s barely starting to impinge on their awareness), the use of pagan in the old sense of non-Christian catch-all implies that Christianity is that good thing.

As a result, any time people are railing against “pagan” behavior in this sense, they are implicitly trying to undermine separation of church and state and trying to make the US into a Christian society. This is not an acceptable argument, and it should be challenged at every turn, not just for Pagans or by Pagans, but by anyone who doesn’t want to live in the kind of theocracy these guys would like to put in place.

Secondly, has anyone else noticed how classical cultures are either the epitome of goodness (democracy! liberty!) or the pit of perdition (persecution! paganism!) depending on the argument of the day? I swear I’m going to start calling people on that, too.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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6 Responses to Pagan is a slur?

  1. Ann The Mad says:

    You could try the kind of word-reclaiming verbal judo that I’ve seen some folks on the left trying lately.

    Socialist: “We should have universal publicly-funded single-payer health care.”
    Wingnut: “But that’s socialism
    S: “Probably. I’m a socialist. So, we should have universal publicly-funded single-payer health care.”
    W: “GAAAH! EVIL! EVIL! MARX! FASCISM! STALIN! TAXES! GUNS! JEEEZUZ! WOOP WOOP WOOP…”
    S: “Uhm, I’m talking about universal single-payer healthcare. What the heck are you talking about?”

    Don’t get into the essentialist argument where you “reclaim” words by trying to convince people that they’re not using the “real meaning” of the word. Just force them to articulate exactly what they mean. Either they’ll degenerate into incoherent gibbering, or they’ll take the bait and state their assumptions explicitly. — “Pagan = Evil, because Christianity is the only true religion” — which makes the dogwhistle waaay too audible to work

    “Yeah, it’s probably Pagan. I’m Pagan, and I like it. So what’s wrong with it?

    • Literata says:

      I would do that in conversation – and articulating what they really mean is exactly my goal. It’s just that with one-sided conversations like this, I’m trying to do the articulating too, to point out what they’re really up to.

  2. robotxorange says:

    The really entertaining (or possibly depressing, depending on how you look at it) thing is that, for those of us who read Roman history and Classical authors, you start to notice a fair amount of similarity in the rhetoric of today and of Ancient Rome. A number of Roman orators (Cato, both Elder and Younger spring to mind) in the last century or so of the Republic were decrying the immorality and shameful behavior of the masses, claiming that the populus was too caught up in promiscuity, immoral relationships, luxury and wealth, and all sorts of unfortunate things. That Romans were forgetting the moral structure and piety on which the Republic had been founded. It’s eerily familiar to the current political/religious rhetoric. I guess people really don’t change. >.<

    Though, the argument could be made that a Pagan-run country probably wouldn't be much worse off, considering the Romans had the same amount of problems we do, not more. But I get the feeling logic isn't really that important to a lot of these fear-mongers.

    • Literata says:

      Yup, that’s hilarious. Along similar lines, I have used Viennese waltz as several-generations-ago’s example of “Can you believe the music these kids are listening to? And the awful immoral dances they do!”

  3. Makarios says:

    “Pagan is a slur?” Short answer: Yes, for some people. Spokespeople for the Roman Catholic Church, for instance–from the Pope on down–routinely use “Pagan” and “Paganism” to characterize anything and everything that they don’t like about Western culture. Numerous Protestant pastors and bloggers do the same. A quick consultation with the Great Oracle Google will confirm this. Try starting with “Pagan materialism” and see what comes up.

    I try to correct this whenever I find it on religious blogs, but it’s a losing battle, I’m afraid. I’ve more or less given up even looking at most Catholic blogs, since the posts and the comments tend to be little more than poison-pots.

    • Literata says:

      Oh, I know it’s a slur. I’m not hoping to correct it in every usage, just to highlight the way this specific usage is implicitly Christian Dominionist.

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