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Discussing Resistance within Heathenry

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On March 15th, Cherry Hill Seminary and the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Anthropology & Archaeology kicked off the symposium “Paganism and Its Discontents.” The event included keynote Michael Strmiska, Ph.D. presenting his paper Arguing with the Ancestors: Making the Case for a Paganism Beyond Racism and special guest Diana Paxson. Many of the papers presented over the weekend focused on the problem of racism within Heathenry, exploring issues such as the co-opting of (over simplified and bad) genetic sciences by racists, the historical development of Völk and the later development of Folkish Heathenry, and discussions of Declaration 127. Publication for a book collecting these essays in one source is in the works, so those interested in exploring these further will have a chance to do so in the future.

What I want to focus on today, however, is a conversation that developed out of the meeting of my own paper, Sacred Symbols Becoming Battleground, and the paper Performing “American Völkisch” by Jefferson Calico.

Calico’s presentation focused on selected examples of very public actions Stephen McNallen has taken in his efforts to spread his racist message and recruit more Heathens to a path Calico describes as “American Völkisch.” This included analyzing the now infamous incident with the Kennewick man as well as McNallen’s use of social media to spread coded movements such as “Wotan on the Peaks.”

McNallen promotes explicitly white supremacist views, and his ideologies and motivations can generally be described as “deplorable,” but our discussions ultimately came to the conclusion that he has done an amazing job of using social media and performative action to spread this message. Which brought us to the question—what can inclusive, anti-bigotry Heathens learn from McNallen’s use of social media?

My own paper focused on the question of how Heathens can push back against racism in their communities. Calico suggested that McNallen’s tactics may hold the answer—or at least, one possible answer—to this question.

It is an unfortunate truth that racists and their ilk are often quite good at taking up the spotlight, and we on the other side are…well…not so good at it. Over some post-symposium pizza and beers we dove into this issue a little further. We wondered what made McNallen’s use of performative action so catchy and noticeable—was it the theatricality of it? Was it an astute understanding of how to use social media to hook and hold an audience? A talent for using language to simultaneously tap into the imaginations and frustrations of said audience? A mixture of implicit and explicit messaging?

McNallen’s messaging work so well because of a mixture of all of the above. We focused, however, on the latter question—though McNallen in more recent years has been very explicit about his white supremacist views, a lot of his public stunts are quite a bit more implicit. Rather than openly stating the racist motivations in these stunts, he lets their coding speak for themselves.

How, then, can inclusive and anti-bigotry Heathenry do the same? It’s hard to not be always extremely explicit with our messages—often we are reacting to fools like McNallen. For those Heathens who are interested in pushing back against bigotry, it might be worth considering making our own performative actions independent of any inciting factor—that is to say, to get on the offensive rather than the defensive.

Taking an offensive position would better enable us to tap into coded messaging rather than the explicit and often “preachy” messaging that frustrate outsiders about anti-bigotry movements. This could take many forms, from sharing photos, videos, artwork, and writing which is relevant to the cause if not explicitly about the cause—and let’s face it, it will almost inevitably include some catchy hashtags. While the disseminated writings and accompanying hashtags may be implicit in nature, they will lead back to their origin point with inclusive and anti-bigotry Heathen groups, where more explicit messaging would be available.

Things like this can be hard to start—I, for one, have never figured out how to tap into the powers of social media in a meaningful way. It would take a lot more than one or two hashtag campaigns—it would need to be a sustained movement—and it would take a lot of conscientious use of language and visuals designed to inspire, motivate, and catch attention.

Certainly this would not be the end-all be-all of resistance to bigots in our midst. On-the-streets counter protesters will still be needed and incredibly powerful, as will educational efforts, direct confrontation, and analysis and exploration of these issues such as was seen at Paganism & Its Discontents.

Taking a defensive position will always be an important part of resistance. But it is worth making the effort to tap into the value of coded messaging and social media’s capacity for making such messages go viral. For our resistance to be effective, we must learn about and from our enemy—and do our best to make their tactics work in our favor.

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