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The Shadow of Disgust

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The Shadow of Disgust

Author: Diana Rajchel [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: September 11th. 2016
Times Viewed: 1,013

Back when I started learning about Wicca and other Pagan practices, two things appealed to me: first, the possibility of magic. Magic might be real? How cool is that? This fascination continues to this day. The second, based on a tormented childhood based on being a nerd before it was cool: it appeared, from an outsider's perspective, that most people that practiced these religions adopted a relatively non-judgmental attitude towards others. Live and let live. Fairly take and fairly give. Most of us have heard it before.

What wasn’t discussed was how much live and let live required self-awareness. People have judgmental thoughts all the time – most are not helpful to the biological imperative to stay alive. Most are just…judgmental. I assumed, during my ecstatic phase of examining my every action and thought for harm none – that other Pagans, at least the Wiccan ones – also engaged in this practice of continuous self-awareness. I learned quickly that there are parts of this awareness that are exhausting, and it became more clear why some never quite get to this work. Do I really need to have a moral crisis over using magic to find a parking space when I’m already having a moral crisis over driving a car? In other ways, however, it was a relief: “OK, that person being transgender does not harm me in any way. It is not a threat to me. What they are doing is not about me in any way.”

Unfortunately, I learned upon meeting other Pagans that this self-aware collection of enlightened beings didn't really exist. Oh, they believed in magic…well, some of them did, anyway. Some were friendly, others eternally suspicious, a few just plain mean…and to my shock, a few were racist, immigrant-fearing, religious bigots in their own right…and worse than that? Some were just plain petty…and upheld their pettiness as a moral virtue. Recovering from my 20-something idealistic shock took a few years.

I learned all this while the Internet was still too young to really screw up our fundamental abilities to communicate. Nowadays, people can barely interact with one another without checking for an online profile - and to a very few (but very loud) folks, if you're not famous enough to be heard, God/ess help you. Some of the reasons are legitimately about safety, but far too many are about the economy of attention. The reaction when we deign someone unworthy is disgust. As though this non-productive time we generally spend online is worth more than this person – this nobody – that may have startled us by momentarily causing us to rethink the position that we have decided should “win.”

Things have gotten so divided since 2001 that it's almost impossible for a person to have and hold a moderate view. This moderation is generally centered in putting ethics and logic before emotional response, and disgust is classed as an emotional response even though it is in its proper place more instinctive, in the area of taking your hand back from a hot stove.

As a subculture, we are a microcosm of the nasty divisiveness of the entire world. For a few years after 2000 we held onto the myth that we were different from the rest of society – more loving, more inclusive, more thoughtful, less judgmental – but as scandals within the Pagan community over the years have made it clear, we are exactly as full of moral failing as any other religious subgrouping in existence. The degree of it differs from subgroup to subgroup – but when you put us all together in a unity of responsibility, it does come out about the same if you calculate by ratios.

I don’t think Pagans as a group need – or really can or should be – perfect. But it doesn't have to be as divisive as it is. For that to happen, however, it does call for mass introspection. There are far more choices than "Wicca or Pagan" just as conservative or liberal are extreme choices on either end of a spectrum. We are not wholly European in origin, nor should we be. Maybe we don’t need to pretend to own the accomplishments of ancient Pagans, and can simply celebrate and honor them as we look to what we can build in this lifetime. Perhaps it is ok to say "I share some but not all views of the groups I am involved with." Any group or tradition secure in what it advocates that is well-run can hold up to dissent and welcome it.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Internet culture and its damage to our ability to think is that almost all of it is couched in debate. Debate, while useful in specific situations for collective decision and policy making, isn't actually all that good for the vast majority of interactions. It creates a situation founded wholly on competition – winning – rather than on thoughtful evaluation of consequences. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people online never participated in a debate team or had to take a strenuous logic or rhetoric course, do not fully understand what critical argument and critical thinking mean, and often engage in these conversations with the intent of winning = being right, but think that adamantly denying facts somehow keeps them in the "game." Blame our legal system and too many reruns of Law and Order for that - far too many people only understand the idea of a win/lose structure. Worse, there is a tendency towards confirmation bias on two levels. Confirmation bias in its typical form is only looking for facts that support your opinion, and categorically rejecting data/facts that suggest you are wrong. There is a new version of this morphing into a stubborn insistence that your experience is the only experience and no one ever deals with anything different. This is followed by yet a third version that argues that because your experience IS a different experience from everyone else's, that anything a person different from you has to say is oppression - even if that person is a minority of another stripe having a different experience from you. This isn't just Paganism that has this problem, but boy is it visible because our collective population is small enough to see these trends fast.

One of the reasons that these arguments about experience happen is because we tend to treat other people that aren't in our daily lives as abstractions. Watching the news, even though it's news, is perceived as a vague fiction. "Those liberals" and "those conservatives" are entire groups of people, of no nuance, as solid as the variable of x in an algebraic equation. When you are looking at a person on the television that is transgender, for instance, the experience is momentary, forgotten. In some minds it becomes a fleeting, borderline fictional problem to be solved offhand with three bathrooms or the removal of urinary tracts. Yet when you see transgender people every day, and realize that hey, this person who probably didn't wake up thinking "I want my life to be more difficult every single day of my life, " and did NOT wake up thinking “Haha I’m out to fool the menz!” (because they were not at all thinking of the Menz and typically are not) probably still needs to pee every day - even a few times a day. Then you meet a trans person that needs to pee in line in the bathroom at the baseball stadium with you and suddenly these discussions seem more real, the speculations on how these people get there more offensive. So stop speculating, because you can't possibly know for real.

The knee-jerk gut reaction you feel, that horror at the idea of a trans person peeing in the same toilet as you, is disgust. It is meant to keep you from eating that poop. It should be interpreted as “don’t eat that trans person, leave him/her/them alone.” Instead too many who fail this aspect of their shadow work instead read disgust as “make these people too miserable to exist!” Those that do this, on a spiritual level…are eating that poop.

We talk a lot in Paganism about our shadow selves - the versions of ourselves that are petty, mean, lazy, what have you. Often we spend a great deal of time understanding those shadows and integrating them into a more constructive aspect of ourselves. Unfortunately, we often skip what is probably the largest shadow of human consciousness: disgust. The animus of fear, disgust is a base instinct that can tell us things like "don't eat that." It is reflexive. It is for the most part involuntary…just like fear. Just like fear, it can also be understood, managed, and overcome.

Disgust is where things like bigotry live. Are you grossed out by the idea of gay sez? That’s disgust. Do you find a person physically ugly? That is also disgust. Do you HATE the outfit someone is wearing? Can you not even imagine that so and so you aren’t attracted to having sex, and react with horror that they have a partner at all? Again, disgust.

Are any of the things actually listed in any way actually harmful to you? No. That's because disgust is not serving your greatest good when you are having these responses. In many ways, it's actually kind of making you miserable by causing you to look around for things to be disgusted by.

Your own disgust hurts you just as much as it hurts other people.

Disgust must be addressed as part of our shadow work. We need to start recognizing it in ourselves and calling it out, especially since this is the short-circuit that stops us from pausing, looking at what a person does, realizing that what that person does in no way affects you, and moving on. Someone transitioning genders in no way affects you. Someone eating a Big Mac, however grossed out you are, does not directly affect you (although where they drop the wrapper might. Yes, there are cascades of moral argument around the environment and animal rights – but ultimately it comes down to respecting the boundaries of others when it comes to judgment, respecting the free will of others, and confronting the way your disgust drives you to control others that are not yours to control.) That color may in fact look awful on that person, but not liking how that person looks does not affect your life unless they're also wearing flashing lights and inducing a migraine.

Disgust is what has caused this wave of people expressing opinions about subjects that, unless directly affected by an individual's actions, aren't the type of thing anyone has any business having an opinion about. Why on earth should you have an opinion about transgender people if you don't even know any in real life? Why the hell are you inspecting that fat person's salad for what salad dressing she uses? (Fat is not a pejorative. I'm a fat the power type. Notably I have always been on private medical insurance and I have no effect whatsoever on “public” healthcare. I am also NOT obligated to be pleasing to your eye…or you.) If you begin saying something about bathroom assaults or obesity and Medicaid, you are already in the wrong whether or not the facts support you. What that fat person is eating, in that moment, does not affect you unless you end up wearing that salad dressing. That trans person using the bathroom just needs to pee. Where s/he pees doesn't affect you, but you sure are responsible if that trans person gets assaulted and you just stand by and let it happen. (As to what happens to children in bathrooms - what kind of parent lets kids too incognizant for stranger dangers use a public bathroom unsupervised?) So what if an illegal alien is working at gas station - did you apply for that job? These huge moral issues consuming our attention are red herrings – that keep us from interacting on a one on one basis and resolving problems between neighbors, instead seeing our entire country as groupings of strangers at war – because we have failed to manage, understand, and re-educate our disgust.

After a universal reminder that being blocked on Twitter is someone choosing not to talk to you and not a violation of free speech - you already got to say something obnoxious that you won't be jailed for (except in specific situations) - it's time to try a new paradigm. There are two points to that paradigm: "yes, and…" and know when to quit.

"Yes, and…"
Anyone who has taken an improv class knows this technique. Someone begins a scene - for example, "I'm milking a cow, " and someone steps in and says "and I'm an alien that has never seen a cow!" or something of that nature. Rather than trying to guide a conversation back to your agenda - contribute a comment of "yes and!" only when you have something that genuinely adds to the main point of what the person is writing/talking about. It can be silly…as long as it is somehow relevant.

There are several people I’ve met who have started a practice of carrying a notebook and writing down every time they have a judgmental thought. At first, I’m told, it’s quite time-consuming – “I hate that.” “I bet she doesn’t eat.” “OMG, what the hell with the saggy pants?” Over time these people write down less and less – and they find they are less anxious, less angry, and get through their day more easily. Handling the judgment – or, realistically, the disgust – gets them out of that unfortunate mental loop.

Sometimes, especially on rough days – I’m angered by a co-worker or neighbor, I am not liking myself so much, I am once again bewildered by leggings as pants – I ask myself the following questions:
  • Does this harm me in any way?
  • Is this immediately endangering others?
  • Am I forced to interact with this person in any way?
  • Is this person forcing interaction with me in any way?

    I also sometimes remind myself:
  • The public is shared space and everyone has a right to feel safe in it.
  • No one was put here for my aesthetic pleasure.
  • Behavior tells you much more about a person than appearance.
  • Not all annoying behaviors are harmful.

    When I did my shadow work long ago, I focused on the anger and pain I had towards my family. As I grow older, and live in a crowded city filled with eccentrics, extreme income disparity, and an awareness that “#notall” is in fact true – not all the wealthy think homelessness should be outlawed, not all the poor are there due to irresponsible choices, not all the people concur with the loud extremism that’s been echoing through the country for fifteen years or more – I am more aware of how my own reflexive disgust gets in the way of the real connections that lead to real relationships that lead to real, positive change.

    This look at disgust is, to my mind, a missing piece of much spiritual training. It’s also the hardest to sit with and examine because few are willing to sit with the things that squick them and think about why.


    Diana Rajchel

    Location: San Francisco, California

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